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Patti Smith on 19th Century Poet William Blake and on Creating Political Art “Unapologetically”

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Legendary musician Patti Smith performs her song “My Blakean Year” in the Democracy Now! studio and talks about the influence of poet William Blake (1757–1827). We also air a recording of Smith singing a version of Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” Smith has long been praised for mixing poetry and rock music.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

PATTI SMITH: [singing] In my Blakean year
I was so disposed
Toward a mission yet unclear
Advancing pole by pole
Fortune breathed into my ears
Obey this simple code
One road was paved in gold
One road was just a road

In my Blakean year
Such a woeful schism
The pain in our existence
Was not as I envisioned

AMY GOODMAN: That was Patti Smith performing her song “My Blakean Year.” This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As we spend the hour with Patti Smith, we asked her to explain what led her to write a song inspired by William Blake, the late 18th, early 19th century English Romantic poet.

PATTI SMITH: “My Blakean Year” is another song I wrote myself. The reason I’m singing songs I wrote myself, they’re the only ones I can play, because they only have a few chords. But I wrote “My Blakean Year,” again, because I was in a difficult time, and I felt—I hate to say it, but I felt like sorry for myself. And it was like another thing where this—I was sitting—I was just sitting in my room, and then I thought of William Blake. You know, I felt like very unappreciated or something—I don’t know why. But I was thinking of William Blake, who was such a great artist, poet, printer, philosopher, activist, who died in poverty, was ridiculed in his time, who was almost forgotten. But in his lifetime—and also such a true visionary—he never let go of his visionary powers. He did his work, even thought the Industrial Revolution sort of wiped him out in terms of being a printer and a public artist. He got in a lot of trouble because of his political views. He championed women, and he was against children, women and children laboring. They didn’t have labor laws in place at that time. And he did his work, and he did it unapologetically. And he also did it without remorse or feeling sorry for himself, and just accepted, you know, his particular lot and just kept working.

Anyway, sorry that took so long to say, but basically the lesson is that people—other people in the world, I know, really suffer strife. They really know strife. They have to deal with war. They have to deal with disease, poverty, displacement. When I look at everyone around me, I have to really counsel and scold myself when I feel, you know, a little sorry for myself. And so, this song is to remind me of that, but also remember to—when you take on the mantle of an artist or an activist, you know that you’re going to have a lot of derision. So, you have to meet that derision almost with pride. You know, you have to be a happy warrior.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to turn now to a clip of Patti Smith singing one of William Blake’s most famous poems, “The Tyger.”

PATTI SMITH: [singing] Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patti Smith, could you talk about that performance of William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger,” why you chose that poem, and, in particular, the phrase that you’ve spoken of, “fearful symmetry”?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I’ve found a lot of fearful symmetry in my life. I think that, for me, the most fearful piece of symmetry, for instance—it’s even hard to talk about. My husband died in November of 1994, and my brother, who really expressed that he would help me raise my children, comforted my children, and who I deeply counted on, died suddenly from a faulty heart valve a month later—November 4th and December 4th. That was a bit of fearful symmetry. My husband died on Robert Mapplethorpe’s birthday, which was a bit of fearful symmetry. Robert died on my husband and my anniversary. These things, they happen to everyone, but you look at them and gasp, because they have a certain kind of perfection, but that perfection is just bleeding sorrow. So, that, for me, is what a fearful symmetry is.

But I performed—I don’t really remember. I do a lot of things off the cuff. I was supposed to—I think I was asked to read “Tyger, Tyger” at a museum performance. And I often find reading poetry—quite beautiful, poetry is, but I always seem to want to take it to the next level. Something within me wants to sing poetry, which is really how I wound up having a rock 'n' roll band, just singing poetry. And then I wound up singing “Tyger, Tyger,” because whenever I read it, I hear the music. But William Blake was known for his singing voice, and I’m sure he sang these poems, but we don’t have any record of it. But his music is infused in his words, because where else would I have gotten it? So, I hope that answers your question.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask you about art and resistance.

PATTI SMITH: Well, I think that we’re in a very—you know, if you would have asked me this question in the '60s or ’70s, I would have given a different answer, because there was such a strong coalition of artists who were working in one mind against the war in Vietnam. It's a little harder now, because our people are so spread out. Even with so-called social media and technology that’s supposed to bring us together, we seem so spread out. We don’t seem all connected. And our numbers, to me, have diminished.

And we really—you know, I look at who is—who are really stepping out in the arts? Often it’s the people in Hollywood. You have, you know, [Angelina] Jolie and George Clooney, and there’s—and Sean Penn. They are really doing things, hands-on things. They go to the countries that are in strife. They do groundwork. They go and lobby. And it’s quite inspiring to see what they’re doing. I think that we’re all a bit disconnected, and what we really need is one common cause. And I know—we have it. It’s our—our environment is our greatest—I think should be our—is our biggest global concern, over everything. I know that, you know, our government would like us to think it’s terrorism. And I know that all of these things are—you know, it’s so complicated, and all of these things are important, but environmental terrorism is something that we’re all committing. And, you know, it’s an opportunity for a lot of us to come together.

I’m very proud of my daughter. You mentioned in the beginning, Jesse arranged with a friend of hers Pathway to Paris. She’s very, very concerned with climate change. And she has drawn a lot of artists and musicians. I don’t know how she did it. I have no organizational skills. And she has gotten Flea and Thom Yorke and Jane Fonda, and there’s several other people that want to come and help. I think [Leonardo] DiCaprio. There’s a lot of people from different walks of life. And, of course, 360 and many different speaker—


PATTI SMITH: 350, I’m sorry. See, she’s the one. She would be so mad at me right now. And she’s very connected with 350. And she’s an example of what—how our new generation, how young people are finding a way to use social media for their advantage, for something positive, for bringing people together.

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“People Have the Power”: Patti Smith on Pope Francis and Her Performances at the Vatican

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