The Swan and the Blue Sail: Patti Smith on the Creative Impulse and the Childhood Epiphany in Which She Knew She Was an Artist
“I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.”
By Maria Popova
How does one become an artist — not in a practical sense, not by some external measure, but by an invisible and intimate surrender to the creative impulse? It often happens in a single moment of recognition — a point of contact with some aspect of the miraculous in some aspect of the mundane, catalyzing an overwhelming sense of the unity of things and an uncontainable desire to emanate that sense outwardly; to share it, in some form, with others — whose otherness is suddenly dissipated by the very impulse.
For Virginia Woolf, it was an epiphany by the flowerbed; for Pablo Neruda, the childhood incident of the hand through the fence; for Albert Einstein, his first encounter with a compass.
For Patti Smith, one of the most radiant creative spirits of our time, it was a similarly precise and transcendent childhood experience. In Just Kids (public library) — the magnificent memoir that gave us Smith on reading as a form of prayer and her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists — she recounts what she considers to be her first memory of the creative impulse:
When I was very young, my mother took me for walks in Humboldt Park, along the edge of the Prairie River. I have vague memories, like impressions on glass plates, of an old boathouse, a circular band shell, an arched stone bridge. The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage.
Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky.
The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.
The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.
In this excerpt from her altogether terrific conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, Smith reads the swan passage, punctuated by a most endearing two-way volley of graciousness:
Smith revisits the animating presence of the creative impulse in her most recent memoir, M Train (public library) — one of the best books of 2015, a beautiful exploration of time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the pain of loss. In her appearance on NPR’s consistently stimulating On Point, Smith reads a passage from the final pages of the book — a lyrical meditation on the seemingly arbitrary fragments that compose the magical mosaic of life’s creative force:
We seek to stay present, even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all. We imagine a house, a rectangle of hope. A room with a single bed with a pale coverlet, a few precious books, a stamp album. Walls papered in faded floral fall away and burst as a newborn meadow speckled with sun and a stream emptying into a greater stream where a small boat awaits with two glowing oars and one blue sail.
Complement Just Kids and M Train with Smith’s advice on life, her poetic tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, and her fifty favorite books.
Published January 8, 2016