Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Surviving Recording of Woolf’s Voice

In the video above, poet, artist, National Book Award winner, and “godmother of punk” Patti Smith reads a selection from Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves, accompanied on piano and guitar by her daughter Jesse and son Jackson. The “reading” marked the opening of “Land 250,” a 2008 exhibition of Smith’s photography and artwork from 1965 to 2007, at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.

I put the word “reading” in quotes above because Smith only reads a very short passage from Woolf’s novel. The rest of the dramatic performance is Smith in her own voice, possibly improvising, possibly reciting her homage to Woolf—occasioned by the fact that the start of the exhibition fell on the 67th anniversary of Woolf’s death by suicide. Of Woolf’s death, Smith says, “I do not think of this as sad. I just think that it’s the day that Virginia Woolf decided to say goodbye. So we are not celebrating the day, we are simply acknowledging that this is the day. If I had a title to call tonight, I would call it ‘Wave.’ We are waving to Virginia.”

Smith’s choice of a title for the evening is significant. She titled her 1979 album Wave, her last record before she went into semi-retirement in the 80s. And her exhibition includes a set of beautiful photographs taken at Woolf’s Sussex retreat, Monk’s House. Her performance seems like an unusual confluence of voices, but Woolf might have enjoyed it, since so much of her work explored the uniting of separate minds, over the barriers of space and time. While Smith expresses her indebtedness to Woolf, one wonders what the upper-class Bloomsbury daughter of a well-connected and artistic family would have thought of the working-class punk-poet from the Lower East Side by way of Chicago? It’s impossible to say, of course, but somehow it’s fitting that they meet through Woolf’s The Waves.

Woolf’s novel (she called it a “playpoem”) blends the voices of six characters, but Woolf didn’t think of them as characters at all, but as aspects of a greater, ever-shifting whole. As she once wrote in a letter:

The six characters were supposed to be one. I’m getting old myself now—I shall be fifty next year; and I come to feel more and more how difficult it is to collect oneself into one Virginia; even though the special Virginia in whose body I live for the moment is violently susceptible to all sorts of separate feelings. Therefore I wanted to give the sense of continuity.

Speculation over Woolf’s mental health aside, her references to voices in her letters, diaries, and in her eloquent letter to Leonard Woolf before she died, were also statements of her craft—which embraced the inner voices of others, not letting any one voice be dominant. I like to think Woolf would have been delighted with the fierceness of Smith—in some ways, Virginia Woolf anticipated punk, and Patti Smith. In her own voice below, you can hear her describe the words of the English language as “irreclaimable vagabonds,” who “if you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English…. They are highly democratic.”

The recording below comes from an essay published in a collection—The Death of the Moth and Other Essays—the year after Woolf’s death. The talk was called “Craftsmanship,” part of a BBC radio broadcast from 1937, and it is the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice.

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 Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

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Comments (15)
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  • The voices of the great ones come to us in times of need.

  • Michael says:

    What is the source for the Woolf quote?

  • A says:

    is there a full recording of this somewhere?

  • fiona clements says:

    At 1.00 where she says: “..because the English language is a (…..)..”

    Was this missing word deliberately cut out for a reason and if so what was the reason?

  • Ajit Singh says:

    It is a great experience to listen to a great writer of the last century.

  • elaine stewart says:

    this is wonderful…..listening to two of my favourite writers

  • elaine stewart says:

    to correct those words……listening to my two favourite writers

  • Selene Woolf says:

    Virginia Woolf is my ancestor, I think that’s really cool :)

  • elizabeth hart says:

    “…words are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things”
    Wonderful to hear this. Thank you for this posting.

  • kizi says:

    Like this very much

  • John Salmond says:

    Thanks for this

    My feeling is that in general way too much emphasis is placed on Woolf’s suicide; her life was overflowing with joy and happiness and striving and achievement, as well as negative things

    Letter is
    To G. L. Dickinson
    Oct. 27th 1931

    There is a free online collection of much of Woolf’s writing, including the endlessly entertaining and brilliant letters and diary

    the site is a bit clunky, be patient

  • John Salmond says:

    actually the whole letter is good; as usual Woolf is the best commentator on her own life and works

    To G. L. Dickinson
    Oct. 27th 1931
    52 Tavistock Square, W.C.1

    My dear Goldie,
    How extraordinarily nice of you to write to me—I cant tell you what pleasure your letter gave me. What you say you felt about the Waves is exactly what I wanted to convey. Many people say that it is hopelessly sad—but I didnt mean that. I did want somehow to make out if only for my own satisfaction a reason for things. That of course is putting it more definitely than I have a right to, for my reasons are only general conceptions, that strike me as I walk about London and then I try to fit my little figures in. But I did mean that in some vague way we are the same person, and not separate people. The six characters were supposed to be one. I’m getting old myself—I shall be fifty next year; and I come to feel more and more how difficult it is to collect oneself into one Virginia; even though the special Virginia in whose body I live for the moment is violently susceptible to all sorts of separate feelings. Therefore I wanted to give the sense of continuity, instead of which most people say, no you’ve given the sense of flowing and passing away and that nothing matters. Yet I feel things matter quite immensely. What the significance is, heaven knows I cant guess; but there is significance—that I feel overwhelmingly. Perhaps for me, with my limitations,—I mean lack of reasoning power and so on—all I can do is to make an artistic whole; and leave it at that. But then I’m annoyed to be told that I am nothing but a stringer together of words and words and words. I begin to doubt beautiful words. How one longs sometimes to have done something in the world—So you see how it comforts me to think that anyhow you had me in mind on the river bank. Then the world I live in—for I dont see how to live in any other—seems at any rate to have that justification. So thank you again—very very sincerely—for writing.
    We started off for Cambridge this morning meaning to take voters to the poll in the suburbs, but North London was black as pitch and we had to grope our way home. Now we are going round to James’s [Strachey] to hear Election results read out, and I shall try to make myself believe in that reality; and then fail; and try again; and fail again. I dont thank people for their books unless I like them,—but I quiet my conscience by never giving them mine.
    . . .
    Yours always
    Virginia Woolf”

  • Fallon says:

    ah Virginia , if u you treated people ex your servants as friends maybe they could of helped u with your disorder

  • Beliz says:

    Hell yeah, that’s pretty cool!

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