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.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es

Pat­ti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rim­baud to Susan Son­tag

Pat­ti Smith Reviews Haru­ki Murakami’s New Nov­el, Col­or­less Tsuku­ru Taza­ki and His Years of Pil­grim­age

 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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