Hear Patti Smith Read the Poetry that Would Become Horses: A Reading of 14 Poems at Columbia University, 1975

Note: The first poem and oth­ers con­tain some offen­sive lan­guage.

In the con­text of the rad­i­cal socio-polit­i­cal change of 1975, Pat­ti Smith announced her­self to the world with Hors­es, “the first real full-length hint of the artis­tic fer­ment tak­ing place in the mid-‘70s at the junc­ture of Bow­ery and Bleeck­er,” writes Mac Ran­dall. Though born in an insu­lar down­town milieu, Smith’s view was vast, con­duct­ing the poet­ry of the past—of Rim­baud, the Beats, and rock and roll—into an uncer­tain future, through the nascent medi­um of punk rock. The album is “close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the begin­ning of some­thing,” and yet is “so con­cerned with end­ings”: the loss of Jimi Hen­drix (at whose stu­dio Smith record­ed), and of “oth­er depart­ed coun­ter­cul­ture heroes like Jim Mor­ri­son, Janis Joplin and Bri­an Jones.”

In a way, Smith’s voice defines the piv­otal moment in which it arrived: antic­i­pat­ing an anx­ious age of aus­ter­i­ty and wom­en’s lib­er­a­tion; mourn­ing the loss of 60s ide­al­ism and the promise of racial equi­ty. She was a female artist ful­ly uncon­strained by patri­ar­chal expec­ta­tions, with com­plete author­i­ty over her vision. “My peo­ple were try­ing to forge a new bridge between the peo­ple we had lost and learned from and the future,” she recent­ly remarked.

In her “fab­u­lous­ly grand” way, she told The Guardian’s Simon Hat­ten­stone in 2013, “I felt in the cen­ter, not quite the old gen­er­a­tion, not quite the new gen­er­a­tion. I felt like the human bridge.” Smith was no naïf when she made Hors­es, but a con­fi­dent artist who, at 29, had worked in the­ater with her late­ly-depart­ed friend Sam Shep­ard, become her famous lover Robert Mapplethorpe’s favorite sub­ject, joined the St. Mark’s Poet­ry Project, and pub­lished two col­lec­tions of verse.

She thought of her­self as a poet who “got side­tracked” by music. “When I was young,” Smith says, “all I want­ed was to write books and be an artist.” But poet­ry was always cen­tral to her work; Hors­es, she says, “evolved organ­i­cal­ly” from her first poet­ry read­ing, four years ear­li­er, at St. Mark’s Church, along­side Allen Gins­berg, William Bur­roughs, and oth­er lumi­nar­ies. Above, you can hear her dis­cuss that atten­tion-grab­bing first read­ing, and at the top of the post, lis­ten to Smith at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in 1975, read­ing the poems that devel­oped that year into the songs on Hors­es, includ­ing her 1971 “Oath,” which begins with a vari­a­tion on Hors­es’ open­ing sneer, “Christ died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

Be warned the first poem she reads con­tains offen­sive lan­guage, as do many oth­ers. No one should be shocked by this. But some who only know Smith as a singer may be sur­prised by her mas­ter­ful lit­er­ary voice and wicked sense of humor. She has always been an elegist, mourn­ing her cul­tur­al heroes, most of whom died young, as well as a trag­ic string of per­son­al loss­es. “When I start­ed work­ing with the mate­r­i­al that became Hors­es,” she remem­bers, “a lot of our great voic­es had died.” But her intent went beyond ele­gy, beyond a maudlin appro­pri­a­tion of fad­ing 60s heroes. Smith had a “mis­sion,” she says, of “form­ing a cul­tur­al voice through rock’n’roll that incor­po­rat­ed sex and art and poet­ry and per­for­mance and rev­o­lu­tion.” It sounds grandiose, but it’s a mis­sion she’s large­ly ful­filled. At the cen­ter of her project is poet­ry as per­for­mance, as a means of enter­tain­ing, shock­ing, and seduc­ing an audi­ence. The read­ing at the top is an espe­cial­ly faith­ful record of her fear­less onstage per­sona.

Find more poet­ry read­ings in our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Pat­ti Smith Read 12 Poems From Sev­enth Heav­en, Her First Col­lec­tion (1972)

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

Pat­ti Smith’s New Haunt­ing Trib­ute to Nico: Hear Three Tracks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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