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 includ­ed 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? 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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2013.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Pat­ti Smith on Vir­ginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dick­ens’ Pen & Oth­er Cher­ished Lit­er­ary Tal­is­mans

Pat­ti Smith’s Polaroids of Arti­facts from Vir­ginia Woolf, Arthur Rim­baud, Rober­to Bolaño & More

Pat­ti Smith Reads Her Final Let­ter to Robert Map­plethor­pe, Call­ing Him “the Most Beau­ti­ful Work of All”

Pat­ti Smith’s 40 Favorite Books

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

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