“Patti Smith adulates the imagination, especially childhood imagination, mysticism or spirituality, dreams, sensations, nature, the sublime and individualism. However, the quality of the writing in Woolgathering is a mixed bag. It consists of spots of brilliance and spots of mediocrity. . . . Although Woolgathering includes some nice writing and memorable images and ideas about the making of an artist, the book is geared to and will appeal most to true Patti Smith aficionados.”
Patti Smith’s poetic memoir, Woolgathering, is a miniature portrait of the artist as a young woman.
Incorporating poetry and prose as well as photos, Smith’s reissued and augmented memoir, first published in 1992, endeavors to reflect the affecting experiences and observations of the author as a budding young artist. Although probably most well know for her music, the multitalented Patti Smith is a multifaceted artist who is skilled in multimedia.
In a number of ways, Patti Smith’s Woolgathering is reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Like The Prelude, Woolgathering consists of “spots of time.”
Wordsworth writes, “There are in our existence spots of time,/That with distinct preeminence retain/A renovating virtue, whence---depressed/By false opinion and contentious thought,/Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,/In trivial occupations, and the round/Of ordinary intercourse---our minds/Are nourished and invisibly repaired;/. . . . Such moments/Are scattered everywhere, taking their date/From our first childhood.”
Like Wordsworth and other Romantic poets, Patti Smith adulates the imagination, especially childhood imagination, mysticism or spirituality, dreams, sensations, nature, the sublime and individualism.
However, the quality of the writing in Woolgathering is a mixed bag. It consists of spots of brilliance and spots of mediocrity.
Ms. Smith beautifully describes her impression of the woolgatherers she saw as a child: “And the image of the woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, as a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind.”
Later in a particularly poetic chapter, she concludes, “Looking up, clouds form and reform. They reassemble—an embryo, a departed friend resting horizontal. Or a great arm, compassionate as a spring, that if so ordained might reach and take up that linen sack and all gathered within, if only but the soul of an idea---the color of water, the weight of a hill.”
The balance of her sentences and the lovely images reflect some of Ms. Smith’s best writing.
Unfortunately, some of the prose and poetry in Woolgathering is hackneyed, pretentious, and awkward. For instance, Ms. Smith opens the chapter titled “Cowboy Truths:” “Relaxed, beneath the sky, contemplating this and that. The nature of labor. The nature of idleness and the sky itself with billowing masses so close one might lasso a cloud to pillow one’s head or fill one’s belly. Sopping up the beans and gravy with a chunk of cloud meat and lying back for a little siesta. What a life!”
Each line is a cliché or a prefabricated idea and the “chunk of cloud meat” is a stomach-turning image that is linguistically clunky and fails to create a concrete or meaningful image.
Patti Smith dedicates quite a bit of space to developing and explaining the elegant and aptly titled memoir, Woolgathering. She reminisces about seeing the woolgatherers at night in a field near her house: “They traced, in concert, the mystery of their work, conspiring in their movements to cleanse and to magnify existence in a song of man. It appeared they were not gathering but giving. . . . They spun their song—a cloth of its own. . . . Ms. Smith is clearly inspired by the woolgatherers and, like them, she spins tales and songs.
Although Woolgathering includes some nice writing and memorable images and ideas about the making of an artist, the book is geared to and will appeal most to true Patti Smith aficionados. Diehard fans may want to read her musings, impressions and childhood reminiscences, but the disinterested reader is unlikely to be captivated by the uneven writing that can come across as self-important and self-absorbed.