Patti Smith’s Commencement Address at Pratt Institute, 2010.
I’ve been thinking about you all these last few weeks. I’ve been thinking about what I could talk about. Could be Moby Dick, The Slaves of Michaelangelo, Hans Hofmann, My Bloody Valentine …
But now that I’m here, my greatest urge is to speak to you of dental care. My generation had a rough go dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health. And I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your muse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to make that design, because you want to help your fellow man — you don’t want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal.
So floss, salt baking soda, Get them professionally cleaned if you can afford it. Take care of your damned teeth.
I never got a degree myself because I lacked some of the things that you have.
I got one eventually …
[Considers honourary degree gown] … I got one now …
But it’s proof you had the courage, the discipline. You stayed conscious, at least part of the time.
You sacrificed and you got through boot camp.
Maybe it wasn’t so pretty, maybe you got through by the skin of your teeth, but you have accomplished the first rung of your mission in life.
In 1967 I left school, I came to New York City, I went to Brooklyn, because I had friends at Pratt, and I stayed there. I met Robert Mapplethorpe and we lived on Hall Street. I learned from him, I learned from my friends and my teachers. We walked on Myrtle Avenue, on Clinton, St James. The same places you walked.
We bought our supplies at Jakes, just like you did.
We ate in that corner diner on St James, had grilled cheese sandwiches, and egg creams, and dreamed, just like you did.
And we went out into the world, we went to New York City, to the Chelsea Hotel, sort of like Pinocchio.
I think it as just like Pinocchio because Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.
We are all Pinocchio.
And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.
Pratt was part of my initiation. Within its environs I got courage, and I gained confidence to do what I had to do in my life.
I think about in being a fellow Pinnochio …
Oh I know what I was going to tell you. I actually forgot what I was going to say.
And I looked on my piece of paper but it’s so disorganised, I couldn’t tell …but I have remembered it.
What should we aspire to as we go on our road? When I was in my early twenties, I was lucky to have William Burroughs as a friend and mentor. Once I said to him … I asked William this question: “William, what should I aspire to?” and he thought, and he said: “My dear, a gold American Express would be good.” But after that, he said very thoughtfully, “Build your name. Build your name.” And I said, “William, my name is Smith.” And he said, “Well, you’ll have to build a little harder.” But what William meant when he told me to build my name. Build a good name — because a name is not to get famous. He wasn’t talking about celebrity — he was talking about, let your name radiate your self, magnify who you are, your good deeds, your code of honour. Build your name and as you go through life, your name will serve you.
We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry and you make mistakes or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do. And if you make a mistake, it’s alright — just as the song goes, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.
Guess I’ve almost talked enough … let me see if there’s anything else …
When you proceed on your course, never forget you are not alone. You have friends and family, but you also have you ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them. Their strength through the ages will come into you. And then there are your spiritual ancestors. Call on them. They have set themselves up through human history to be at your disposal. Jesus, he said, “I am with you always, even into the end of the world,” Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman — they are with you. Choose the one you wish to walk with and he or she will walk with you. Don’t forget that you are not alone.
So I guess the last thing to say is, when I left home, I asked my father what advice he could give me. My father was very intelligent, very well-read — he read all the great books, all the great philosophers. But when I asked him for his advice, he told me one thing: Be happy. It’s all he said. So simple. I’m telling you, these simple things — taking care of your teeth, being happy — they will be your greatest allies. Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are. And it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things — it will enforce your work.
Be happy, take care of your teeth, always let your conscience be your guide.
I wish you God, and good luck.
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