Visionary Starships in Patti Smith’s “Birdland”

“The Eye sees more than the Heart Knows.”

—William Blake, Visions of the Daughers of Albion

This is a rough, rough draft of something I’m working through. I invite comments from interested parties. Thanks in advance.

Patti Smith, Horses

I’m listening closely to Patti Smith’s first album Horses (1975) due to a post from Jason Whittaker on Instagram about Smith and William S. Burroughs. Whittaker and Dent quote the passage in Radical Blake, in which Smith says that “Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not — and that it seemed like a good answer. I mean, Blake was so generous with his angels that even we can look at them now.”

Milton enters Blake's foot, the image of poetic inspiration, in Milton: A Poem.

I find Smith’s phrase “even we can look at them now” to be so beautiful and liberating. Blake has been taught as a highly eccentric and exceptional person, and yet Blake was never interested in either of those descriptions. Not only did Blake write to the Reverend Trussler that “tho’ I call them Mine I know they are not Mine,” but he explains in Milton: A Poem that he saw prophecy as a universal capacity. In the “Preface,” to Milton he quotes from Numbers XI, ch. 29: “Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets” (E. 701; 96). Ian Balfour points that that Blake’s sense of prophecy probably followed from Protestant discourse of the seventeenth century, in particular that of Jeremy Taylor’s The Liberty of Prophesying (1647) which said that “to ‘prophesy’ is synonymous with to ‘speak forth’ or to ‘speak out’ and thus has more to do with freedom of expression or sheer speaking on behalf of God than with the prediction of the future” (131). Visionary experience is, likewise, quite banal for Blake. As he mentions in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, it is only due to the inability of modern persons to act with “firm persuasion” that makes mystical or visionary experiences seem to be exceptional experiences.

Nevertheless, Blake’s exceptionality was a common theme in the descriptions people reported after meeting him. Crabb Robinson, for instance, mentions Blake in a letter to Dorothy Wordsworth in which he states that like Jacob Boheme and Swedenborg — Blake lives:

“in a world of his own, enjoying constant intercourse with the world of spirits. He receives visits from Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Voltaire, etc. etc. etc., and has given me repeatedly their very words in their conversations. His paintings are copies of what he saw in his Visions. His books (and his MSS.are immense in quality) are dictated from the spirits. He told me yesterday that when he writes it is for the spirits only; he sees words fly about his room the moment he has put them to paper, and his book is then published.” (Wittreich 273-4).

You can see in Crabb Robinson’s description a note of his exemplary “a word of his own” but also an exceptional report of Blake’s creative process. Words have a spectral materiality in this passage, flying about like spirits until Blake can fetter them to the page for publication.

Undoubtedly, both Smith and Burroughs felt a kinship with Blake — as I do. Smith seems convinced of the everydayness of Blake’s visionary experience while also recognizing our struggle to see as the poets see. “[E]ven we can look at them now.” What does she mean, and what are the conditions of this looking?

Smith’s invocation of “Blakes hands” in “Birdland” offers one answer to this question about the transmission of mystical vision. In the song, a boy sits alone in a field after his father dies. Nick Johnstone’s biography of Smith mentions that the song is based upon the death of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. “Lost in youthful confusion and grief,” Johnstone says, “the boy imagines his father [Reich] coming down in a UFO to swoop him away from the hideous reality of the funeral.” Reich was part of the second generation of psychoanalysts after Freud — famous for theorizing sexual liberation, along with the controversial notion that the body developed a physical armor to protect itself from psychological disorders. A New York Times article from 1971 even mentions that Paris student protestors in 1968 threw copies of his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police.

Reich was no stranger to scandal. sChristopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron chronicles Reich’s invention of the “orgone box,” a gadget that was supposed to collect so-called “orgone energy” from the atmosphere and thereby improve his patients “orgastic potency.” For Reich, all psychological disorders — and a good percentage of physical disorders like cancer — were caused by sexual repression and the orgone box could quickly solve such problems. Woody Allen would famously parody the orgone box in the movie Sleeper as the “orgasmatron.” Reich was eventually charged with fraud after marketing orgone boxes across the United States and would die in jail.

Reich demonstrating the use of the Orgone Box. Wikipedia Commons, h/t Gina Dimuro.

As Turner mentions, in addition to the creation of the orgone box, Reich spent summers chasing UFOs with his son Peter — an experience that Peter recounts in his 1971 memoir A Book of Dreams. Peter would sit up all night with his father looking for UFOs with a cloudbuster, another device invented by Reich that he claimed would create rain by harnessing orgone energy. The UFOs would eventually appear to them as streaming lights. In Turner’s words, when they made a sighting:

“[T]hey would rush to the cloudbuster to unplug the aluminum tubes and extend the pipes out like a telescope until they reached some fifteen feet. They would then chase the UFO across the night sky, cranking the wheels of the device to spin the turret around and to raise and lower the guns, until they managed to sap the flying saucer of energy. The UFOs began to blink erratically, to fade, sometimes to disappear completely, Peter later reported. Reich claimed to have shot down several UFOs in this manner.”

Given Blake’s own ideas surrounding free love and his fascination with psychology and mystical experiences, his connections with Reich, Burroughs, and Smith are obvious. In fact, as Philip Shaw mentions in his book on Smith’s album, Burroughs’s championing of Reich in the counterculture made him a central figure in that movement (111). In “Birdland,” Smith signals the beginning of Peter’s visionary experience after his father’s death by noting the night constellations: “[i]t was as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars / ’cause when he looked up they started to slip.” We’re reminded of the blurs his father would identify as UFOs. He sees his father “‘hind the control board streamin’ beads of light,” and his father “was very different tonight / ’cause he was not human, he was not human.” Like Blake, Peter is able to talk to the dead — yet this visionary experience is made possible by Peter’s mourning and imagination — along with the fraud and wonder surrounding the technologies his father invents. We’re reminded that, as his son looks up into space, his father is at the control boards of the spaceship.

As Peter is invited inside of the ship, he finds that he — too — is not human. His vision starts to transform his body. His eyes become “white opals, seeing everything just a little bit too clearly.” Meanwhile, ravens gather and scatter “coming together into the head of a shaman bouquet / Slit in his nose and all the others were shooting.” Smith’s own notes about this line emphasize how improvisational and spontaneous she was being when working on the song. Still, the feeling of becoming an alien was very much in line with many statements Smith made about feeling “disconnected” and “like an alien” throughout her life. In an interview in 2005, Smith says that from childhood she “felt very comfortable with thinking I was from another planet [because] […] I was very tall and skinny, and I didn’t look like anybody else” (qtd in Shaw 112).

Of course, as anyone who reads Blake at all knows, strange bodies are also quite common in his work. Among many other examples, consider the description of the first human birth from The First Book of Urizen in which “Coild within Enitharmons womb / The serpent grew casting its scales” and “Many forms of fish, bird & beast, / Brought forth an Infant form / Where was a worm before” (E79). The vision here is almost evolutionary, in which the millennia separating the first organisms from the emergence of the first human being parallels the developmental stages of an unborn child as it matures in the womb. And the worm / womb metaphor repeats itself several times in Blake’s work.

Los at the Forge with Enitharmon and Orc. The Book of Urizen, Copy G.

Returning to Birdland, Peter turns his head seeing “lights of traffic beckoning like the hands of Blake / Grabbing at his cheeks, taking out his neck / all his limbs, everything was twisted and he said, / I won’t give up, won’t give up, don’t let me give up.” Peter’s body is twisted and contorted — evolved — into a form that can survive the rigors of space. The lights of cars and buses mutate into the light of insight in Peter’s white opal eyes. While Blake’s vision of evolution primarily casts the developing infant as a terror — in that it becomes another human being from the parts of (largely serpentine and amphibious) animals to be fettered to the world through jealousy and the nets of religion and science — Smith recasts this evolutionary process as one that enables our body to experience new horizons of vision. The inhumanity of Peter and Willhelm — and Blake and Smith — becomes everyone’s inhumanity. And this shared inhumanity is the very possibility of the “we” appearing late in the song. In other words, inhumanity is a medium, a shared space of possibility.

“Birdland” presents visionary experience as something that can be shared and transmitted. Father and son share a summer chasing UFOs. Peter and Blake share traffic lights transformed into a visionary intensity. Blake and Smith share visions of evolutionary mutation, in which the body adapts itself to new environments. Reich and Blake share accusations of eccentricity. One wonders whether Blake, had he lived in the same time as Reich, wouldn’t also find himself accused of fraud and headed to a jail. As such, Patti Smith’s understanding of Blake as someone who was so generous that he shared his angels with us suggests that — whatever their history — everyone who encounters this figure has the opportunity to experience something more than the heart knows.

Allen, Woody, director. Sleeper. United Artists, 1973.

Balfour, Ian. The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Blake, William. The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman, Doubleday, 1970.

Dent, Shirley, and Jason Whittaker. Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827. Palgrave, 2003.

Elkind, David. “Wilhelm Reich: The Psychoanalyst as Revolutionary.” The New York Times, 18 Apr. 1971.

Patti Smith. Horses, John Cale, 13 Dec. 1975.

Reich, Peter. A Book of Dreams. John Blake, 2015.

Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.

Shaw, Philip. Patti Smith’s Horses. Continuum, 2008.

Taylor, Jeremy. A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying; Showing the Unreasonableness of Prescribing to Other Men’s Faith; and the Eniquity of Persecuting Differing Opinions. Duff Green, 1834.

Turner, Christopher. Adventures in the Orgasmatron: the Invention of Sex. Fourth Estate, 2012.

Wittreich, Joseph Anthony, and Benjamin Heath Malkin, editors. Nineteenth Century Accounts of William Blake. Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1970.

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