One of the most exciting moments to come out of the announcement of Bob Dylan's Nobel Laureate in Literature was not his long silence or subsequent acceptance speech, but Patti Smith's singing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony.
What's remarkable about her performance is that the super star blanked on the lyrics, yet went on to sing a show-stopping rendition of an already moving song she's known by heart since she was a teenager. After the first verse she became disoriented and stopped. She then apologized and expressed her nervousness. While nerves never go away, an unseasoned performer would probably fake it and simply continue. I know I would.
In my experiences reading my own work and performing my poetry, I've always felt compelled to keep going, even if I've made a mistake. Somewhere along the line, I've been taught to follow an unwritten rule of keep reading and performing, regardless of missing a word, sentence, stanza or verse. Making mistakes happen to everyone. I know I've blanked out on words that I've written, poems that I could usually recite anytime, anywhere. Part of the writing life is having the opportunity to read your work aloud. With that, comes the real possibility of skipping a phrase or pausing extra long, or taking a sip of water while recomposing yourself.
I usually work through my nerves or blunders. Few people, except for my husband, Steve who knows my work backwards and forwards, realize my mistakes. However, singing alongside live musicians is less forgiving than reading.
Patti Smith did an extraordinary thing by admitting her nervousness and breaking the illusion of a perfect performance. I was in awe by her performance and by her essay, "How Does It Feel," in the NewYorker.
In an even braver moment explaining how she felt afterwards, she details what happened on stage. "Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue," she writes, " I hadn't forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out."
Smith's essay was such an honest gift. As if the song weren't enough, the essay lets us in on what she was thinking before, during, and after her performance. All of my questions as to how she ended up choosing the song and how she found the courage to stop and start again were answered. She was asked to perform one of her own songs for the Nobel prize, but upon hearing that Dylan had won, she changed her mind and sung a favorite of hers and her late husband's.
The song's emotional and political gravitas speaks to current events, especially the atrocities in Allepo. While the songs lyrics include the words "I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains," and ends with "And I'll know my song well before I start singing," Smith acknowledges that that she entered the song in a way that made the hiccup necessary and beautiful. In her 70 years, she is able to state the reason for her calling: "Why do we commit our work: Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. "