On Instagram, I am sick of almost everything and everyone. Corporations that are emphatically not my friends displayed as if they are; Kayla Itsines’s tan, taut legs lunging and lunging in an endless loop; an ad for a $65 athletic crop top that is neither supportive enough to be a sports bra nor loose enough to fit a sports bra beneath it. I have winnowed my feed to the essentials — friends, national parks, dogs — but still I resent the undertow-tug of this app. I grow warier by the minute of its invasive algorithm, how it mutates with a genuinely frightening alacrity, prompting me to purchase things before I even know I want them.
But there is exactly one good thing about Instagram. It is a perfect thing, worth wading through all the other consumer bait and nonsense flotsam and #sponcon and other such indignities. It is Patti Smith’s account.
It’s not all that radical an endeavor, on paper: She takes photos, she writes captions. She honors birthdays, anniversaries, friends living and long gone. She posts dispatches from her travels and tours. Sometimes she just writes about her setlists or her beloved detective shows. But it’s different when she does it. You’ll see.
If you apply the Heisenberg Principle to social media, then no one can ever be their unaltered self on Instagram, because the sustained observation built into the platform renders authenticity impossible. You’re performing even when you’re not performing. But — no offense to science — Patti’s account is a quiet refutation of this law of quantum mechanics. In her daily posts, she seems earnest and fully present, behaving as she would even if we weren’t there to see it. Her writing is so much more than the app calls for or deserves. It’s black tie at a backyard barbecue, a big, gift-wrapped box for a host who insisted “no presents” on the invite.
This spring I scrolled into a carousel of three photos of Patti meandering the streets of Verona at night with her daughter, about which Patti wrote:
with Jesse in
loved and wept.
She shows how work persists amid horror, as if proving to the guy Lana Del Rey is singing to (“Your poetry’s bad, and you blame the news”) that he has no excuse. After the Notre Dame fire, she shared a photo of her coffee and her hand on an open notebook page with this message:
Thank you all for your poems,
tears and words of resilience.
Worlds are created, torn down,
yet we abide. Now turning our
thoughts to humankind and
the needs of our children and
our precious earth.
On August 4, after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left dozens dead in under 24 hours, she wrote:
a mourning wreath
nothing but grief
nothing but blooms
cascading as dust
nothing but hatred
and the terrible cost
What would be insufferable from almost any other source — coffee and an open notebook, arranged just so — feels generous and welcoming from her. They’re posts that make plain what her work requires, the ritual that makes her art and the art that’s present in the ritual itself.
Usually poetry on Instagram is placed in the image, not the caption (think of that Rupi Kaur aesthetic). There is something about this construction that makes every line look like it is trying very hard to be profound and, as a result, it reads like a parody. Patti writes her poetry in the caption text. I don’t quite know why this is better, but it is.
Here she is on Emily Brontë, on what would be the writer’s birthday:
a portrait of Emily Bronte, by her
brother Bramwell. Writing under
the name of Ellis Bell, she produced
the masterpiece Wuthering Heights,
before she died of consumption at
the age of 30. Emily was said to
possess the eyes of a half tamed
creature. One can imagine her spirit,
entirely untamable, united with her
dog Keeper, roaming free, in her
beloved wild and desolate Yorkshire
moors. Happy birthday Emily Bronte
now truly unfettered, may your cup
Maybe the most unsavory aspect of social media is the way our ache for validation just radiates out of us, no matter what we do or how we frame our posts. The blaring neon “LIKE ME” of it all. I am awed at how deeply uninterested Patti seems in that pursuit, how she can be on the platform without bending herself to fit its contours. Every day, she makes something small but genuine and singular in a space that all but mandates artifice and sameness. I come across her posts and it’s like a birthday card in a pile of bills. Something sacred, or close to it, in a space that is anything but, like the Bible in the nightstand at a Motel 6.
Her Instagram feels of a kind with “The Red Hand Files,” Nick Cave’s advice column, in which the Bad Seeds frontman tends to the insecurities, curiosities, and wonders of his readers — from “What is your earliest memory?” to “How do you deal with evil?” to “Have your own songs ever made you cry whilst performing them onstage?” — with generosity and care, and without an intermediary. (“You can ask me anything,” he told fans. “There will be no moderator. This will be between you and me. Let’s see what happens.”)
Cave began his column in September 2018. Patti joined Instagram a bit earlier, in March of that year. She has 467,000 followers, but her account still feels like a wonderful secret, so much so that I hesitated writing this because I did not want to ruin it. Just as I hesitate to tell you my favorite thing about this favorite thing: Her DMs are open. Anyone could just reach out to her and maybe she would read it and write back. (Right now, she’s soliciting feedback on her new memoir, Year of the Monkey.) Even you or me. I haven’t, but I could. I might! I am just trying to figure out the right thing to say. But knowing it is theoretically possible has delighted me for months.
I watch people comment on her posts all the time, often to tell her that it is their birthday, and she will reply “happy birthday,” sometimes with emoji. I’m writing this on my birthday. Maybe this will be the day I write to her, and see if, when she drains the last of her coffee and sets her notebook aside, she writes back.