When You're Strange: Jim Morrison, Great American Poet?
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think the Doors are a hokey caricature of male rock stardom and those who think they’re, you know, shamans.
The Doors, who took their name from a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”), combined jazz chord changes and Latin rhythms with flamenco, surf, raga, blues, and psychedelia, all in one ’60s rock band, often in one song: “Light My Fire,” “The End,” “Roadhouse Blues,” and “People Are Strange,” just to name a few. The power of the Doors’ music is that it is so unabashedly arty that it begs to be made fun of, especially by older people or those who went through Doors periods themselves and are now into Steely Dan or Animal Collective or some other less embarrassing musical endeavor.
And why embarrassing? Because the Doors reflect a conflict many of us have with artists we think we have outgrown. For those with a youthful bent, sustained naïveté, or a poetical inclination, the combination of the Doors’ music and Jim Morrison’s lyrics can be transformative. In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir depicting her early days in New York and friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, the singer neatly encapsulates how she, and many others, “felt both kinship and contempt for [Morrison]” while watching him perform for the first time. “I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that.”
But for those same people a few years on, the Morrison mythology of a rock-singer-slash-poet whose lyrics reflect influences from the Romantics, French Symbolists, and Beats feels, at best, silly, and so he becomes one of the better punch lines to any number of poetry jokes.
But the Lizard King is not dead.
Although it may not shock that Doors music is still popular, what might surprise is that Jim Morrison’s poetry still has an audience. As I write this, the remastered CD of An American Prayer, a Jim Morrison spoken-word album posthumously released in 1978, sits at number one on Amazon’s “Music > Miscellaneous > Poetry, Spoken Word & Interviews” chart, ahead of Jim Carroll and Alcoholics Anonymous and neck-and-neck with Tom Waits. Morrison’s collections of poetry continue to sell, too. Two of his three poetry titles reside semipermanently on Amazon’s poetry best-seller list—Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume 1 (#26) and The Lords and the New Creatures (#40)—sitting alongside Allen Ginsberg, Mary Oliver, and Tupac Shakur, and ahead of Eliot, Frost, Poe, and Bishop.
This is irritating to serious poetry people. But maybe there is something to Morrison’s poetry beyond the laughs. Maybe it’s time we considered him to be something beyond the “Bozo Dionysus” Lester Bangs saw him as. Maybe it’s time we accepted him as a bona fide American poet.
Back when I was in eighth grade, a man with an acoustic guitar came to our class at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Maple Shade, New Jersey, to sing songs about drugs. About not doing drugs, I mean. He used to do a lot of drugs, he said, and lived the whole rock-and-roll lifestyle. His was a death-style, he said, and now that he didn’t do any drugs, he loved his life and was closer to God. A couple kids raised their hands to tell stories about uncles or older siblings who did drugs and how bad drugs were. It was relatively moving.
Just when he was going to sing his last drugs-are-bad song, our visitor spotted a copy of No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman’s 1980 best-selling biography of Jim Morrison, on a girl’s desk. He picked it up.
“I’ll give you five dollars not to read this book,” he said. The book glorifies drugs, he said, and would lead her down the “wrong path.” He took a bill out of his pocket and slapped it down.
“He was a poet,” our visitor sagely said. “I’ll give you that.”
I remember the girl took the money and the guy took the book. I also remember everyone thinking we had to find out who this Jim Morrison poet guy was.
I biked over to Peaches, a record store owned by Moonies, and bought a copy of An American Prayer, the Jim Morrison spoken-word album released in 1978 with other Doors adding posthumous musical flourishes. I sat in my room with headphones and put the record on.
It was, as best as I can recall, the first time I listened to a poet speak.
As I write this, the annual chatter about whether Bob Dylan might win the Nobel Prize for literature sends giggles through the commentariat. Although the poetry world loves hyphenates and slashes (Post-Avant! Fifth-Generation-New-York-School! Poet/Collagist! Poessay!), adding Rock Singer/Poet to the list of accepted terms is where most draw the line. While I’m not terribly interested in the interminable debate over whether rock lyrics qualify as “real” poetry, it turns out one can’t avoid it entirely when we speak of Jim Morrison, Gateway Poet, as a serious writer. It is mostly a losing proposition, I know. It is absurd. And yet I’m not willing to completely disregard what the eighth-grade me found so moving.
One rainy afternoon this summer, I took out my vinyl copy of An American Prayer, which I have dragged from apartment to apartment for a quarter century; put it on the turntable; and asked my 2,500-plus closest friends on Facebook if anyone was a fan, or used to be a fan, of Jim Morrison’s poetry.
There were, of course, snarky responses. One suspected I was “trying to punk them or out people for their guilty pleasure,” while another joked that I should rephrase the question as whether anyone out there “had been a 13-year-old girl.” Poet Tim Suermondt told me he’d respond “as soon as I get back from my walk on Love Street.”
Yes. Haha. But, surprisingly, most responses I got were heartfelt rather than dismissive.
“Morrison was the first human I connected to living poetry (as opposed to dead poetry),” poet and memoirist Peter Conners wrote. “When I looked at his pics, I never thought Rock Star. I thought Poet . . . and then I thought Dangerous Poet. As a teenager getting intrigued by words, that was an important leap for me.”
Todd Colby, a poet and himself a former rock singer (of Drunken Boat), quoted lines from “Ghost Song,” a track from An American Prayer: “Choose now, they croon / Beneath the moon / Beside an ancient lake.” Mike McCann, a friend from college I hadn’t spoken to in many years, quoted from “When the Music’s Over”: “Persian Night! See the Light! Save Us! Jesus! Save Us!”
“Wilderness was the first book of poems I ever owned,” Ginger Heather, another poet, wrote. “A friend gave it to me for my 16th birthday. Our high school was a trade school, so I’m not sure I would have been introduced to anything like contemporary poetry otherwise.”
“I’m hung up on the art game, you know?” Morrison said in an interview with CBC Radio. “My great joy is to give form to reality. Music is a great release, a great enjoyment to me. Eventually I’d like to write something of great importance. That’s my ambition—to write something worthwhile.”
Just how seriously Jim Morrison can be taken as a poet depends on whom you ask, but there’s no question that he regarded himself as the real deal. Starting with No One Here Gets Out Alive and each subsequent biography, Morrison is portrayed as carrying Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry books in his pocket or quoting from Nietzsche, all by way of suggesting the singer should be taken seriously as a poet, without many other reasons why. Like many real poets, Morrison self-published his work. The Lords: Notes on Vision appeared as single vellum pages with “© James Douglas Morrison 1969 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED” on the bottom of each page, housed inside a blue portfolio folder. He made 100 copies and gave them out to friends. Then came The New Creatures, a slim hardcover edition of 100 copies, privately printed in 1969. An Ode to LA while Thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased, a broadside or pamphlet, was handed out at concerts after the death of the Rolling Stones guitarist, and An American Prayer was printed in an edition of 500 in 1970.
“Despite the high prices from dealers, they can’t always command them,” Ernest Hilbert, a poet who works as an antiquarian book dealer for Philadelphia’s Bauman’s Rare Books, tells me in an email. Hilbert mentioned the story of a dealer who failed to sell a copy of The New Creatures to a “very famous music mogul” for around $6,000. A copy of The Lords is on sale now for about $10,000. “They’re very rare signed because they came after his public life shut down and not long before his total life did.”
In 1970, Simon & Schuster published The Lords and The New Creatures, which combined his first two books. Other than San Francisco poet and Morrison friend Michael McClure, who urged him to self-publish his work and pursue his writing, no one from the serious poetry world seemed to pay much attention. Despite this, the book is currently in its 50th printing. But clearly sales alone can’t transform one into a serious poet. That takes academia.
According my college library’s databases, a 1992 article, “Wild Child: Jim Morrison’s Poetic Journeys,” was the first academic work to address the notion that Morrison’s writing should be taken seriously as poetry. Written by Tony Magistrale, now chair of the English department at the University of Vermont, the study, published in the Journal of Popular Culture, first addresses the “glaring omission” in what has been written about the Doors: namely, the failure “to analyze Morrison’s contributions as a poet,” which starts with “separat[ing] commercial myth from poetic legacy.”
Morrison, Magistrale writes, “is as much a product of the Romantic poetic vein as William Blake, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and the French Symbolists were a century before him.” Many of these writers were also obsessed with poetry as a means of vision and illumination, of “breaking through to the other side” to “discover what possible realms existed beyond the immediate and the material.” Morrison’s best works, Magistrale asserts, “defy quick dismissal.”
Two decades later, Magistrale is still enthusiastic about Jim Morrison and the Doors. “I think the real poetry is in the songs,” he tells me on the phone. “That’s when Morrison’s poetry is at its most coherent and poetic.”
People still contact Magistrale about his article, asking for comment or to reprint it, he says. Still, 40 years after the singer’s death, “We’ve got this ‘Morrison Hole,’ people who are writing crap about his poetics, that hasn’t been filled. You’ve got people out there writing about him who are not trained to read it.”
Which is a shame, he says. “This guy still has something to say to us.”
“And I would not hesitate for a minute to call lyrics like ‘Five to One’ real poetry,” he tells me. “‘Trading your hours for a handful of dimes’? That could come from ‘Prufrock’ or ‘The Waste Land.’ Or ‘I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer / The future’s uncertain, the end is always near.’ It might be his addiction or it might be nihilism, but what better description or encapsulation of the existential dilemma? This could be right out of Camus or Sartre. These monetary solutions are only going to take you so far, Morrison says. And no one really talks about that with his lyrics.”
“‘Moonlight Drive,’” he tells me, is a “wonderful lyrical ballad” that “really dispels the notion of Jim Morrison as a misogynist.”
“All that said,” Magistrale points out, there is “a lot of poetry that Jim Morrison wrote that is shit, pap—stuff he wrote when he was drunk, high on drugs, not capable of putting words into coherent sentences, much less rendering it poetically.”
Magistrale first sent his article to The New Yorker. Its editor, David Remnick, wrote him back personally. “He wrote, ‘I’ve been wrestling with this essay for the last week. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read about Jim Morrison, and I don’t believe a word of it.’ That’s what I got back. I should have framed that fucking rejection.”
“The lyrics Jim Morrison wrote for the Doors are wonderful and chilling and moving,” David Lehman writes to me. Poet, critic, and series editor of The Best American Poetry, Lehman knows about song lyrics. His most recent book, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, is a wide-ranging study of American standards. Morrison “brilliantly communicated states of extreme emotion,” he writes: “the rage of lust (‘Light My Fire’), a gentler desire (‘Touch Me’), paranoia, fear, sheer darkness.”
Lehman’s answers remind me that, although Morrison regularly name-checked his favorite writers—in one interview he rattled off “Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Breton, Cendrars, Max Ernst, Céline, Burroughs,” and was still characterized by the journalist as “rambling”—his favorite singer late in life was the one and only standards master, Frank Sinatra. The thought of Francis Albert Sinatra singing James Douglas Morrison’s lyrics compels me to look up Ol’ Blue Eyes’ discography. Did he ever sing “Touch Me”? No dice, baby.
“I think ‘People Are Strange,’ for example, is an outstanding rock lyric, very haunting, with artful use of repetition and a beautiful emphasis on that major-league word, strange,” Lehman writes. “He uses ‘stranger’ more in the manner of Camus than of Orson Welles, and it connects with ‘you’ the speaker as well as ‘you’ the listener: the existential ‘you.’” Lehman likes especially how Morrison interchanges “look” and “seem” with “are,” which suggest that “‘your’ state of mind is what’s at stake.” Lehman types out the lyrics in his email to “show how rhetorically balanced the first stanza is, each line divided into two clauses conjoined by ‘when.’”
But maybe, suggests Robert Pattison, professor of English at Long Island University and author of The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism, “acceptance” would just be a way to kill off Morrison’s sales.
“A fair number of rockers have convinced themselves that they are not in fact vulgar mutants of the 19th-century poets but their modern reincarnations,” Pattison writes in Triumph.
I couldn’t help but ask Pattison: But what about Jim, man? What would be added to Morrison’s reputation if he were hailed as a poet? Should we put a couple of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website? Wouldn’t that be cool?
“I’m not sure there’s any prestige in a rock lyricist also claiming the title of poet,” Pattison writes. “My guess is that the prestige runs the other way.”
Pattison’s credo boils down to this: excellent rock songs, boring poems. “Why are slim volumes of deep thought superior to young rants? I think Morrison would be getting a demotion to be moved to the Poetry Foundation website.
“Yes,” Pattison continues, “I think the fact the words are written for rock makes a difference. Try comparing Kurt Cobain’s lyrics with the poems he scribbled down. Millions justifiably remember the former; the latter are trite and embarrassing. There are so many good rock lyrics that I think they would swamp any poetry website. The works of Alex Chilton alone would drive out much of the competition. But the whole Internet is really a rock website, since you can summon up whole songs from fragments of lyrics or watch 15 different performances of any particular number. I’m not sure any more formal arrangement is necessary.”
Years after first seeing them in concert, Patti Smith spots a billboard for the Doors’ latest album, L.A. Woman, and overhears the band’s new single, “Riders on the Storm,” coming from a passing car.
“I felt remorse that I had almost forgotten what an important influence Jim Morrison had been,” Smith writes. “He had led me on the path of merging poetry into rock and roll.”
In a recent article in The New Yorker, critic Daniel Mendelsohn writes that “the chances that Rimbaud will become the bible of your life are inversely proportional to the age at which you first discover him.” The same applies for Morrison, who elicits the same types of “extraordinarily conflicted feelings of admiration and dismay.” Rimbaud is credited with being a student of poetry while he made his way rebelling against the world. Morrison, the American, is perennially cast as the wild man from the desert, bottle of Jack in hand. Both called for a “derangement of all the senses.” Both are examples of the poète maudit who lives outside normal conventions.
A couple nights ago I sat at a table in Dirty Frank’s, my favorite Philadelphia bar, with two old friends, one from college and one from my hometown. Over pitchers of Yuengling and a walk around the block to smoke a bowl of pot I bought off another guy in my father’s group, I told them I was writing about Jim Morrison. As usual, it felt like a confession. Both smiled and told their Doors stories. Dan, the college friend, is a rock photographer who worshiped Sonic Youth as a teenager. He’s “still all about” “When the Music’s Over.” “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection!” he sang and lifted a mug. I once saw Tom, my hometown friend, who’s now a professor, make a classic rock DJ’s head explode at a party when he told him the band XTC “transcends the Beatles.” I thought he hated the Doors, but he confessed that he loves “Twentieth Century Fox,” a light track off their first album. “It’s Morrison’s version of ‘The Lady Is a Tramp,’” I offered. Once we got our giggles out, I realized we’d all gone through Morrison periods, as part of that rite of passage for some teenagers when they first encounter someone unembarrassed to be an artist. We all read Morrison’s poetry when we were younger. Just talking about Jim Morrison, I daresay, makes us old men feel young and free again. Others qualify for this spot as well—Plath, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Kerouac, Salinger, Lady Gaga, Rimbaud, Patti Smith. What is it about these artists that compels us to make fun of them later in life? We want the world and we want it now!
“Listen, real poetry doesn’t say anything,” Morrison writes in Wilderness’s prologue. “It just ticks off possibilities.” When I first set out to write this essay, I hoped it would be a brilliant exegesis of Jim Morrison, Real Poet. In the back of my mind, I envisioned a couple of his poems featured as a sidebar, maybe a sequence of prose-poem aphorisms from The Lords to drive home how relevant and "now" he could be. But I have stopped worrying whether James Douglas Morrison—The Last Holy Fool, Sex God, Black Priest of the Great Society—can join the tenuous tribe of poets. He’s been showing up for the meetings for so long now, there’s no sense in throwing him out.