Jim Morrison, Serious Poet?

| 10/21/2011 11:11:40 AM

Tags: Jim Morrison, poetry, poet, The Doors, Daniel Nester, writing, literature, Poetry Magazine, The Poetry Foundation, David Doody,


Growing up, my mom had serious cred with friends of mine for having palled around with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other Haight-Ashbury (less famous) standards—once, even kicking Jimi Hendrix out of her house when he’d shown up with a friend of hers extremely drunk (or extremely something). With this history running through my veins, I could never bring myself to take Jim Morrison seriously. He always seemed, in my view, to be trying too hard to force his way into the company of 60s greats. Nothing about him ever felt authentic. (Years later I’d feel similarly about a rock god of my own generation, Kurt Cobain. That’s a different story for a different time, but real quick, try to imagine starting high school in 1993 and not liking Nirvana all that much.) So, feeling like his whole persona was a put-on, I could never bring myself to take too seriously the music of The Doors. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond teenage memories in which The Doors provide the soundtrack. (Driving over a bridge, toward an oncoming thunderstorm, while “Riders on the Storm” played loudly on the radio.) But most of those were fueled by something other than the music, something that always seemed necessary in order for The Doors’ music to feel inspiring, to lose its self-consciousness.

So when I received an email yesterday from the good folks at The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, with the subject line, “Was Jim Morrison a poet?” I had my answer ready before the email even opened: “No. No way was Jim Morrison a poet.” Something, though—maybe some mystical force brought in by some desert wind—made me hesitate before hitting the delete button. (More likely it was simply that the question came from The Poetry Foundation and not some would-be author hawking a book on the great mystic poet, Jim Morrison.)

The email was referencing an essay by Daniel Nester on The Poetry Foundation’s website, where the author tackles that very question: “Should we consider Jim Morrison, rock’s Bozo Dionysus, a real poet?” Nester’s first sentence gets the discussion off on just the right foot: “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.” That’s about it, isn’t it? From my story above, you know which camp I fall in. And I’ve known those people on the “shaman” side of the aisle and have no idea where they stand on the matter years later. Nester’s essay assumes most of them, in their elder, wiser years, are slightly embarrassed by their devotion to the man and the band. He’s probably right. But he comes across serious people who have thought about the matter seriously and have concluded that The Lizard King was a serious poet. But maybe it’s all beside the point. As Nester reasons, “I have stopped worrying whether James Douglas Morrison…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.”

I don’t know if Nester’s essay has changed my mind about Jim Morrison, but at one point, after David Lehman is quoted talking about “People Are Strange” (“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.’’”), I found myself on some lyrics website, rereading those first few lines a bit more seriously than I ever had before.

What’s your take on Jim Morrison as song writer and poet? And after reading Nester’s essay have your views changed? Leave your comments below.   

11/17/2014 6:08:02 AM

Besides the lyrics he wrote for The Doors, Morrison also wrote a lot of poetry outside the band (not song lyrics), some of which is published – the books “The Lords”, “The New Creatures”, “Wilderness” and “The American Night”-, but apparently most of it remains unpublished (thousands of pages that were later found inside a metal box - the “127 Fascination Box”). The first books were published during his lifetime, under the name James Douglas Morrison, because he took his poetry very seriously and wanted to separate his career as a writer from his occupation as a rock’n’roll artist and press fabricated rock’n’roll image. In 1971, a few months prior to his death, Morrison turned his back to rock’n’roll and moved to Paris to pursue a career as a writer-filmmaker. Too bad that people who feel qualified to write internet articles about Morrison’s poetry don’t even know of the existence of his poetry books. One day I would like to see a fair criticism to his poetry, done by someone who has actually read his work and that is undeniably qualified to do so (like a scholar) and able to compare him with contemporary American poets. Poet Michael McClure, who persuaded Morrison to self-publish his first books, has said Morrison is among the best poets of his generation.

Rob Parenzan
1/21/2013 10:24:20 PM

Morrison was a poet. He did write poetry that was published. Whether anyone has read them or not that I dont know. I've always been a big Morrison fan because he pushed boundaries and thats what artists do. The other thing I appreciate about Morrison is he never sold out his art (Thank you John Densmore for never selling out even now!) even when Manzarek and Krieger sold "Light my Fire" to a car company Morrison was against it. In regards to the Nester quote I dont agree because I am in neither camp. I never thought Morrison was a Shaman (and certainly nobody else in the band) but I always thought Morrison was a pretty damn good songwriter (and Krieger for that matter as well ).

Joshua Medsker
4/27/2012 5:39:18 PM

I think the Leonard Cohen argument is probably the best one. Except for the fact that Leonard Cohen actually was a poet before he made music. Honestly, I think the best argument that Jim Morrison WAS indeed a poet is that 40 plus years after he recorded his last album, we are still dissecting his lyrics and debating on their worth. If he was a lesser writer, no one would even care.

Jeb Harrison
11/14/2011 12:22:19 AM

I think the only person who thought Jim Morrison was a serious poet was Jim Morrison. Especially after he decided that he was really Arthur Rimbaud reincarnated and moved to Paris to drink himself to death. That's not to say that some of his lyrics aren't poetic or at least evocative. But first and foremost Morrison should be remembered as a rock star and celebrity, then as a singer, and to the degree that his performances helped create his celebrity status, a performer. As a songwriter, I guess I would say that once you put a poem to music, the words become lyrics and the poem becomes a song. Insofar as Morrison can be ranked up there with those songwriters whose lyrics are thought of as poetic, personally I think he probably has a few songs that compare to the great poetic lyricists. But ultimately the litmus test is how the words hold up on paper, as in poetry the arrangement of the words is as important as the words themselves. Morrison didn't play in that arena so far as I know, so I can't really think of him as a poet the way I think of Rimbaud, or Ashbery, Ginsburg, Frost, TS Eliot etc. etc. as poets. Poetic lyricist, yes. Poet, no.

Joanne Glasspoole
11/5/2011 2:16:48 AM

David, may I reprint your post on www.jimmorrisonproject.com?

Susan Klein
10/31/2011 4:17:30 PM

Of course he is. So is Morrissey and a lot of other musicians. Who decides what is poetry? If it comes from the heart and soul, that is poetry to me.

Yahia Lababidi
10/27/2011 4:23:21 PM

Thanks, David:) Here's some more: http://www.bu.edu/agni/essays/online/2009/lababidi.html

David Kendall
10/27/2011 2:29:02 AM

You critique is tainted with personal experience and the bias that you thought that Jim entered the arena of rock gods late, and was a poser. That's a wholly separate from the poetry issue. I found the whole tone of your article to be offensive. What is the point of trying to sway the opinions of the young and impressionable with your cynicism and superior viewpoint? If you take the poetry just as poetry,and forget your own personal 'rock and roll expert' credentials, you'll find 'People Are Strange' to be haunting, 'Not to Touch the Earth' to be filled with impressionism, 'Unknown Soldier' to be haunting and relevant, continuing to gather meaning. As straight poems on a piece of paper without the tragic story and reckless disregard of a tortured soul, they would still stand up as poetry.Do you really need to throw spitballs at rock icons? Why put what few heroes we have up on post-humous trial based on your very large opinions? Leave a tender moment in music history alone! Surely there is some 80's music or Rap more worthy of your scorn.

David Kendall
10/27/2011 2:14:08 AM

good one!..love the aphorism...

Yahia Lababidi
10/26/2011 10:25:03 PM

I love discussions like this, David. Yes, I think Morrison he was poetic, the way Morrissey, Leonard Cohen and Dylan (to a lesser extent I'd argue) are. But, shorn of the music, and their distinctive delivery, are these performers poets? Leonard Cohen would have the good grace to answer no; or, if so, not a great one. Is this false modesty? I think not entirely, since Cohen as with Morrison are readers of poetry and were influenced by the greats. Poetry, I quip, in an aphorism of mine, is the native tongue of hysterics -adolescents and mystics alike. What separates them: intentionality, attention, craft, gift.

pamela manzaro
10/26/2011 1:57:09 AM

What a stupid article. Of course Jim Morrison was a poet, just listen to Moonlight Drive... Doors' non-hits still stand the test of time, unlike a lot of bands from the same period.

10/25/2011 8:15:21 PM

Does the amount of poetry one writes or the fact that one begins writing as a youth, make one a "serious poet"? Or should that distinction--seriousness--be based on the quality of the poetry written? The discussion here, Yiannis, is not whether Jim Morrison wrote a lot of poetry--no one is arguing that he didn't. The question--and it is only a question, which both the blog post and the article attempt to engage, much more than a reply relying on "ignorant" and "sad" as its main points of argument--is only whether Morrison's poetry should be considered good, not whether or not he wrote a bunch of it or for how long he had been writing it. -David D.

Yiannis Stavropoulos
10/25/2011 7:43:22 PM

he wrote poetry from a very young age, has countless books of poetry out, much more than the music he put out. Saying he isnt a poet is as ignorant as this article. please research for your self the truth and realness. sad opinionated article