Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Analytical Introduction to the Poetry of Jim Morrison

“Is everybody in? The celebration is about to begin.” Jim Morrison.

James Douglas Morrison emerged from the womb on December 8, 1943 in Melbourne, Florida. His father, an authoritarian, from whom Jim would completely estrange himself, worked as a career officer in the US Navy and eventually attained the rank of Admiral. Jim’s family included a younger brother and a younger sister. Among other colleges and universities, he attended UCLA film school, graduating in 1965. At UCLA, Morrison first met Ray Manzarek.

While Morrison lived in Venice Beach after graduation, he ran into Manzarek. Soon, they formed the rock band, THE doors, along with Robbie Krieger and John Densmore. The band name they chose, THE doors, comes from something William Blake once wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” On their album covers, the band did not capitalize the word doors, an homage to the poet, e.e. cummings.

On January 4, 1967, Electra Records released the band’s first LP, the self-titled “THE doors.” “The End,” one of the songs on that album, incorporated many themes, among them a controversial reference to an Oedipus complex. Their initial performance of it at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles led to them being banned from the club.

During the years of THE door’s existence, Morrison wrote most of the lyrics to the songs they recorded. However, Robbie Krieger wrote a few of their songs, including the breakthrough single, “Light My Fire.” The albums “Strange Days” and “The Soft Parade” also contain long cuts (“When the Music’s Over” and “The Soft Parade,” respectively) which, like “The End,” took up nearly an entire side of the LP. Morrison wrote a very long piece (it varies in length on different live recordings but seems to always end up in the area of 17 minutes, meaning it would have taken up one side of a vinyl LP) titled “Celebration of the Lizard” which may have been intended for the “Waiting for the Sun” album since its lyrics appeared on the inside cover.

Reflecting Morrison’s anti-authoritarian and iconoclastic individualism, THE doors exhibited the traits of a pre-punk era, punk band. When they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time and performed “Light My Fire,” Morrison refused to comply with Ed’s request to use a different word for “higher” in the line, “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.” As a result, Ed banned them from his show. However, only a couple of years later, Ed asked them back and they took his stage again in support of “The Soft Parade,” performing “Touch Me.”

“I am the Lizard King; I can do anything,” Jim Morrison.

Of his early life, Jim circulated a story which bears a semi-mystical/mythological nature. He claimed that as a young boy, prior to the birth of his siblings, on a family vacation while driving through the southwest, he witnessed the scene of an accident. As the story goes, he saw Native Americans milling around by the highway. On the ground lay an old man, one of the Native Americans. Jim held that the soul of that man entered his body and joined with him, cohabitating his body with his own soul thereafter. The scene impressed Jim for life. He included many references to it in his lyrics and poetry. Jim saw himself as a shaman as a result. He also believed himself as the reincarnated spirit of the Greek god, Dionysis.

Thematically, Morrison’s writing (both music lyrics and poetry) cover a wide range of subjects. He penned material containing topics, among others, that dealt with antiwar sentiments, the futility and waste of violence, love, sex, drugs, reflections on cinema as an art form, freedom, liberation, psychedelic transcendentalism, death, regeneration, and the politics of late 1960s. He wrote in as unrestrained a manner as he lived.

Morrison never married. However, Jim shared two significant love relationships, one with Patricia Kennealy and the other with Pamela Courson. Jim never lived with Kennealy, but did live with Courson. However, Morrison and Kennealy participated in a “handfasting” ceremony (a pagan marriage ritual not recognized as legal and binding by any state government), so she considered herself married to Morrison (and today goes by Kennealy-Morrison). He quit THE doors in 1971 and moved to Paris where he and Pam resided together. He died in Paris on July 3, 1971. How he died remains a mystery since no autopsy was performed. Patricia still lives. However, Pamela died in 1974. Jim’s Last Will and Testament bequeathed everything to Pam.

Jim’s musical legacy with THE doors includes the studio albums: “THE doors,” “Strange Days,” “Waiting for the Sun,” “The Soft Parade,” “Morrison Hotel,” and “L.A. Woman.” He also recorded some of his poetry which the other members of THE doors later turned into an album after they added music to it. They titled the record “An American Prayer.” This album was released posthumously, in 1978.

Morrison self-published two books of his poetry in 1969, titled “The Lords/Notes on Vision” and “The New Creatures.” I purchased a collection in 1971 which had both books and many of his song lyrics combined in one, thick, paperback volume. However, I am unable to find any record of that book having been published. I gave it to a friend that summer (still before Jim had passed away), so I remain at a loss to provide any additional information regarding that book. Omnibus Press re-released some of that poetry as “The Lords, The New Creatures, The original published poetry of Jim Morrison” in 1985.

The rights to Morrison’s writings went to Pam Courson’s parents after Pam’s passing. With the assistance of Frank and Kathy Lisciandro, old friends of Jim and Pam, the Courson’s released two additional books of Morrison’s poetry. The product of that collaboration resulted in the publication of “Wilderness, The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume 1” in 1988 and “The American Night, The Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume 2” in 1990, both from Villard Books.

Longtime hanger on and low level assistant to THE doors during their heyday, and manager of THE doors after Morrison’s death, Danny Sugarman (with Jerry Hopkins’ as co-author) wrote perhaps the best biography of Jim Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” published in 1980. Danny also collaborated with Oliver Stone on his 1991 movie, “The Doors.”

“No eternal reward will ever forgive us for wasting the dawn,” Jim Morrison.

Despite the 1994 publication of the book, “Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet” by Wallace Fowlie, Professor of French Literature at Duke University, Morrison’s published poetry, for the most part, remains uncriticized and unanalyzed by the mainstream poetry community. Most of the attention given to Morrison’s poetry in print revolves around the Morrison myth and perpetuates the lurid tales surrounding his life. Failing to actually spend any real energy on a discussion of Morrison’s poetry and its literary value, about as deep as Fowlie goes into the material finds him offering a brief guide to the influences of Antonin Artaud, Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, the Beat poets, and Friedrich Nietzsche upon Morrison’s writing.

Allow me to begin a discussion of Morrison’s place in the historical community of poets with the influence of Rimbaud upon him. We must first acknowledge a kindredness of spirits between the two men. Arthur, it is said, was a Libertine with a restless soul. He died young, barely living 37 years. He wrote his most important poetry while in his late teens and quit pursuing creative writing at about the age of 21. The myth of Morrison leads us to acknowledge that he, too, lived the life of a Libertine who died young (27) and wrote most of his material by an early age. Jim's writings and life stories reveal him as also having been a tortured soul, especially from his personal point of view. He felt his looks, lifestyle and rock star career overshadowed the value and message of his creative legacy. He maintained a lifetime of unrequited longing to be taken seriously. Rimbaud enjoyed a fascination for absinthe and hashish while Morrison is known for his alcohol, marijuana and psychedelics consumption. Both Rimbaud and Morrison exhibited a kind of pre-punk attitude. Rimbaud has been classified with the symbolist movement of French poetry, though his writing is also considered decadent. Morrison’s writing is also highly steeped with symbolism and a decadent mindset. Even the scatological poetry of Rimbaud can be compared to Morrison’s blatant sexual writing which is evidenced by the Oedipal references in “The End” and poems such as “Lament for the Death of My Cock” from “An American Prayer,” published in “The American Night,” as two examples.

Next, let me offer a comparison between Morrison and Artaud. Antonin was born in 1896, 5 years after Rimbaud died. He was diagnosed with clinical depression and spent long stays in sanatoria. His physician prescribed laudanum for his psychological afflictions, thus leading to a lifelong addiction to that drug and other opiates. Consequently, we see the exhibition of drug influences and the personality trait of the tortured soul expressed in Artaud just as with Morrison and Rimbaud. He loved Baudelaire and Poe, both of whom were symbolists and influenced Antonin's poetry. Artaud’s writing reflected his passion for surrealism, a movement which grew out of the symbolist school and which can be closely affiliated with Morrison’s brand of surreal poetry which I call psychedelicism. The early cinema fascinated Artaud, and as we know, Morrison was a student filmmaker at UCLA who later devoted a great deal of poetry (“Notes on Vision”) to his views on cinema. Artaud traveled to Mexico and experimented with peyote, so his mind, perception and outlook received an influence by what would later be known as the psychedelic mindset. Late in his life, during the Nazi occupation of France, The Germans locked Artaud in a sanatorium where he received electroshock treatments. However, one of the significant points arises from the doctors’ disapproval of his practice of creating astrological charts and crafting magical spells. Thus we can see the kinship with Morrison as shaman/magician as well.

The Beats, of course, greatly influenced nearly everyone with a remotely bohemian mindset from Morrison’s generation. Their writings and lifestyles, like those of the poets already mentioned, expressed predilections for Libertine experiences, for anti-authoritarianism, for experimentation with drugs, and even for non-mainstream spirituality. The Beats, especially men like Gary Snyder and Allan Ginsberg, wrote poetry heavily influenced by their fascination for Buddhism. Ginsberg, in particular, can be seen as a tortured soul, like those poets discussed in the paragraphs above, who spent time in a psychiatric hospital. He also experimented with LSD and marijuana among other mind altering substances. The vernacular which appears in the poetry of Beats like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti influenced Morrison’s own poetic language, each being infused with heavy doses of street slang and hipster lingo from the eras in which they lived. Of course The Beats also incorporated impressionistic symbolism and occasional surrealism in their poetry, and as the years passed, some, like Ginsberg, acquired the psychedelic mindset and included the psychedelic style in their poetry.

Of course, from a philosophical point of view, every one of the influences mentioned, along with Morrison, can find affinities in their points of view with the writings of Nietzsche. He promoted a movement away from cultural stereotypes, from herd mentality as he called it, and toward a brash individualism which at the same time expressed itself with anti-authoritarianism. Nietzsche believed the only life worth living was that which expressed the individual’s true nature and sought out both experience and meaning consistent with the will to power. These same themes can be discovered not only in the writings of Morrison, Artaud, Rimbaud and Ginsberg, but also in the lives they led.

“(did you have a good world when you died?) – enough to base a movie on?” Jim Morrison.

Another influence on Morrison’s writing (and by his writing I incorporate by reference both his published poetry and his recorded song lyrics) can be found in William Blake. Blake wrote poems of an ecstatic, prophetic and visionary nature. His style, though pre-dating the symbolists and surrealists, offers an early approach to both. One can even say there is a family line of poets leading to the symbolist and surrealist camps which extends from Dante (“Inferno”) through Milton (“Paradise Lost”) to Blake (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”). Blake was another anti-authoritarian, and took part in the Gordon Riots in London. He did not believe in the authority of any church, preferring his own individual spirituality. His style remains highly unique, often combining poetry and art in the same work. Blake can be seen as the spiritual forerunner of Morrison’s writing, bringing a magically spiritual ecstasy to his poetry which is also evident in Morrison's writing. Blake advocated cleansing the doors of perception. Morrison took him seriously as he dropped acid and ate peyote.

Allow me to offer a few examples from Morrison’s writing which present his mind, philosophy and style.

“Cinema is most totalitarian of the arts. All
energy and sensation is sucked up into the skull,
a cerebral erection, skull bloated with blood.
Caligula wished a single neck for all his subjects
that he could behead his kingdom with one blow.
Cinema is this transforming agent. The body
exists for the sake of the eyes; becomes a
dry stalk to support these two soft insatiable

This excerpt (actually from “Notes on Vision”) can be found in “The Lords.” It records Jim’s view of cinema as being a peepshow, a voyeuristic entertainment. It also provides his point of view that movies are a means by which the public mind is controlled and molded by society into a single cultural mindset, that which Nietzsche called herd mentality. At the same time, he winds the thread of these ideas through the spool of his surreal/psychedelic imagery, presenting the theme through symbols. The eroticism is vulgar, determined to impart a decadent view of cinema as mass media influencing the public into a cultural blob, sapped of individual thought, devoted to conform to a social-collective mindset serving only one master, corporate greed.

Next, allow me to offer a bit of Morrison’s surreal symbolism from “The New Creatures.”

“Lizard woman
w / your insect eyes
w / your wild surprise.
Warm daughter of silence.
Turn your back w / a slither of moaning wisdom.
The unblinking blind eyes
behind walls new histories rise
and wake growling and whining
the weird dawn of dreams.
Dogs lie sleeping.
The wolf howls.
A creature lives out the war.
A forest.
A rustle of cut words, choking

Morrison interjects here a glimpse into his view of the new creatures, the symbol of the new society, the society and culture of 1968/9 America. Lizard woman represents the divine, the sacred, tied to ancient cults devoted to earth, land, fertility and mystery. He utters a magical incantation, calling on the sacred woman to turn her back on the glutinous, avaricious, materialist culture coming into being as it creates new histories from behind walls. The walls represent both the city (a human creation) and the new culture into which the minds and desires of the people (the new creatures) are walled up, forcing them to participate in this new and profane reality. These new creatures are the dogs, domesticated animals that lie sleeping (people who sleepwalk their way through life, are taught obedience and servitude to their masters, and who are anesthetized by finding their desires sated with products made by men). The wolf represents the sacred, too, because it lives wild and free, untamed and unchained by human contamination. The new creatures live out the war, he says. The war (besides being a reference to Vietnam) symbolizes the struggle between man and nature for dominance over the planet. Then, he interjects the entirely unexpected juxtaposition of a forest (an image he calls up often in his poetry) – nature as harmonious and beautiful. But he quickly drowns the optimism of that image by choking a river with words – humanity, again, is shown as cutting itself off from the sacred, thereby destroying nature, beauty and harmony.

Morrison presents a completely different approach in his poem “The Connectors” from “Wilderness.”

“- What is connection?

- When 2 motions, thought
to be infinite and mutually
exclusive, meet in a

- Of Time?

- Yes.

- Time does not exist.
There is no time.

- Time is a straight plantation.”

Morrison shared a fascinating view into how he saw the world in this poem. He titled the poem “The Connectors.” The poem speaks about those things which make connections. The poem appears in a unique form, a conversation. A conversation occurs between two people making a connection, so the poem contains “the connectors” in the two voices carrying on the conversation. Morrison provides his definition of connection as being something which occurs at an intersection. These connectors, he explains, are thought of as infinite and mutually exclusive (separate individuals with eternal souls or who will reincarnate eternally until becoming perfected beings when they can exist in perpetuity in another realm). Yet, they meet, or intersect. An intersection can only occur at a specific place and in a specific instant. That comment leads Morrison to reveal his definition of time, “a straight plantation.” Here, he incorporates hipster lingo of the era. Straight means that which is non-hip. Straight infers that which does not get high and thus not of the counterculture. Straight represents the mainstream, the Establishment. The word, plantation, provides a reference to the old cotton plantations of the South run by masters and worked by slaves. Hence, Morrison explains that connections have commonly (in the era he lived - and since) become dreams woven into our psyches by our masters, who have enslaved us, and who require us to toil for them so we can purchase their products. Morrison wants us to see the absurd circle in our dual enslavement. We are slaves to the shiny things corporations make, advertise and create hype around so we will buy them. In order to fulfill our desire (which has been instilled within us by the advertising) by buying them, we must work (our second slavery, to the machine and masters who create these largely useless and unnecessary things humans lust after). Thus, humanity gives up individual and collective freedom to enrich the already wealthy in a cycle of endeavor that can never be fulfilling since something new to buy will always be created causing a constant stream of reasons to enslave ourselves to the illusion our corporate masters instill within us.

Morrison meant a great deal to me. When THE doors first album was released, I had lived to the ripe old age of 14; fourteen years… impressionable, looking for a voice of rebellion, a youth wanting to be a man and independent, and in 1966, also looking for a way into the secret cabal, the hip, the cool, that which united the teenagers of my day against the Establishment, against the War, against everything “plastic” (the word we used to denote phony and unreal). There was Morrison singing about killing his father and fucking his mother (symbolically destroying the old world and its enforced conformism) in "The End," lamenting about cruelty to animals and the destruction and desecration of sacred nature in “Horse Latitudes,” offering a way into another world, a mystical and magical world in “Break on Through to the Other Side.” Morrison sang about lighting fires, about sexuality, about crystal ships with surreal and psychedelic imagery. He seduced me and an entire generation.

In the years to follow, he sang lines intended to stoke revolution like, “They got the guns / But we got the numbers / Gonna win yeah were / Takin’ over come on!” He also sang about the insanity of the war in Vietnam, “Unborn living, living dead / bullet strikes the helmet’s head.” He always gave us glimpses of the world through strange eyes, the eyes of the drug crazed shaman, chanting, urging us to see the absurdity in the world, urging us to dynamite the plastic and straight fantasy so we might replace it with a natural, sacred and free world which offered to unleash the potential of the individual by deconstructing and destroying the collective. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to unleash my manhood and my creative instincts. I wanted to find a balance between sacred and culture. Hell, I wanted a sacred culture!

Morrison filled me with these dreams and desires. I wanted to be a sexual animal and primal at the same time as I wanted to run through the forest singing and dancing. I wanted to find my will to power, which is what Morrison extolled without ever calling it that. I wanted to end the reign of enforced conformity and cut the reins of slavery to the consumerist nightmare. I wanted out of the herd mentality that promoted the credo of "my country, right or wrong." I wanted a real freedom, not the plastic freedom of capitalism’s forced slavery to the market, to products, to corporate profits, and to keeping up with the Joneses. Morrison epitomized all these ideas and feelings. I saw him as a revolutionary and a satyr, and damn, that seemed not only romantic, but incredibly macho, too. But his macho was an anti-macho – not Marlboro Man macho with a gun and the audacity to slap a woman into her place. No, he honored women and their essence, he abhorred and denounced guns, and he decried the plastic, decadent lifestyle of consumerist, TV America. Where could I sign up?

I’d written poetry before he came along. I’d been writing poetry since I was 11, having read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” at the age of ten. But once Morrison infused me with his animal spirit, with his shamanistic vision of the sacred, with his rebelpoet dream of revolution, and with his lunatic psychedelicism and surreal interpretation of reality, nothing I wrote would ever be the same. I waited 5 years to drop acid. But his ecstatic incantations made it a foregone conclusion that I one day would. When I did, my perception was forever thereafter altered. Psychedelics melted the plastic veneer, cleansing my doors of perception, and, true to Blake’s promise, the world did appear as it truly is, infinite.

Let me offer a stanza from the poem “The Crossroads” which was published in “The American Night" and which reveals Morrison's essential philosophy.

“Leave the rotten towns
of your father
Leave the poisoned wells
and bloodstained streets
Enter now the sweet forest.”

Yes, give up the profanity of destroying nature while creating monstrous edifices only intended to glorify the ego of men and the collective ego of humanity. Return to what is natural, your true nature, your true self, find mystery again, and walk back out into the sacred groves where life is truly lived and meaning actually unfolds.

“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection / Send my credentials to the house of detention / I got some friends inside,” Jim Morrison.

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