Last week Daniel Nester’s essay on whether Jim Morrison was a great American poet or not has been going around the internet, and I thought it was going to lead to the usual conclusion, that Jim Morrison’s pretensions at being a poet were greater than his ability. It didn’t, but it still instilled in me the urge for a response.
Naturally, as Doors fans we’re more predisposed than non-Doors fans to consider the poetry of Jim Morrison at least pretty good. Before I was a Doors fan I was reading poetry and wanted to be a poet myself and Jim Morrison provided a modern day model of a poet for me.
It’s a very strange matter that Morrison’s status as a poet is consistently called into question, but Bob Dylan was given almost immediate poet status upon releasing his first album and named as the voice of his generation. Not to piss off any of Bob Dylan’s fans, but the poetry as read in “Tarantula” seems more self-consciously obscure and pretentious than Jim Morrison’s poetry.
In an interview, Anne Morrison, Jim’s sister, said the family thought Jim would be poor all his life. Jim knew that most poets didn’t make a living by their writing, they usually teach, and that most poets don’t receive much recognition outside a small coterie of academics, small presses, other poets, and readers. Morrison took a shortcut to becoming a poet, he took the path of Rock ‘n‘ Roll (also not a guaranteed path to success, but the possibilities of a wider audience existed). If Morrison had pursued the usual path of poetry he might not have been recognized during his lifetime, since the poets of Morrison’s generation for the most part didn’t start getting recognized until the late ’70s, almost a decade after Morrison was dead (Morrison taking another path would alter events and the course of his life, but that’s something for “Back to the Future“).
Jim Morrison really brought poetry to the young people of the “baby boom generation” in his lyrics in works like “When the Music’s Over” and “The End,” bringing concepts, and themes, and phrasing over from poetry. “Screams of the butterfly” or even “cars all stuffed with eyes” introduced poetry to people who might not ordinarily have experienced it if they were presented with a book of “poems”, and The Doors are still doing it to this day.
Nester’s claims that only academia can anoint someone as a poet seems an elitist position. Don’t readership, listeners or even the act of writing a poem make you a poet? Poems are feelings and most people at one time or another take pen to paper. They may not consider themselves poets, but they are, which only leaves the problem of quality.
Morrison’s poetry has a disadvantage that most other poetry doesn’t have. In “Wilderness” and “The American Night” the reader is seeing a much rawer book than other poets or even Morrison would have released had he lived to see them through to publication. The poems that were published in “Wilderness” and “The American Night” weren’t all the recognizable final version or even in a state that Morrison may have considered worthy of publication. This isn’t the fault of Columbus and Pearl Courson, Jim Morrison’s “in-laws,” who through Pam Courson inherited the rights to Morrison’s poetry, or of Frank and Kathy Lisciandro who helped in the pre-publication preparation of the books. It’s just the nature of Morrison dying at an early age, and he didn’t seem to have prepared any manuscripts of completed works of poems. In fact, as stated in the notes of “The American Night” the poems weren’t dated and the editors often had to figure out which version of a poem seemed to be the latest or what Morrison considered completed. If you want a good idea of the quality of Morrison’s poetry or even a glimpse of where his poetry could have gone, read “An American Prayer” and compare it to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” or T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.
That the question of Morrison’s qualifying as a poet is still even being asked smacks of some elitism or snobbery, that poetry is for a more refined sense and erudition to be enjoyed and understood, and that people as unrefined or unsophisticated or maybe uncivilized (uncivilized in its original meaning, living outside of the city or community) as Rock ‘n‘ Roll fans, can‘t possibly understand real poetry. But the academics and keepers of the gate at the walls of civilization will always be taken aback by some new punk-poet. Rimbaud, or Morrison himself walking on a Venice Beach in sandy jeans and a notebook stuffed with poems, snatches that snobbery from the jaws of academia and the expert voices, and writes for all people to read and understand.
Originally published October 23, 2011