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 more. Maybe it’s time we accepted him as a bona fide American poet.
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.
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.
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.