When You’re Strange

Should we consider Jim Morrison, rock’s Bozo Dionysus, a real poet?

by Daniel Nester
When You’re Strange
Illustration: Jason Novak

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.

Originally Published: October 19, 2011


On October 19, 2011 at 2:15pm Steven Critelli wrote:
I loved this essay. It was dead on.

On October 19, 2011 at 4:36pm Zaklina Filipova- Svekjarovska wrote:
I loved this essay, thank you Daniel :)

On October 19, 2011 at 6:05pm L. L. Kelly wrote:
Great article. Morrison was and is the real deal. He deserves the honor of being accepted into the family, warts and all.

On October 19, 2011 at 6:29pm Rangam Chiru wrote:
One of the best essays I have ever stumbled across on Jim Morrison. COmpliments on the conversational tone.
I was saying Yeah that's right after every paragraph.

A part where you say "The songs made his poetry coherent" is true. I like the poet, then the dangerous poet para since I did feel the same.
This isn't self promotion, but I felt like sharing what I wrote on him for that overwhelming influence while growing up.
To Jim
gargled the sun
and walked through
to the other side."

On October 20, 2011 at 12:30am David Welch wrote:
Fascinating essay, although I was surprised to find no mention of Wallace Fowlie's recent study on Morrison and Rimbaud. Morrison was my first introduction to serious poetry in college, my springboard to Merwin. I tend to agree, though, with the view that Morrison's rock lyrics (combined with the Doors' music) have greater poetic potency than his poetry.

On October 20, 2011 at 5:58am Scott Keeney wrote:
Nice piece. I'm glad it didn't go where I thought it was going to go. One
quibble: a couple of times Touch Me is referred to as a Morrison lyric: it
was actually penned by Robby Krieger, though the singer did make a
significant contribution to the song in changing "hit me" to "touch me".

On October 20, 2011 at 7:58am Robert Paglia wrote:
Morrison's more of a poet than Amiri Baraka, who appeared at the most recent Dodge Poetry Festival.

On October 20, 2011 at 2:09pm Brandt Hardin wrote:
Jim influenced my art my entire life with his macabre and
surreal lyrics and poetry. You can see my portrait of the
Lizard King I created in memoriam recently on the 40th
anniversary of his death. It's on my artist's blog at

On October 20, 2011 at 4:30pm A.M. Freiman wrote:
But clearly sales alone can’t transform one into a serious poet. That takes academia.(???) Re-read that and tell me that doesn't seem a little elitist.

On October 20, 2011 at 5:24pm Reagan Murphy wrote:
As a young poet, I have been inspired by Morrison's darkness in his
poetry as well as his enticement with death. Although I tend to agree
that his lyrics are much better as a whole, his poetry is not something
to be swept under the rug. He is truly a gifted artist and an
inspiration. This was an awesome article; a real pleasure to read.

"I was born to sail away
to touch the land of my dreams
but evil wind filled my sails
and finally I lost my way.
The ship run aground of my life
and now, I lie here broken,

On October 20, 2011 at 5:25pm jon saari wrote:
I'm 64 and I'm here to tell you that Jim Morrison was poetry to me and many others back in the day. You miss and you're not cool if you are or were looking too hard at him and what he did. In the context of his hey day, he spoke eloquently to the minds and hearts of young strivers, and there were plenty of us. He pouted, posed, and postured and we all couldn't look away or stop listening.

On October 20, 2011 at 9:59pm Tim Barrus wrote:
Room 32. The name of a journal. Composed in a motel room. Poetry
and rants and polaroids and Mexican postcards and little drawings
and some watercolors and given to a neighbor. Thing even smells like
dope. Room 32. It kinda disappeared. Why should anyone care. The
man was a dragon among the lizards. Not a poet.
Ahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!! Room 32. Do you have any idea
how much it's worth. Jim gave it away. You kinda had to be there. Not
for the giving it away part. But for the writing of the thing. Room 32.
The name of a journal lost to posterity and time. Unless you know
where to look. Room 32. Some writing is always on the wall.

On October 20, 2011 at 11:01pm steve asness wrote:
great essay. loved it.

On October 20, 2011 at 11:07pm steve asness wrote:
great essay. loved reading it.

On October 21, 2011 at 2:34am zeroreference wrote:
So...people are still snobs?

Liked the piece.

On October 21, 2011 at 8:13am Jim Alfieri wrote:
Very good read. Morrison wasn't the best poet, but certainly wasn't the worst either. People who scoff at the notion of him as a poet are being as pretentious as Morrison could sometimes be. One note for the essay's author though regarding the paragraph below.

“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.”

To the best of my knowledge, "Light My Fire" was actually written by the Doors guitarist, Robby Kreiger. Ironic really, that their biggest hit wasn't Morrison's work.

On October 21, 2011 at 8:43am Mike Sambrato wrote:
The outright dismissal of Jim Morrison's poetry is not merely a snide hand-waving at the adolescent ravings of a "Bozo Dionysus". It isn't the chuckle at self indulgent, Dark Star counter-culture rants of drug-induced psychosis.

It goes much, much further than that. When we are/were young, we looked to Morrison's poetry to fuel our rebellion and give rationale and cause to our journey down the rabbit hole. We followed the piper's dance. However, when we age and journey into the pursuit of knowledge, we discover the true criticism.

What happened at the First Council of Nicea? What of the doctrine that was born there and the 1686 years of violent hypocrisy that followed? Nietzsche and the Romantics were stating their revulsion of it and so was Jim Morrison. Morrison's character was so famously flawed, but he was a great observer of life. I think it's obvious that he did not the answer to the great question, but his observations are still great food for thought.

Is this all that we are? What is our collective purpose? Is there a collective purpose? In society today we still struggle with the definition of good and evil. Just how important is selfishness? Should we be Altruists? Should we be Objectivists?

To truly understand Jim Morrison's poetry, one must also understand his passions - namely philosophy and art in the proto-modern context. An artist's sublime message can change the world. Has not Morrison changed the world? Where would rock music, performance art and the iconic imagery of pop be without him? He was the original dark priest and although he was often mired in his own pessimism, his message struck a great deal many of us and inspired us to pose the great questions.

The outright, hand-waving dismissals continue to give his words credibility - oh wonderful paradox! These same dismissers are often so rooted in their own living paradoxes. It makes the criticism of the criticism delicious.

Jim Morrison was a poet and an artist. Would you argue against Duchamp? Would you argue against the effect and the affected? 40 years later and we are still arguing this? Wonderful!

On October 21, 2011 at 12:11pm Benjamin Anaya wrote:
It's a great article, appreciate it, Daniel.

For all of us, Mexican songwriters-editor-poets born in the sixties (and for instance, raised on the rock n'roll wisdom that impacted too much our society), Morrison trascend not only in the American sixties' spirit of freedom and revelation, but in all the globe, since he was a sincere writer with a fabulous voice for both: poetry and singin'.

That voice was imprinted in each song. And good lyrics could be considered as a particular genre, between poetry and the "lyricism" -romanticism, you call it- of the songs.

If the boundaries of Poety, Prose, or Rock-Lyricism are broken, we need to say thanks! to all those that contributed to that, including Morrison. At least we can enjoy those voices surrounding us...

On October 21, 2011 at 12:37pm John Bennett wrote:
It baffles me, people who are embarrassed by the passions of their
youth. And it irritates me, people who cluster under this mantle or
that and lay down what they feel are the criteria for "real" poetry.

But, an interesting read, even with the glaring absence of any
mention of Leonard Cohen, whose Book of Longing (published in
2006 when Cohen was 71 and still very much in possession of the
passions of his youth) places him on the top shelf of "real" poets.

On October 21, 2011 at 1:46pm Greg Hellman wrote:
The Fortress of Serious Poetry has never been had its main gate
breached by rogues. They must beam their signals over the
battlements under cover of night, where they drift down to the most
receptive audiences, the youth. Then the matter is settled over wax and
vinyl, paper and clay, wine and words--but never by prize committees,
who are always come late to battle in any case.

On October 21, 2011 at 2:39pm Diane DeGaetani wrote:
Thank you for the article. I had a recent discussion with a poet/writer friend of mine about the efficacy of Morrison as a poet. I have read Morrison's poems many times over the last ten or twelve years and I see something different every time.

If we can appreciate the non-linear approach he embodied and understand how a person speaks from the subconscious mind, we can keep Morrison in perspective. Personally, I mourn the fact that Morrison was so inundated by drug-addiction which led to some incoherence in his writing. He also did not have training in poetry writing itself but had the innate talent to succeed if he had been mentored. It is my contention that had he lived a longer and possibly healthier life, had he been able to study poetry itself in an in-depth manner, we would have had the opportunity to read his more mature and seasoned works.

On October 21, 2011 at 6:38pm Rebecca Forste wrote:
I have always thought Morrison's work was overrated. I can think of a fairly long list of rock musicians whom I esteem more highly as poets than Morrison.

On October 22, 2011 at 9:56am Andrew Duncan wrote:
The Doors took their name from the BOOK "Doors of Perception", whom they took as an artistic inspiration due to his use of psychedelic drugs, NOT any passage by William Blake. The author would do well to be better versed in the genre of the art of his subject before writing a fluff-piece such as this balderdash. Jim Morrison was about as much a 'poet' as John Lennon was a physicist. He was a hopeless alcoholic, constantly heavily under the influence of alcohol and various other assorted chemical compounds, and his 'poetry' is mostly obscure rambling tirades and laments inspired by his miserable relationships with his immediate family and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in close association with him. Jim Morrison personifies the classic case of one glorifying his ironic position of being famous and 'successful', yet in fact a pitiful loser.

On October 23, 2011 at 6:42am David Shiang wrote:
"Because the Doors reflect a conflict many of us have
with artists we think we have outgrown." I would like to
suggest that the themes of The Doors are timeless and
universal. If you think you have outgrown The Doors,
odds are high that you don't understand them. (This
doesn't mean you have to like them.) One reason The
Doors get airplay completely out of proportion to their
output and time in the public spotlight is that their
music captures listeners, even people who have been
listening to them for "a lifetime." See the new book by
Greil Marcus for some observations on radio playlists
(not just oldie stations) and how you can hear a dozen
or more songs by The Doors compared to the one or two of
most groups of their time.

On October 23, 2011 at 11:42am Cara Carlson wrote:
I loved the Doors as a teenager and now as a 56 year-
old. Reading his poetry is rather dry for me, but when
you set those lyrics to music the result is a (pleasing)
assault on your senses that absolutely mesmerizes.
There is still one song, Horse Latitudes, that I cannot
listen to. To hear those screaming horses drowning is
more than I can bear. I consider great poetry to touch
one as Horse Latitudes did for me. The rest of his work
is great and will always be great; for as long as I have
a pulse, he will continue to resonate with for me. The
combination of great writing, vocals, and a kickass
band, makes the songs become whole. When I visit his
grave in Paris, there are always tons of kids from all
over the world, that have come to pay respects to the
Lizard King. I usually have my Walkman and some of his
CD's, and pass it around for the young people to hear.
Whether he was a good poet or a bad poet is a mute
question. He still draws a good crowd. Interestingly
enough, when you look for his grave, you just follow the
kids and they will lead you. You don't have to have a
map of Pere-LaChaise cemetery. Chopin is right around
the corner - fitting that Jim should be next door.

On October 24, 2011 at 7:57am Jim Cherry wrote:
Hi Daniel!
I write The Doors Examiner. I read your essay and while it didn't turn out the way I thought it would I did reply in an article.

Thank you!
Jim Cherry

On October 24, 2011 at 1:31pm a.m. forret wrote:
What a wonderful article. My take away after reading: not, if he was a
poet, but to what caliber...

As one who doesn't call herself a poet just because I write poetry
within blogland, doesn't, however, mean that I would begrudge that
label from a fellow blogger whose bio lists, "poet". Poetry is such a
subjective art form that I tend to go within the vain that if a person
says, "I am a poet" then who am I to refute.

All said, I would posit this, should Jim Morrison's poetry be taught
within the confines of a formal classroom? I've actually ventured into
this discussion because I oft wonder if it wouldn't be a way to keep
poetry "alive; cool" when the poetry unit is offered up in high school.
Perhaps this type of exposure would be the bridge to a whole new
generation of poets. Then again, perhaps I'm starting to show my age
and kids today will not be interested in The Doors anyway. Just a

Cheers ~

On October 24, 2011 at 1:54pm Joel Lewis wrote:
Enjoyable article -- but how did you miss Wallace Fowlie's book?

The charm of The Doors was the high-blown lyrics against The Doors basic musical structure (the biggest model seems Booker T & The MGs). My favorite lyric is The Wasp (texas radio & the big beat) with the line "No eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn". Often, Morrisson's best lyrics seem to be on lesser known numbers like "Peace frog"

& to be fair, the first couple of Doors albums gives collective credit to band for song writing, so maybe we should think of the band as a more singular entity than to fetishize Morrisson.

On November 3, 2011 at 7:57pm Jeffrey Beebe wrote:
This is a great article. A mixture of personal taste and poetic justice, or do I mean something more academic? Not really. Jim of the Doors is, like Poe of the Raven, a mythical tombstone, alive and dry at the same time, in the puzzling we all still devout to the feeling of the words and the wonder that our minds still wrap around images of sound and memories of our own or of some common history. We reach back always to what is still alive in us: Robert Burns kicking the sod with a meter in his mind, or Dylan Thomas with his eyes skyward and just about to to fall to earth. I like to think that Jim heard Emily's voice saying: "the grass so little has to do, a gentle sphere of green . . ."

On November 4, 2011 at 5:19pm Tom McDonald wrote:
Great read!
But I wonder about the comment from Remnick. Remnick was not editor
of The New Yorker until 1998. Why did he write to Magistrale then, if the
article was published in 1992. Something doesn't add up here, seem to
BTW: Jim Morrison, a good poet? Come on.

On November 9, 2011 at 2:57pm brian wrote:
Interesting essay that I can relate to since Morrison and The Doors were my introduction into poetry. After not listening to the Doors in a long time, I recently went through all their records and thought there were some moments of brilliance (mostly in the music, but also in Morrison's voice), but that Morrison ruined a lot of the songs with ridiculous and over-the-top lyrics. Kind of like Morrisey did for The Smiths.

And I also noticed the same thing that commenter Tom McDonald did: Remnick didn't even start as a staff writer until September of 1992, so it's strange that he would have written the rejection letter to Magistrale. And "Moonlight Drive" dispels the notion of misogyny? "Gonna get real close
Get real tight
Baby gonna drown tonight
Goin' down, down, down"
Not so sure about that either.

On November 19, 2011 at 10:28am Remy C. Orffeo wrote:
Perhaps Daniel Nester leads us in the wrong direction when asking is Jim Morrison a "real poet". Morrison's importance might be that when young people read his poetry they may be encouraged to move on to other, more substanive poets.

Few people in the late 1960's considered Rod McKuen a "real poet" or even a good songwriter. But his saccharine romanticism may have encouraged many teenage girls to at least try real poetry.

Corinthians reminds us that, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Maturity may lead us to put away Morrison and embrace the complexity of real poetry.

On January 19, 2012 at 10:11am R.M. Engelhardt wrote:

Great article, reminiscence on Morrison. And yes, he
should be taken seriously as a poet and not merely as a rock music
idol or icon. The reason for this is in his work, his poetry that stands
on its own. Not based upon just his lyrics. It seems that every
generation must ask its questions. Whether it is Whitman in his own
time being criticized by others as to the formality of his work or if he
even was a poet, or now in our own times the question of whether
slam poetry is actually any form of poetry at all. Years ago, I actually
had a correspondence with Wallace Fowlie after I had read his book on
Jim Morrison where he compares Jim's work to that of Blake &
Rimbaud and the powerful influence which they had upon him. You
should check it out as well.

On March 5, 2012 at 6:30pm claire wrote:
Dear Daniel,

Quite strange to see how the music of the words can touch you, even
when you're not able to precisely translate all of them. How these words
find by themselves rhythm and sound in your mind, sometimes at the
first reading, sometimes because you spend time with them. One day,
you sing them unconsciously, then you realize they are printed in your
head, attached to emotions, uncommon perceptions of common things.
This is what happens to me when I read Jim Morrison's poetry, as when I
read Verlaine or Emily Bronte. The words sing and I follow them in their
materialization. No matter if it is contemporary, romantic or ancient
poetry, if you can hear music inside, words can find their own meaning.
Because you memorize them, time helps you to understand what they
may mean...or not. That's what I am looking for when I read poetry, and
I found it in Jim Morrison's.
For that reason, I came by luck to your article, and am now trying to
communicate in a language which is not mine with people whose
expression and knowledge made a great impression on me.
This leads me to the reasons of my researches and curiosity, which may
seem - and probably be - naive. I am writing music on some poems of
Jim Morrison, and am wondering who I should ask to be permitted to
adapt these texts. All kinds of responses will be welcome!
Thank you again for your essay and its reflection.

Yours sincerely,


On May 10, 2012 at 4:00am Pamela wrote:
To begin; Morrison experienced desolation from a beach rooftop.
Climbed and claimed evidently
nothing but a literary bashing in latter years. He attempted
( usually an altered state ) to reach out with his soul or ( souls
of "Indians") to whoever would listen. Cheap shots continue.
He did not write "Touch Me" or "Light my Fire". The camera
chased him; he obliged. Spirits and sound; dead he was found.
He ultimately was written off, yet his gravesite is a leading tourist attraction in Paris. Pity, such a brilliance of earthly mortal bondage
and was swallowed up by the masses of condescending critics
who have nothing better to do.

On May 22, 2012 at 8:29am Diana Marie Delgado wrote:
Great article. Conversational. Well written. I was, however, peeved a
tad by the know-its that post to "correct" rather than discuss what was
actually posited. I mean, the article has already been written, will more
information help? Also, an article can't cover EVERYTHING about a
particular topic. That said, what I enjoyed most about the article was
that you ask that his work, however it might be categorized, be
respected for its ability to provide a genuine artistic experience for
readers and listeners who often do not "legitimately" exist in the
poetry or art worlds due to their tastes.

On May 26, 2012 at 3:41am Stephen Loomes wrote:
Hello there,
No-one doubts Bob Dylan is a genius; he only ever envied one other poet, Jim Morrison. Bob is always oblique, but in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, he acerbically refers to Jim as a "donysian idiot". It says a lot. Morrison was the greatest poet of the twentieth century. It will take many years for people to dissect and understand what he was talking about; like Shakespeare's contemporaries, no-one realised how good he was; however time will reveal all; this guy stood above all others with his words, so much so that it freaked Bob Dylan out; that is an amazing testament, rather like Ben Jonson's initial criticism of Shakespeare (out of jealousy) to be apologetically recanted with his eulogy to the "Swan of Avon" being an artist, not just "of an age, but for all time." So it is with James Douglas Morrison. Take the time and read his poetry, it is eternal, and will last longer "than the gilded monuments of time". He has a message for all eternity.

On December 16, 2012 at 4:42pm William Cook wrote:
A lot of people confuse Morrison's lyrics with his poetry. If read closely the verse is quite different from the more simplified lyrical phrasing of the songs. Morrison's own verse libre style, reflects canonical influence and understanding, similar to other recognized poets of his day. If symbolism and surreal allusion is non-nonsensical to the poetry purists who dismiss Morrison's work as pretentious etc, then the origins of modern/contemporary poetry are on shaky ground as whole poetical movements (symbolist, beat, etc) would be as redundant as these ignorant viewpoints. More here:

On July 2, 2014 at 4:33pm Ed wrote:
Over 40 years on and your asking if he is a real poet?
If he wasn't, would we be having this conversation?

On January 28, 2015 at 9:59pm Marv wrote:
It pains me to read juvenile put downs about
Morrison...Bozo Dionysus? How clever you are. Jim Morrison
turned me onto reading classical lit. I love his spoken
poetry. Maybe the smug academics despise him but I think of
him as the People's Poet.

On February 19, 2015 at 10:03pm dead poet artist wrote:
who would represent you as your final step ? Jim said he
is a poet and so it is !Blah Blah in the wind as the
Birds wave goodbye; inevitable dirt that covers must once
be; to blow in the warm wind cold.

On February 22, 2015 at 3:43pm William Averill wrote:
For what it's worth, I find the idea that people can be so dismissive of the human reaction to Morrison's work -- especially the lyrics of Doors songs -- and the eternal want of mystery and confronting the unknown by young people or whatever age a put-off. Your guys Magistrale referring to having to be "trained" to read poetry and Pattison referring to "prestige" being in jeopardy, along with the idea that only "academia" makes a poet legitimate is all the stuff of mutual admiration society protocol. The man's work moved many people -- certainly more than the average "legitimate" poet -- I think everybody needs to grow-up.

On April 8, 2015 at 9:12pm Matthew wrote:
What William Averill said.. I say screw your Facebook. Screw what
anyone thinks. Read the words, hear them, listen to the music, take it
for what you wish. It's 2015, why are we still discussing the legitimacy
of his poetry? I didn't even finish the article for as a fan and admirer of
the music, the man and his words, I quickly lost interest. Like any of
us could have even rolled with Jim. Poetry is for anyone so get off
your high horse.

On August 11, 2015 at 11:22am Joanne Glasspoole wrote:
Daniel, I really enjoyed your essay. I'm so glad you didn't make fun of Jim Morrison's poetry. I hope you don't mind, but I reblogged your article on my website Jim Morrison Project. I am in the process of a redesign, so the site is currently under construction, but I plan to launch on Jim Morrison's birthday, Dec. 8, 2015. If there is a problem with the reprint, please let me know, and I'll take it down immediately. Your article has been properly cited, and I have included a link to this page. Thank you for your consideration.

On November 15, 2015 at 5:23pm Kathryn Barrett DeLongchamp wrote:
Morrison did not write "Light My Fire" or "Touch Me."
These two songs were written by Robby Krieger, Doors
guitar player. Jim did contribute to both songs; he added
the verse about a "funeral pyre" in the former and changed
"hit me" to "touch me" in the latter.

On January 4, 2016 at 10:18pm Rory wrote:
If you don't get this guy, if it doesn't reach
you, the poetry and the music, you're
beyond repair.

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 Daniel  Nester


Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina Anthology (2013). His writing has appeared in the Morning News, the New York TimesBest American . . .

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