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Six Jim Morrison poems that affirmed his literary genius

Revolutionary though The Doors' music was, it often overshadowed the fact that Jim Morrison wanted to be remembered first and foremost as a poetic prophet. In celebration of National Poetry Day and in honour of The Lizard King's lyrical legacy, we consider his most eloquent offerings of poetry. They're bound to alter your perceptions of reality...

On a trip to Paris earlier this year, I visited Père Lachaise. It’s the largest cemetery in the city, within which some of the most respected artistic figures rest. From Oscar Wilde to Chopin, Honoré de Balzac to Molière, it’s a haven for those whose work achieved global recognition and, to this day, remains unforgotten. The necropolis might extend 44 hectares and serve as home to more than 70,000 burial plots, but there’s one grave in particular that's constantly frequented with visitors. It belongs to James Douglas Morrison, AKA Jim, lead vocalist of American rock band The Doors.

When you hear the name Jim Morrison, you instantly think of the rock star sex symbol: a man with a wild mane of curls, styling skin-tight leather trousers and generously unbuttoned white shirts, clutching a mic stand and erratically singing about women, society and melancholia. It’s understandable to associate him first and foremost with music; after all, he is, literally, one of the voices of Sixties counterculture. Topping off blues and psychedelic arrangements with radical commentary, the band's 100 million album sales serve as an accurate reflection of their genius recordings.

Rock star iconicity aside, though, Morrison wanted first and foremost to be remembered for the written word. His compositions weren’t just plucked out of that sweltering LA air; he was a voracious reader from a young age, favouring morality prose by the likes of Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Cocteau and William Blake. He actually plucked The Doors’ name from a William Blake text: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Morrison wanted to invite people into a verbal revolution and it worked – but through his secondary source of music, rather than his primary source of poetry.

Jim Morrison’s gift for rich imagery was, to the masses, overshadowed by his controversial lifestyle involving illicit drugs

During his lifetime, Morrison constantly pushed for recognition as a poet-prophet. You need only look at the lyrics of songs such as “Unknown Soldier”, “The End” and “Riders On The Storm” for proof of his enlightened perceptions. Lyrics from “Riders” actually complete the stanzas of “The Hitchhiker” – one of Morrison’s most-read poems, which addresses the fragility of human life. In 1969, he self-published two separate volumes of his poetry, before moving to Paris in 1971 to escape his celebrity and focus on his literary excursions. He strolled around the city alone, wrote in Café De Flore and Les Deux Magots and generally just eased into a more idyllic French lifestyle.

But Morrison’s gift for rich imagery was, to the masses, overshadowed by his controversial lifestyle involving illicit drugs. Which is ironic, considering he was driven to them, in part, as a result of the intense celebrity spotlight his bohemian mind couldn’t handle. Morrison’s life is a tragic cautionary tale and it produced a legacy of both melodies and verse. His spoken poetry recordings were layered over The Doors’ 1978 LP, An American Prayer, and a book of his lost poetic writings, titled Wilderness, became an instant New York Times bestseller in 1988.

I caught sight of a Greek inscription when observing Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise: Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού. Roughly translated, it means “True to his own spirit”. Given that this Florida-born, California-made artist now lies in France among some of his greatest literary influences, it's safe to say that’s a faithful slogan to define him by. So in celebration of National Poetry Day, GQ has rounded up Morrison’s finest poems and their leading lines. Sure, we all love a bit of Baudelaire, but Morrison was a mystical prophet and literary hero whose work deserves to be commended. Over to his language of philosophy...

© Michael Ochs Archives

1. ‘Awake’

The first thing to know about Morrison’s poetry: he loved surrealism. Basically bathed his lines in it. Regular rhyming? That wasn't really a thing for him either. His ambiguity sometimes makes his poems quite the task to decipher, but, hey, isn't that the nature of the written word? Take "Awake", for example. Reading this is like falling into a Cézanne painting: you get lost in its layered strokes, but it’s easy to accept his invitation to open up to your desires. Waking up when you fall asleep and embracing a hot dream? Sounds easy – understood, Jim.

Leading lines: “We laugh like soft mad children / Smug in the woolly cotton brains of infancy / The music and voices are all around us.”

© Michael Ochs Archives

2. ‘Power’

The main reason people loved (and still love) Jim Morrison: he openly strove for empowerment, using his voice to promote the power of possibility and the power of the individual. Case in point: "Power". Once you read it, you feel like you can go ahead with anything. Morrison thinks he can make the earth stop, so if you want to try to obtain your own lifelong dream, read this poem and revive that urge to go for it. The guarantee of a golden outcome isn't really the point; it's about realising the merit that comes with your simple act of striving.

Leading lines: “I can make myself invisible or small / I can become gigantic and reach the farthest things / I can change the course of nature / I can place myself anywhere in space or time.”

© Tom Copi

3. ‘If Only I’

Morrison's mind was full of longing; he would often concoct up dreamscapes for stanzas and this poem is a perfect encapsulation of that. It's simple enough: he lists the things he wishes he could feel again, like the sounds of sparrows and the innocence of childhood, a longing for the primary stages of life. What does that say, then? That he's fed up with growing up? That certainly fits Jim's lyrical content. But that was entirely the reason for his respected status through the Sixties; he approached the stages of life in a radically visionary manner. This one doesn't need music behind it – the lines take hold of you enough.

Leading lines: “If only I could feel me pulling back again and feel embraced by reality again / I would die / Gladly die.”

© Michael Ochs Archives

4. ‘The Hitchhiker’

You're bound to know this one in its musical format. Search "The Doors" on Spotify and you'll find that their number-one track is "Riders On The Storm". It sits on the last album featuring Morrison, "LA Woman", and its status as the band's most compelling hit is well earned. One reason above all: the lyrics. Fun fact for you: the original title was "The Hitchhiker" – a brilliant conversational poem that seems to question the essence of how most people perceive life. Feel like shaking hands with your primal instincts, poetically speaking? This is a good place to start.

Leading lines: “Riders on the storm / Into this world we're born / Into this world we're thrown / Like a dog without a bone / An actor out on loan.”

© Michael Ochs Archives

5. ‘The Opening Of The Trunk’

The “trunk” in this title is a lot heavier than you think. Morrison lifts the lid on life here and its contents spill out all over the floor. The mind opens, the soul starts to wander in search of freedom, it brands America with a dystopian stamp, it ascends upon a stage in front of society, claims that it's an unordinary human and then suggests that it can guide a girl with dreams towards the Labyrinth. Morrison may have written this graphic piece in a (very) metaphorical sense but, by the end, we're naturally picturing him sat on a throne in the middle of a maze. Will anyone ever get to the centre? He certainly hasn't made it an easy quest, but we're up for embarking on it.

Leading lines: “Let's re-create the world / The palace of conception is burning / Look. See it burn / Bask in the warm hot coals.”

© Yale Joel

6. ‘Stoned Immaculate’

Back to a more realistic setting for this last pick. Imagine Whisky A Go Go, Hollywood's hippest nightclub in the Sixties where bands such as The Doors would play and a place where Morrison would party to an intense extent. If he were to do a poetry reading rather than a musical rendition in this place, it's likely he'd lead with "Stoned Immaculate". It starts with "I'll tell you this..." and then goes on to reject the generally accepted notions of afterlife in Western thought. He refers to death as an "eternal reward", but then goes on to say that it won't grant forgiveness unless one embraces uncertain dawns. It's the sort of poetry that makes you really live without fear. It's not easy, but you'll have Morrison turning in his grave otherwise.

Leading lines: “Soft driven, slow and mad / Like some new language / Reaching your head with the cold, sudden fury of a divine messenger / Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of God / Wandering, wandering in hopeless night.”

© Michael Ochs Archives

Jim Morrison’s original published volume of poetry, The Lords And The New Creatures: Poems, is out now. £10.30. At wordery.com

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