Scream of the Butterfly

An Excerpt from Wild Child: Jim Morrison's Poetic Journeys

by Tony Magistrale

Morrison's life was never orchestrated in half measures: he was capable of producing startlingly brilliant poetic images one moment only to lapse into complete obscurity the next. his talents were, like his personality, protean and spontaneous - but also undisciplined ... these limitations notwithstanding, Morrison's most provocative lyrics and poems manage to defy quick dismissal.

Although not always successful in their adaptations, he possessed wide-ranging poetic skills: producing ballads, lyric love songs, surreal juxtapositions of striking images, philosophical verse, aggressive political commentary and traditional rhythm and blues. There is also a subtlety to Morrison's best lyrical verse that undercuts our easy identification with his public persona as obnoxious rock star and decadent hedonist.

Above all poetic considerations, however, Morrison was interested in creating a new mythology appropriate to an age no longer heroic and out of touch with the natural world. "Our society places a supreme value on control, on hiding what you feel," Morrison stated in 1969. "It mocks primitive culture and prides itself on the suppression of natural instincts and impulses." Much has already been written regarding Morrison's Dionysian inclinations, his dark fascination with chaos and apocalypse. While these tendencies must never be undervalued in Morrison's psyche, the search for a new order, for some system of personal faith, more pagan than it ever was Christian, is also present in his writing: "Let's reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages. Celebrate symbols from deep elder forests" ... various examinations of death are often associated with these themes; it remains a mysterious perimeter in Morrison's poems and songs, but never a final one ... Death is merely a door separating states of being, ultimately leading to something else, to another form of creation.

Morrison used poetry (and drugs) to explore the shape his new life would take; he yearned to break the wall that separated our empirical world from the transformative energies of others. This explains the many journeys which occur throughout his lyrics and poems. As in the writings of Carlos Casteneda, Morrison's voyages are always less geographical than psychological; his Spanish caravans,* Crystal ships, moonlight drives and recollected ghosts of "Indians scattered on dawn's highway bleeding" are analogs for the soul's journey inward - to landscapes of dream and imagination.

One of Morrison's most evocative lyrical poems, Moonlight Drive, the first song recorded by the Doors, serves as a case in point. On the surface, the poem appears to be a simple invitation to share a romantic moonlight rendezvous. But a more careful reading enlarges its scope to suggest implications beyond the immediate sexual and sensory realm. In the initial stanza, the poet encourages his lover to swim with him "to the moon/let's climb through the tide" in an effort to "penetrate" a visionary world "That the city sleeps to hide." As he argues in many of his other poems, the "sleeping city" is a general metaphor for passive acceptance of the status quo, an indictment of the masses who lack both the interest and inclination to explore "the waiting worlds/that lap against our side."

No mere sentimental love song, the romantic and sexual connotations inherent in the call to "park beside the ocean/on our moonlight drive," while never abandoned, are at least complicated by the invitation to swim through the layers of ocean, which symbolizes the poet's quest for visionary experience. "Let's swim out tonight love/it's our turn to try." As the poem unfolds, its meaning expands to embrace other themes as well: intellectual and spiritual development; the superiority of the unknown over the known; the indulgence of imagination as the key to growth; and the significance of risk taking over passive resignation. Only through action conceived in faith and spirited by the imagination can truth be apprehended and the soul made to expand. These ideas are found throughout Morrison's poetic canon, and they revolved around the poet's call for self-transcendence. In "Penetrating the evening," Morrison and his anonymous lover share Whitman's understanding that sex and death are inextricably related to the rhythm of the sea - as the final lines of Moonlight Drive suggest: "Baby, gonna drown tonight...'"

Thus, what began as a sweet incantation to innocent romance, concludes with the intimation that while the symbolic truths of the ocean - and life itself - may be shrouded in mystery, they are still worth pursuing. Indeed, the poem further underscores the ultimate quest toward spiritual transcendence in Morrison's subtle undercutting of sexual oneness, cautioning his intended audience that the visionary journey is occasioned by the individual alone; the experience cannot be mediated even by a supportive lover: "You reach your hand to hold me/but I can't be your guide."

Morrison's lyric verse centers primarily on transformation of spirit, his passionate acceptance of the superiority of new truths to the old. In a 1967 interview, he outlined this process in mythic terms reminiscent of Joseph Campbell: "Our work, our performing, is a striving for metamorphosis. It's like a a purification ritual in the alchemical sense. First you have to have the period of disorder, chaos, returning to a primeval disaster region. Out of that you purify the elements and find a new seed of life, which transforms all life and all matter and the personality until finally, hopefully, you emerge and marry all those dualisms and opposites. Then you're not talking about evil and good anymore but something unified and pure."

(This is an excerpt from Wild Child: Jim Morrison's Poetic Journeys by Tony Magistrale.)

* The lyrics for Spanish Caravan were written by Robbie Krieger.

Copyright 2004 by Tony Magistrale/

The life and times of Jim Morrison of the Doors, explored through original articles, exclusive interviews, special features, his creative influences and legacy, and other resources.
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