In his book Dast-e-tah-e-sang Ahmad Faiz of India writes:

"I don't know the reason why I wrote poetry but it could be the environment of my childhood in which much was talked about poetry and there was inducement by friends and heart-related affairs. I am talking about the first part of Naqsh-e-Faryadi which carries my writings of the period 1924-25 to 1928-29. Those were my student days. These verses are the outcome of the intellectual and emotional experience gained by every young man of that age. But now when I look back I find that it was not a single period rather there were two periods with different subjective and objective experiences. The period between 1920 and 1930 was the period of a strange carelessness, contentment and emotional confusion. Besides serious discussion about important national and political movements in our poetry and prose most of us would write as if indulging in frivolities."

In this excerpt, Faiz is referring to the period in which Hasrat Mohani, Josh, Hafeez Jullundhari and Akhtar Sheerani were the great names in the realm of Urdu poetry. In the first part of Naqsh-e-Faryadi one can observe their influence. Some ghazals and poems such as Intiha-e-kaar, Akhiri Khat, Intezaar, Khuda wo waqt na laye, Mere Nadeem etc. can be cited as examples. However, according to Faiz, that period did not last long because the country came under the cloud of economic depression. These changed circumstances cast a gloom on his poetry which is evident from the last few poems of the first part of Naqash-e-Faryadi.

In 1934, Faiz completed his studies and in 1935 joined M.A.O. College Amritsar as a lecturer. It is here that Faiz met Sahibzada Mahmuduz Zafar and his enlightened wife Dr. Rashid Jahan. Both husband and wife were among the pioneers of a progressive writers movement in India. The young Indian writers studying in London in the mid-thirties were enormously inspired by the Communist Revolution in Russia, and this led to the birth of this literary movement. The Association was formally founded in Lucknow in 1936 in a meeting of the writers and intellectuals in which Syed Sajjad Zaheer -- one of the members of the London group along with Sahibzada Mahmuduz Zafar and Dr. Rashid Jahan -- were present.

The main objective of the PWA was to create social awareness among the common man through literature so as to help establish a progressive social order in the country. Faiz writes that the singular important lesson from participation in the movement was that "it is not possible rather it is aimless to detach oneself from his environment. The writer should therefore highlight the experience of the life of a common man in its true reality." Faiz became active in this movement and the second part of Naqshe Faryadi depicts the change in his thinking, such as in the poems "Mujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mahboob na mang", "Soch", "Chand roz aur meri jan", "Kutte", "Bol keh lab azaad haen tere", "Mauzu-e-sukhan" and "Shahrah". Thus begins the period of Faiz's poetry with a purpose.

Naqash-e-Faryadai was published in 1941 and eleven years later Dast-e-Saba appeared. In 1952, Faiz was imprisoned in Hyderabad Jail along with other prisoners accused for conspiring to overthrow the government of Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan. The group accused of conspiracy was led by Major General Akbar Khan and some other senior army officers but among the outsiders involved were Faiz and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, the secretary general of Communist Party of Pakistan. The idea behind having these two gentlemen in the group was to facilitate the recognition of the new government by Soviet Russia. The period between Naqsh-e-Faryadai and Dast-e-Saba (1940-1952) was of great political turmoil in India. Not only the world saw the emergence of the phenomenon called Fascism but a world war was fought and won by the Allied forces against this menace. Since Soviet Russia was allied with America and England in World War II, the leftist elements throughout the world joined the Allied efforts against Fascist forces. In order to play his role in this direction, Faiz served the British army from June 1942 to December 1946.

During this period, the Indian independence movement also entered a crucial stage. The Muslims of the subcontinent demanded a separate nation, Pakistan, which became a reality in 1947. After leaving the army, Faiz took over as the Chief Editor of the Pakistan Times. Besides the poems Faiz wrote in incarceration, Dast-e-Saba also carries some poems of the period 1940 to 1951.

Although all the Faiz poems written in prison depict the poet's extreme sensibility characterized by prison environment, there are four thematic poems written on different subjects that deserve special mention. In the poem "Ai dil-e-betaab thehr", Faiz used the word teeragi (darkness) for the advent of Fascism and expressed his usual optimism: Subh hone ko hae ai dil-e- betaab thehr (Dawn is round the corner. Be patient my heart).

Another poem, "Ek Siyasi Leader ke Naam" ("To A Politician") was addressed to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's stand on world war surprised all those who considered Hitler and Mussolini's Fascism as a great menace for the world. Gandhi proposed that "Allies should invite Hitler and Mussolini to take what they want of the countries Allies called their possession." Advocating his philosophy of pacifism, Gandhi wrote to the British: "Let them take possession of your beautiful island with its many beautiful buildings. You will give all this but neither your minds nor you souls."

Faiz wrote:
"Tujh ko manzoor nahin ghalba-e-zulmat lekin
Tujh ko manzoor hae yeh hath qalam ho jaen
Aur mashriq ki kamingah mein dharakta hua din
Raat ki ahni mayyat ke tale dab jae"
(You don't like that the darkness conquers everything
But you want that these hands are chopped off
And the Day that pulsates in the hideout of East
Gets buried under the steely corpse of night.)

A third poem, 'Subh-e-Azaadi', was written on India's day of independence. Faiz was moved by the events that preceded and followed the partition of India, in which millions perished or were made to leave their homes in destitution. All this suffering brought more misery to the common man. Faiz declared it "a blotted light and night-bitten morn." Later events proved the correctness of the poet's vision.

A fourth poem is addressed to the Iranian students who fell victims to the brute show of force by the Iranian monarch after the unsuccessful bid of Dr Mossadegh to topple him. It is a moving poem full of pathos:

"Yeh kaun jawan haen arz-e-ajam
Yeh lak lut
Jin ke jismon ka kundan
Yun khak mein reza reza hae
(Who are these young men, O the land of Ajam
These large-hearted
The jewel of whose bodies
Is scattered on dust in pieces)"

The subsequent book, Zindan Nama (The Letter from Prison) was also the outcome of the same incarceration (1951-1954) and contained some of his famous poems on the subject of incarceration. It also carried a poem entitled "Ham jo tareek rahon mein mare gaye" ("We who were killed in dark pathways"). The poet here refers to the wave of McCarthyism in America that targeted the leftists and fellow travelers. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the leftist husband-and-wife team who were executed in America on made-up charges of espionage. The poem inspired by the letters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg circulated throughout the world is full of intense patriotic feelings in a universal tone:

"Tere honton ke phoolon ki chahat mein ham
Dar ki khushk tehni pe dare gaye)
Terehathon ki shamaon ki hasrat mein ham
Neem tareek rahon mein mare gaye
(In love of the roses of your lips
We offered ourselves to the dry twig of gallows
Longing for the radiance of your glowing hands
We let ourselves be slain in half-lit pathways)""

Faiz's next book Dast-e-tahe Sang (Hand Under a Stone) was published in the early sixties. Besides his many other famous poems written during incarceration or otherwise it also carries the thematic poem "Aaj bazaar mein pa ba jaulan chalo" ("Let us walk with fetters in the street"). It was written in 1959 when Faiz was once again imprisoned under Ayub's martial law. He was taken to the Lahore Fort's torture cell passing through the streets of Lahore in a horse driven cart with his fetters on. Faiz's book Sar-e-wadi-e-Sina (In the valley of Sinai) was the outcome of his poems written between 1965 and 1971. The collection also includes two thematic poems, "Lahu ka Suragh" and "Zindan zindan shor-e-anal Haq" written on the occasion of the firing on the Karachi people protesting against the rigged election of Ayub Khan as president defeating Miss Jinnah, the sister of the founder of the country:

"Na mudai na shahadt hisab pak hua
Yeh khoon-e-khak nashinan tha rizq-e-khak hua
(Neither plaintiff nor witness but the decision was made
It was the blood of the wretched of the earth so it mingled with the earth)

Faiz wrote two poems about the September '65 war. One is called "Black Out" and the other is the dirge of a soldier killed in battle which begins with the verse "Utho ab mati se utho/Utho mere lal". The title poem "Sare-Wadi-e-Sina" is written on the occasion of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. On the twentieth anniversary of the inception of Pakistan in 1967, he wrote his masterpiece poem, "Dua" ("Prayer"), a poem that jolts the sensibility of every reader. It is full of wishes that every common man of Pakistan aspires for.

Sham-e-Shehr Yaran is the next book. It carries various poems written during journeys abroad, some Punjabi poems and other poems written on request. The only poem on an event is "Dhaka se wapsi par" ("On Return from Dhaka"). Written in 1974, it begins with the verses:

"Ham keh thehre ajnabi itni mudaraton ke baad
Phir banenge aashna kitni mulaqaton ke baad
Kab nazar mein ayegi bedagh sabze ki bahar
Khoon ke dhabbe dhulein ge kitni barsaaton ke baad
(We who became strangers after so much expression of affection
After how many meetings shall become friends again
When shall we see the beauty of blotless verdure?
How many monsoons will wash out the patches of blood from it?)"

His last two short books "Mere Dil Mere Musafair" (1978-1980) and "Ghubare Ayyam" (1981-1984) contain poems written in exile. After Ziaulhaq imposed martial law in the country Faiz spent most of his time in Beirut and abroad. In Beirut he edited Afro-Asian Writers Journal Lotus an assignment given to him by his friend Yasser Arafat. These two books carry most of his writings relating to civil war in Beirut and Palestinian cause. Besides the titled poem "Dil-e-Man Musafir-e-Man" that describes the emotions of a person in exile there are some thematic poems related to the Pakistan's political scenario resulting from Ziaulhaq's tyrannical dispensation. "Teen Awazain",
"Yeh Matam-e-waqt ki gharri hae" and "Ham to majboor-e-wafa haen" represent the current situation. The last one is written on the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto:

Tujh ko kitnon ka lahu chahie ai arz-e-watan
Jo tere aarz-e-be rang ko gulnaar karein
(The blood of how many people you require my country
To impart flowerlike tinge to your colorless face)

In a poem in Ghubar-e-Ayyam entitled "Idhar na dekho", Faiz castigated those writers and intellectuals who were sold to the regime and compared them with those who "decorating their bodies with the cross of truth left the world and are now prophets among the people."
view /FaizAhmadFaiz
Wednesday, December 17, 2003 10:40 am
Afzal Mirza

An introduction to some of the major poetic forms:


A villanelle is a 19-line poem, made up of five tercets and a concluding quatrain. Lines may be of any length, but are often written in iambic pentameter and follow an ABA rhyme scheme. The villanelle also employs line repetition. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line in the second and fourth stanzas, and as the penultimate line in the final quatrain. The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line in the third and fifth stanzas, and as the last line in the final quatrain.

The structure and rhyme scheme of the villanelle is as follows:







An example of a villanelle:

Do not go gentle into that good night, by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night, (A1)
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; (B)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, (A)
Because their words had forked no lightning they (B)
Do not go gentle into that good night. (A1)

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright (A)
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, (B)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, (A)
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, (B)
Do not go gentle into that good night. (A1)

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight (A)
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, (B)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)

And you, my father, there on the sad height, (A)
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. (B)
Do not go gentle into that good night. (A1)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (A2)

Elizabethan (Shakespearian) Sonnet

The Elizabethan sonnet consists of 14 lines, written in iambic pentameter. It has four quatrains and a closing couplet. The structure and rhyme scheme are as follows:





An example of an Elizabethan sonnet:

Sonnet 147, by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still (A)
For that which longer nurseth the disease, (B)
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, (A)
The uncertain sickly appetite to please. (B)
My reason, the physician to my love, (C)
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept, (D)
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve (C)
Desire is death, which physic did except. (D)
Past cure I am, now reason is past care, (E)
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest; (F)
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are, (E)
At random from the truth vainly express'd; (F)
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright, (G)
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night. (G)

Petrarchan Sonnet

The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet is named for the Italian poet Petrarch. The Petrarchan sonnet also consists of 14 lines, but has a much different structure than the Elizabethan sonnet. It begins with an octave (8 lines) and closes with a sestet (6 lines). Its structure and rhyme scheme are as follows:



An example of a Petrarchan sonnet:

On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-three, by John Milton

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, (A)
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year! (B)
My hasting days fly on with full career, (B)
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th. (A)
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, (A)
That I to manhood am arrived so near, (B)
And inward ripeness doth much less appear, (B)
That some more timely-happy spirits indu'th. (A)
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, (C)
It shall be still in strictest measure even (D)
To that same lot, however mean or high, (E)
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven. (D)
All is, if I have grace to use it so, (C)
As ever in my great Task-master's eye. (E)

Types of Meter

Each type of meter is made up of two parts: the foot and the measurement. The foot is the basic building block of metered verse, and there are five types:

1. Iamb - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (u /)
Example: di - vine.
2. Trochee - a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. (/ u)
Example: sis - ter.
3. Dactyl - a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. (/ u u)
Example: Can - a - da.
4. Anapest - two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. (u u /)
Example: in - ter - cede.
5. Spondee - two stressed syllables in a row. (/ /)
Example: heart - break.

These feet, put together into lines of poetry, make up the units of measurement. Four trochaic feet would be trochaic tetrameter. Six dactylic feet would be dactylic hexameter. Five iambic feet would be iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter is most commonly used in metrical poetry because it mimics the natural rise and fall of everyday speech, and blank verse is a poem written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" (from Shakespeare's Sonnet 130) is an example of iambic pentameter.
view /PoeticForms
Friday, September 26, 2003 12:15 am
Jamelah Earle
T.S. Eliot was born in 1888 and by the age of 29 he had published his first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) amidst the seemingly unending carnage of western civilization's First World War (1914-1918). Along with this, his life during the early 1920s was under personal strain due to marriage difficulties with his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and Eliot, now near nervous-breakdown, spent two months in a Swiss Sanitorium. It was during this traumatic time that Eliot produced the fragmented and disturbing work known as "The Waste Land" (1921-22). He was 34, and though Eliot's personal life is not necessarily the primary source of energy for his creative works, such a supplementary, personalized energy, on top of a cultural one, may explain the potency of his seemingly disparate imagism, juxtapositions and psychologically turbulent atmosphere.

According to Eliot, rather than losing an authentic interpretation, we actually gain it through distance. We may then apply such a temporal relativism to "The Waste Land" itself, saying that in our perception of Eliot's poem, we have a temporal advantage over the poet, as his time is historical to us today. Remaining on the relationship of past and present, now in Eliot's point in time (1921-22), we may elucidate his ordering device for relating disparate subjective modern experiences to a more coherent (albeit ugly) past. In this way, subjective and objective perceptions--past and present information, different classes, places, and times--act as mutual supports, a piling up of equivalent and contrasting metaphors and allegories of the modernist poet's predicament. However, such a future-oriented approach breaks down into ambiguity and multiple interpretations. In the first place, the interpretations differ in whether the critic wishes to expand upon "The Waste Land", if he or she decides to take a personal responsibility for post-modernity's own impotence and sterility, or decides, more academically, simply to decipher a now-historical modernity alone.

Finally, in introducing "The Waste Land", we must comment upon its structure, and its themes. The structure has been likened to a constellation of stars, spatial as opposed to linear, but this can be misleading, not to mention two-dimensional. Despite what some say, interpreting "The Waste Land" does leave a sense of at least partial linear movement. As to the themes of "The Waste Land", there is a lack of thematic clarity, but this, in my view, is Eliot's intention, and at least leaves room for redemption, if it doesn't guarantee it. The lack of clarity may be due to the said ambiguous linear movement and also to the absence of an immediate narrative in the poem's main body, though some clarity may be found in the poem's references to external texts.

The Epigraph and Dedication

When the caged Sibyl is asked her desire, she replies "I want to die," which evokes not just a world-weariness and absence of redeeming joy, but also invokes the eastern radical anti-materialistic philosophy of nirvana, in which one achieves a complete freedom. The self, we discover, is in fact imprisoned by its own very existence, and can become free only through its willed destruction. We come to see that it was the Sibyl's desire for a worldly immortality (an immortal self) which condemned her to eternal decay.

The dedication to Ezra Pound then harks back to the Troubadour poets of twelfth-century Provence, who "represent the origins of great European traditions of high poetic art which go hand in hand with a refined but invigorated sexuality." This allusion to refinement will appear again in "What the Thunder Said", and this necessity for willed self-control (and a controlled desire) is one major element needed for redemption.

The Burial of the Dead

In the beginning of "The Burial of the Dead" we hear a "voice of propriety" that wishes to halt all new movement, change, or development. This sterile propriety wishes to remain in the darkness, the twilight consciousness of winter, to avoid the suffering and oncoming rending pains of approaching new birth. Stylistically speaking, this desire is unsuccessful as the poem quickly continues on, morphing into another voice, which alludes to a meeting with Countess Marie Larisch. Death by drowning is evoked (l. 8), which symbolizes the ancient narratives of sacrificial death, always necessary before renewal. However, in the present tense of metonymic details, and real time happenings, such renewal, though alluded to, seems entirely absent: "I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter." (l. 18)

The next section (l. 19-43) momentarily retreats to the original voice, but quickly ruptures into "you know only / a heap of broken images..." which makes clear both the modernist's practical predicament, and the formal structure of "The Waste Land" itself. Such montage-imagism, a "heap of broken images" represents the incoherence of modernist social structures, and the mind it creates in its citizens. Spring, traditionally a seasonal process of rebirth and sexual and spiritual potency, is now perceived as painful. The lost love and desire of Tristan in lines 30-34, followed by the similar but more subjective and direct failure in the hyacinth garden, ending in "Waste and empty is the sea", suggests here that such a renewal will not occur in the modern Waste Land. Other interpretations go further, to suggest that such a renewal will never occur. However, we must keep in mind that such a renewal depends upon a very real individual participation--a self-sacrifice that modern man avoids.

With Madame Sosostris (ll. 42-59) we discover how much ancient myth has been devalued and we are given the reason for modern misery and decay. Madame Sosostris does not portray useless myths, rather, she displays complete blindness towards myths in their real, quite fruitful meanings. Madame Sosostris is so telling because she does not possess the real meaning of such myths at all; she tells us to "fear death by water", which symbolizes how much such myths have been forgotten. Avoiding such a death of self is to avoid renewal and remain in a living death. Myth in the hands of Sosostris becomes empty superstition, devoid of any personal self-sacrifice. There are intimations of redemption, and this may be symptomatic of Eliot's reservations about overtly romantic optimism, blind hope, or easy, painless solutions.

Now, in lines 60-76 we see contemporary society, and it is not surprisingly deemed unreal. Clock-time, and a perpetual twilight of "brown fog" have overtaken seasonal changes of light and dark. It seems that man and woman have entered into a wasteland of twilight and are now unable to return to either darkness or light. Like the Sibyl, they are unable to die, and with the absence of deep feelings, they are barely alive, due to mere avoidance and a lack of true sacrifical meaning (honesty). Society has found itself to be "neither living nor dead". This, in terms of Eliot's historical position, may be the witching hour of civilization as it may still be today, or it may be an experience of the rending pains of new birth.

A Game of Chess

"A Game of Chess" begins with a style reminiscent of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature. By Eliot's time, a very experientially different urban twentieth century, such a convoluted, luxurious, smooth style seemed unworthy of praise. A psychological interpretation of this matter of literary taste would point us again towards the modern neurasthenic. Clock-time, and a quickening society, was coupled with growing populations in machinated, cluttered, unreal cities that cinematically flashed the senses with commodities and advertisements, all of which became fragments of a new man-made artifice: consumerism, and the beginnings of TV culture. This broadcast-consumerism along with a routinized, conveyor-belt approach to production, would help to send the mind into cognitive dissonanc e, anxiety. Indeed, such a modern dislocation of the senses from intensely felt experiences was, according to Eliot, rooted in this eighteenth century literary tradition, which initiated such a dissociation of emotions and their immediacy. Such a style is mirrored in lines 111-172.

So much have the senses been disassociated that the transformed Philomela's bird-song of romantic passion is now heard by "dirty-ears" as a mere "Jug Jug", or a call for raw, physical sex--intimacy without feeling. We hear disembodied voices (ll. 111 -137) close to nervous breakdown, but even then, they remain unaware of their plight. They avoid the rain, a water-symbol of salvation and redemption that, unbeknownst to them, is urgently required. On top of everything else about "The Waste Land", is the fact that such a plight is unfelt, and therefore inescapable, at least for those who do not bring such anxieties to the sunlight. We might then see these first two sections as the initial stages of a cathartic process.

The Fire Sermon

In the beginning of "The Fire Sermon", the season skips back to late autumn, or early winter:

"The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed."

We are reminded of The Fisher King, maimed and impotent, his land approaching its consequent decay. The seemingly timeless state of affairs here by the river blurs into modernity with the mention of horns and motors (l. 197) and there is a sense of approaching watershed. But the core of this section (ll. 187-204) is the allusion to Verlaine's Parsifal and how the Knight, questing for the Grail that will renew spirituality, is tempted by sensual music, which is reminiscent of the temptations of Christ in the desert before his death and resurrection. What follows is a reminder that such a tempting sensuality has fallen down to basic impotent desire--"Jug Jug" and the rape of Philomela.

The Unreal City still under a brown fog, flashes again into consciousness, but this time it is in full winter that we find it, though it has barely changed.

Next, we are introduced to Tiresias, the poet's anti-self who sees all impersonally. It is through Tiresias that we have been conscious of the Waste Land. The poem is his. However, there is one parallel possible between Tiresias and Eliot. Both are unable to affect any direct change. In the hyacinth garden, Eliot experiences the very feeling--he becomes the experience. If the problem is that we are removed from real experiences and feelings, and the goal is to diagnose, then such impersonality must be contrasted with the healthy state of experiencing direct emotions, whether they are positive emotions or not. It is no surprise then that such a lover's scene as this (ll. 230-247) is the opposite of the lovers and scene of the hyacinth garden.

Death by Water

In "Death by Water" Madame Sosostris is overcome because there occurs what we had been told to fear--a death by water. There is a sense of peace in such annihilation, but the death does not end "The Waste Land". In what follows, we are also shown a Christ-like figure post-resurrection, the first explicit sign within the main body of the text that intimates an occurrence of resurrection, of redemption. Perhaps then, this same figure that has drowned, is returning again, purified and refined.

What the Thunder Said

"What the Thunder Said" directly appeals to Eastern philosophy, more specifically, Hinduism. The word "after" repeated three times (ll. 322-25) seems to suggest that something has been overcome, perhaps what has just passed, a death by water. What follows is more death (ll 327-330). We could interpret this as a rather radical assertion that "The Waste Land" is no longer a description of decaying, but rather, it is a portrayal of a civilization already dead. Indeed, the desire for water and the uncertainty of the post-death stage reaches a critical climax at line 366 - hallucination, illusion, deranged perception takes over, and with the signalling "co co..." from the rooftop cock, illusion and hallucination departs the poem.

Rain gathers at last (ll. 396-400), and there is excited anticipation. The thunder speaks: DA, DA, DA. The syllable reminds us of Jesus' use of 'Abba' or Daddy to describe his intimate relationship with a Father God. But the Eastern interpretation is three-fold, developing into Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata, meaning, respectively, "give", "be compassionate", "self-control". In the first instance--Datta--Eliot brings us back to the hyacinth garden, suggesting that only by this surrender do we exist. The sorrowful realization here is that perhaps such a revelation has come too late for the speaker, that the paralysis experienced in the hyacinth garden was an inability to give love, to surrender one's self to another completely. Thus these lines seem to suggest love to be the proper means and motive of giving. In the second instance--Dayadhvam--Eliot links the absence of compassion to the problem of solipsism and egoism--"each in his prison / thinking of the key". Again we hear the suggestiveness of a moment's surrender, and how pride blocks participation in love and perhaps leads to displaced revenge. In the third instance--Damyata--we are urged to control ourselves, like manning a boat upon a calm ocean with the help of the wind, as the heart seems to respond happily to controlling hands.

Indeed, this is a rather different, far more positive interpretation than is usually given to this section of "The Waste Land". Eliot possibly leads us to believe that our private experiences are truly only our own, but, in terms of the Eastern philosophy which he evokes, such a perception is only true because we live in a world of samsara, the only escape from which is nirvana. But the prescriptions are ambiguous, and dogged by the past-present state of the modern Waste Land where people do not recognize such redemptive meaning. But speaking out more radically now, if we maintain an absence of salvation, we have to realize what we are really saying, and be responsible for the consequences of our words--proposing no salvation essentially condemns all futures to desolation.

In the final section, we meet the Fisher King again, and a crumbling society. There is an individual desire to order one's own land. At line 427, we are reminded of purgatory's refining flame, supported by "DA", where self-control, compassion, and giving up one's self (all in love) are healthy forms of passion, renewing desires, refined burning. This refinement overcomes the sterile avoidance of the voice of propriety (ll. 1 - 7; 19 - 20), the improper desires of emotionless sexuality (ll. 218 - 248) and emotionally detached existence in general (ll. 111 - 138). The swallow reference (l. 428) is reminiscent of Philomela, and of sadness, but with the hope of renewal, and intimations of spring again. We see that "The Waste Land" has been a process of personal maintenance--"These fragments I have shored against my ruin". The process has also been one of warning, that the references to the past are not an attempt to escape, nor mere romantic nostalgia. This leaves us one choice, to turn and embrace the future. The thunder speaks again and we end in a peace which lies outside understanding, a nirvana-like state of positive nothingness, and a sense of completion--"Shantih shantih shantih".


With the poem's ambiguous intimations of salvation leaves an interpretation that salvation will not just occur, nor will it be automatically achieved by a mere movement of time. Redemption is left up to the will of individuals to create it. Essentially, when critiquing "The Waste Land" we must bear this self-willing in mind. Many interpretations choose not to find salvation, others choose to be more positive. The poem leaves these two doors open.

Thus, one must maintain hope and the way towar ds salvation, especially in this post-modern point in time, where, if anything, the modern neurasthenic has reached paranoia levels, and permanent states of drudgery, induced by the sedentary, sedative, and dissociated visual-feeds from the popular culture. What the thunder said should not only be remembered as an ethic, but also lived as an individual life. This is the only way to escape the prison of the self, and renew our feelings, to reacquaint them with direct experience, to experience shantih, a peace beyond understanding.
view /TSEliot
Sunday, August 31, 2003 01:12 pm
John McGuirk

All prophecies are fragile. They are subject to contradiction, to falsity. The false prophet, then, one might consider insane. But how does one interpret the language of prophecy? Is it a language of madness, of hidden truth, of images? Such questions are pertinent when discussing the works of visionary poet William Blake. His prophecies or visions informed his poetic style and language and invested them with a vigor, energy, and substance that reach far beyond the mere meaning or signification of language. He claimed to experience visions of the prophet Elijah (among other visions). So was Blake insane? Blake, certainly, suffered from some type of mental illness. His mood swings, his depressions, and his fervent, inspired productivity have been the subject of much debate. However, does mental illness necessarily detract from the value of his visionary poetry? Or does it contribute something to it? These questions cannot be answered adequately unless address the topic of mysticism as well. Blake was a follower of the esoteric religious doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The intersection of madness and mysticism is key to the understanding of Blake, if only because it demonstrates that this madness did not signify a necessary degeneration in the faculties of the mind, but rather a passionate commitment to the imagination, the spiritual, and the profound.

The question of madness and mysticism both were an early issue for Blake. Blake's father was an avid follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg who was a Swedish scientist and religious teacher. Swedenborg abandoned his studies of science in 1747 after claiming that he understood the inner nature of human beings (what he called the divine Word) after experiencing a vision in 1745. These visions reoccurred throughout his life as well as his supposed communications with angels. He published exegetical texts on Scripture in which he claimed he had received his interpretations from God himself. Swedenborg was a non-sectarian, however, and did not hold his teachings to be the property of any one faith. Swedenborg prophesied the emergence of a New Jerusalem on earth, which would signify the Second Coming. In essence, the kingdom of heaven would be on earth. Blake would maintain these beliefs throughout much of his life and would inspire his early verses such as "There Is No Natural Religion" and "All Religions Are One". Blake believed that whatever was divine in God must be divine in man.

At the same time Blake was learning of these doctrines as a boy, he began to experience visions and have communications with the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, and various other figures from history and religious life. This sort of eccentric behavior would be indicative to his lifestyle and career. Blake was a controversial figure from the moment he ended his apprenticeship in engraving. He not only claimed to be a prophet and mystic, but he was a political radical as well. He had friendships with Thomas Paine, the famous pamphleteer of Common Sense and William Goodwin, a British anarchist who would go on to inspire Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelly. Blake's poetry was often politically motivated (such as his prophetic works on France and America) and mythic in proportions (The Book of Urizen and the Song of Los). His engravings were considered eccentric, untraditional, and thoroughly odd. These engravings accompanied most of his works as well as other poets of the day. Blake also provided engravings for classic texts such as Dante's Divine Comedy. Blake was an iconoclast to say the least.

He was not truly appreciated in his time. It was not until 1818 that he developed a few admirers: Romantic movement Blake inspired wrote after Blake's death: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

Blake's poetry is dense and multi-layered and expresses the wide range of emotions and thoughts that passed through his brain. Some of the most revealing verses are the symmetrical poems in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. It is here that mysticism and madness intersect most explicitly. The Songs of Innocence are Blake's placid reflections on the liberating power of the imagination: of dreams and ethereal visions. The Songs of Experience clearly lay out the necessity of the human, rather than the mystical, the visceral rather than the reasonable. As Blake writes in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."

The image of the angel and other religious symbols figure powerfully in Blake's poetry not only because of their mystical and religious significance as cultural symbols but also because many of Blake's visions were religious in nature. In the Songs of Innocence Blake's poem "The Divine Image" reflects upon the idealistic tones of his mysticism and what they mean for the future of humanity.

To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
(Blake, "The Divine Image", 111)

In this poem Blake attributes 4 divine characteristics to both God and man: mercy, pity, peace, and love. These divine attributes of God are reflections of what God finds in man (whom He has created), rather than vice versa. In line with Swedenborg's conception, the potential for realizing the divine is in man and does not require supernatural intercession. It only requires that man be in-tuned with the mystical powers he harbors within his own soul; those powers untouched by harsh experience and still connected to that which is Godly. It is no surprise, in light of Blake's own visionary experiences, that he would value this conception of the divine. In this sense, his madness could be explained away by being attributed to his own connection with the mystical power of his own human life. He is simply a free spirit capable of realizing them. Blake's religious philosophy, as expressed in this poem, is one of innocence, forgiveness, and love. But it more than an expression of Christian charity; it is a call for each individual to recognize the potential of their own creativity and imagination.

A very different portrayal of the spiritual is laid out in the Songs of Experience. In "The Angel", Blake communicates to the reader what has been communicated to him not only by the ethereal visitor of the poem but by the cruelty and baseness of life.

I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild;
Witless woe, was ne'er beguil'd!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip'd my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush'd rosy red:
I dried my tears & armd my fears,
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm'd, he came in vain:
For the time of yo
uth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.
(Blake, 'The Angel', 124-5)

So who or what is the Angel? Could it be an overarching symbol for Blake's visionary experiences? And why so harsh? Why does the Angel flee and why does Blake arm himself anticipating his return? Clearly, the focus of the poem is the change that has undergone the narrator. In the first stanzas the narrator is young and insecure. "And hid from him my hearts delight" immediately precedes the Angel's flight for a specific reason in this sense. The "hearts delight" is withheld from the Angel due to pride; with the accumulation of experience the Angel is no longer needed as a crutch. The narrator ceases crying and has "armd my fears". However, upon the Angels return the narrator has realized that pride has only succeeded in feeding the fear that once seemed so unbearable. The Angels return was not to help and protect our narrator, but to prepare this "maiden Queen" for death.
Originally this poem was intended be an allegory on chastity (Blake, p. 155 & 887n.) and the cycle of birth and death becomes even more interesting in terms of sexuality. Blake, who advocated free love, saw any attempt to repress human sensuality as disingenuous. In this case the Angel is the lover our maiden Queen refuses. She hides her own desires and squashes them, and the Angel's return, at death, is wasted since she is dying. Life should not be the process of repressing the living desires of humankind, but liberating them. Spirituality (the Angel) should liberate the senses so that our physical bodies can experience the infinite. Mysticism, then, separates itself from the repressive instinct of religion. Mysticism is in touch with all of humankind, not simply the spiritual but the physical. Blake's mystical beliefs tie up the beauty of the divine with the beauty of the embodied. Experience when coupled with imagination (or innocence) allows us to experience the totality of existence; both are necessary in order to complete and understand the other. Thus, insanity was never an issue for Blake since, in his mind, it was perfectly reasonable to experience the divine through sensual, embodied perception.

These themes are elaborated upon greatly in sections of Blake's prose poem "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". Blake, in this masterful work, explodes common conceptions of the role of religion and God in the life of human beings. In some ways, it draws out what is implied in the structure of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake's goal, in these sets of verse, was to express the dual side of man's nature in order to disclose the infinite within them. In this work, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", Blake champions the infinite in man, in the face of the dogmatic discourses of religion and science. In this passage Blake recounts a communication with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel.

"Isaiah answer'd. I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm'd; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.

Then I asked: does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?

He replied. All poets believe it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything." (Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", 186)

Notice that even without seeing God, Isaiah sees the infinite in "every thing", and is still persuaded of God's calling to him. The power of this persuasion, Isaiah admits, may be imaginary, but he did not think of the consequences of being seen a madman. He simply wrote what he knew. The power of conviction and persuasion overcame all obstacles that might have halted his spiritual growth. The experience of the mystical transcends any kind of categorical boundary of madness or sanity, or even truth or falsity. The divine is what we believe to be divine and are persuaded of; and once we have been persuaded, part of mystical experience and spiritual growth is conviction. So why is such mystical devotion taken to be delusion? Blake claims he saw Elijah, someone claims they hear the voice of God and their resolve cannot be shaken: how does one know this is not true? Does the body deceive the imagination; or does it merely seduce the soul due to some defect?

"But first the notion that man has a body distinct from the soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. [Note: Blake is referring to his practice as an engraver. Rather than carving his designs out with a chisel, he would use corrosive chemicals such as acids, dripping them onto the wood or metal "canvas" he used, into the design desired and the proceed to color them in]

If the doors of perception are cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." (Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", 188)

Indeed, the above passage implies, we are deceived. But we have deceived ourselves. And Blake sees it as his task as a poet and engraver to uncover what we have hidden from ourselves the infinite. Blake's temperament, his mood swings, his visions, were not so much, as Wordsworth states, a symptom of madness but rather, as Blake seems to assert, his sensitivity to the mystical underpinnings of life. So is Blake mad? I'm not sure this is a useful question given the blurred line between madness and the mystical in Blake's life and poetry. Rather, the question should be, what can Blake's supposed madness teach us?

*All Page numbers refer to: Blake, William; THE COMPLETE POEMS Edited by Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Books, 1977.


Was William Blake a divine prophet, or an inspired madman?

view /Blake
Monday, July 21, 2003 01:43 pm
Artwork by William Blake
Matthew Landis

"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee."
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

James Douglas Morrison's poetry was born out of a period of tumultuous social and political change in American and world history. Besides Morrison's social and political perspective, his verse also speaks with an understanding of the world of literature, especially of the traditions that shaped the poetry of his age. His poetry also expresses his own experiences, thoughts, development, and maturation as a poet--from his musings on film at UCLA in The Lords and The New Creatures, to his final poems in Wilderness and The American Night. It is my intention in this essay to show Morrison as a serious American poet, whose work is worthy of serious consideration in relation to its place in the American literary tradition. By discussing the poetry in terms of Morrison's influences and own ideas, I will be able to show what distinguishes him as a significant American poet. In order to reveal him as having a clearly-defined ability as a poet, my focus will be on Morrison's own words and poetry. I will concentrate on his earlier work to show the influence of Nietzsche and French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud and the effect they had on Morrison's poetry and style.

Morrison's poetic style is characterized by contrived ambiguity of meaning which serves to express subconscious thought and feeling--a tendency now generally associated with the postmodern or avant garde. His poetic strength is that he creates poetry quite profound in its effect upon the reader, by using vividly evocative words and images in his poems. While it is obvious that Morrison has read writers that influence his work, and their influence remains strong in subject and tone, he still manages to make it his own in the way he adapts these influences to his style, experiences, and ideas. We would expect to find remnants of quotes, stolen lines and ideas, in a lesser writer, but Morrison shows his strength as a poet by resisting plagiarism in order to achieve originality in his own verse. As T. S. Eliot has said, "Bad poets borrow, good poets steal."

Morrison's poetry is very surreal at times, as well as highly symbolic--there is a pervading sense of the irrational, chaotic, and the violent; an effect produced by startling juxtapositions of images and words. Morrison's poetry reveals a strange world--a place peopled by characters straight out of Morrison's circus of the mind, from the strange streets of Los Angeles boulevards and back alleys. Morrison's speech is a native tongue, and his eye is that of a visionary American poet. He belongs to what poet and critic Jerome Rothenberg calls the "American Prophecy . . . present in all that speaks to our sense of 'identity' and our need for renewal." Rothenberg sees this prophetic tradition as "affirming the oldest function of poetry, which is to interrupt the habits of ordinary consciousness by means of more precise and highly charged uses of language and to provide new tools for discovering the underlying relatedness of all life . . . A special concern for the interplay of myth and history runs through the whole of American literature. Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman saw the poet's function in part as revealing the visionary meaning of our lives in relation to the time and place in which we live . . . we have taken this American emphasis on the relationship of myth and history, of poetry and life, as the central meaning of a 'prophetic' native tradition."

The lasting impression of Morrison's poems is that they attempt to render the dream or nightmare of modern existence in terms of words and imagery, quite bizarre and obscure, yet compelling at the same time. An important aspect about the body of his work and his commitment to his particular style, one closely aligned to Rothenberg's prophetic tradition, is that it is in the tradition of what other poets of his time were writing.

Critiquing the Myth of Morrison

In 1994, Professor of French Literature at Duke University, Wallace Fowlie, published the first scholarly study of the poetry of the charismatic lead singer of the sixties rock band The Doors. The book was titled Rimbaud & Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, and as suggested by the title, it is a comparative study of the lives and work of Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. The fact that Morrison had written to Fowlie, thanking him for his 1966 translation, Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, proved the starting point for Fowlie's comparison between the two poets. Despite Fowlie's apparent good intentions, his knowledge of Rimbaud's work and his understanding of French symbolism far outweigh any of the observations he makes about Morrison's poetry. Perhaps the most insightful point he makes is when he labels Morrison "Kouros," the Greek word for "a youth attractive to men and women . . .[a word used] At times in praise of his beauty. At other times it is hurled almost as a curse at those youths who insolently torment older people."

After inadvertently making his own contribution to the Morrison myth by stereotyping him as Kouros, Fowlie goes on to disclaim his own observation by stating that "[t]his name I suggest as representative of the non-hypocritical innocence of Jim when he was not aware of the power of his appearance and his personality." When was Morrison ever not aware of his appearance and his personality? Pre-teens? This is a typical example of Fowlie's misunderstanding of Morrison's character and is what informs most of his discussion of Morrison's poetry. Consequently, Fowlie only ever illuminates the obvious in the poems, although he does make solid connections between some of Morrison's poems and their allusion to and the influence of Rimbaud.

Fowlie has written a perceptive analysis of Rimbaud's poetry and the poet's role as rebel, yet the same observations are in his 1946 study, Rimbaud: The Myth of Childhood. Again, by concentrating on the myth of Morrison, as he does successfully with Rimbaud, Fowlie ignores the literary qualities of the poetry. Like most people that encountered Morrison, either through books or in person, Fowlie never seems to get past the myth. In view of this unfortunate aspect of his discussion of Morrison's poetry, his approach is neither scholarly nor enlightening. However, what Fowlie does provide is a superficial guide to those wanting to pursue certain points, such as the influence of Nietzsche, Artaud, Rimbaud and the Beats on Morrison's own writing.

Most literature on Morrison is predominantly biographical, preferring to regurgitate the myth and scandal surrounding his life and times, rather than give his art any serious consideration. Despite interest, both negative and positive, his writing has not been comprehensively analyzed in the context of his life and culture. Nor has it been discussed in terms of its merits (and failings), or its place in the ranks of American literature, and the reasons for this are twofold. First, Morrison's verse is obscure, highly subjective and at times obscene or grotesque in imagery and speech, as in "An American Prayer" from The American Night:

Cling to cunts & cocks
of despair
We got our final vision
by clap
Columbus' groin got
filled w/ green death
(I touched her thigh
& death smiled)

Secondly, the myth tends to impede any progress past itself--the romantic idea of Morrison as poet-performer is preferable to the critics than any serious attempt to actually understand or analyze the poetry itself. For example, Fowlie's judgement of Morrison's life pigeonholes him in terms of the poetry; he cannot separate Morrison's poetry from the "persona [which] had everything to do with the principle of Dionysus."

To this point, Morrison's reputation precedes any serious literary analysis of the work. Despite his failings as a human and as a poet, he has left behind some valuable and important examples of his poetic talent that deserve serious analysis. This discussion will focus primarily on Morrison's earliest work and the display of ideas, influences, and style that evolved into his own poetic voice. It is my belief in the strengths and significance of Morrison's poetry, which has led me to situate him as a poet in the American literary tradition.

Motivation & Motif

Morrison's early experiments with poetry and prose, written between 1964-69, depict--in the language of an intellectually ambitious film student--the strong influence of people such as Nietzsche and Artaud, and his ideas on aesthetics, philosophy, life, and film in particular. His early writings are the foundation on which he develops his poetical style. All the motifs, symbols, and imagery introduced in his first collection of poems recur continuously throughout his later works. The Lords and The New Creatures was conceived as two separate books; however, it was published as one book containing Morrison's ideas and poetry. Essentially, it is a forum for the fleshing out of style. The first half of the book The Lords: Notes on Vision, is a collection of notes and prose poems; while the second half, The New Creatures, is an assortment of poetry.

The Lords is a motley work of ideas and prose, loosely held together with motifs of death, cinema, and the reinterpretation of mythical and theatrical theory. While originality seems to be in short supply, and naive idealism in abundance, it is interesting for the allusion to, and presentation of, philosophical and aesthetic ideas central to Morrison's poetry. Stylistically, The Lords reflects his propensity for dark imagery and self-mythology, which would later be a fundamental characteristic of his poetry and performance. The motifs that pervade all of his poetry abound: the city, sex, death, assassins, voyeurs, wanderers, deserts, shamanism, and so on. The autobiographical and historical references in the poems reflect the myth-making process of turning fact into fiction: the inner world of the psyche and its perceptions of surroundings, a mythological landscape of Morrison's mind.

His own life sets the tone and scenarios of the poems. His itinerant childhood constantly spent shifting around the country, combined with his career choice of international rock star, made Morrison identify himself with the image of the vagabond or wanderer. It was a literary figure that he would use in his poems, obviously having symbolic and poetic appeal, as well as personal significance. As he has suggested of himself and others: "We're like actors, turned loose in this world to wander in search of a phantom, endlessly searching for a half-formed shadow of our lost reality."

His poetry, however, has a strong sense of place; the strong observational power of the astute outsider, works well in the invocations of strange border towns and locations. His vision of Los Angeles, or "Lamerica", is profound in its focus and impressions. It is even stranger because of the ambivalent nostalgia Morrison seems to hold for the place, where he had lived and performed with the Doors: "Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments."

At first, for Morrison, it was musical theatre that would attempt to provide the ritual for the city, using his shaman principles to try to join its fragments, and bring his audience together. When that failed, and the summer of love and the notion of hippie solidarity had dissipated, he turned to his poetry as the ritual that would piece together the fragments of his own experience. Like Eliot's fragments shored against his ruins in "The Waste Land", Morrison's words and poetry are the means by which he can make sense of his world and guard against his aesthetic mortality. However, as always in his poems, there is a sense of cynicism, directed toward himself as well as the reader. Almost as if, his suffering and sacrifices, made in the name of art and cultural freedom, were not for his own benefit but for the benefit of you, the reader:

Words are healing.
Words got me the wound
& will get me well

If you believe it.

This segment from his absurdly titled poem, "Lament for the Death of my Cock", reflects Morrison's pessimism and poetic idealism. The sense of suffering expressed in this later poem is also found in his earlier work The Lords, in relation to the idea of sacrifice for the good of all: "What sacrifice, at what price can the city be born?"

Morrison's early awareness of society's ills, and his benevolent sense of social responsibility, meant that he had a personally doomed and intense experience of America and its ideals. In particular, the Western Dream, as expressed in his apocalyptic invocation of a brave new world of dreamlike existence and ritual: "We are from the West. The world we suggest should be a new Wild West, a sensuous, evil world, strange, and haunting."

With his own experience informing his work, Morrison begins The Lords by addressing the reader rhetorically, as if revealing some truth about modern existence. He introduces his analogy of a society's relation to place, in terms of a game. His vision of the city is one of a dystopian environment--it is an interpretation of the American condition and all modern civilizations. Morrison sees the city in modernist and symbolist terms: the metropolis as a metaphorical reflection of society:

We all live in the city.

The city forms--often physically, but inevitably psychically--a circle. A Game. A ring of death with sex at its center. Drive toward outskirts of city suburbs. At the edge discover zones of sophisticated vice and boredom, child prostitution. But in the grimy ring immediately surrounding the daylight business district exists the only real crowd life of our mound, the only street life, night life. Diseased specimens in dollar hotels, low boarding houses, bars, pawn shops, burlesques and brothels, in dying arcades which never die, in streets and streets of all-night cinemas.

Like T. S. Eliot's invocation of the unreal city in "The Waste Land", inherited from Baudelaire's line about the "[s]warming city, city full of dreams, where ghosts in broad daylight catch the walker's sleeve," there is a relation of person to place. Rimbaud's perception of a city is more in line with Morrison's, when he cries: "O sorrowful city! O city now struck dumb, / Head and heart stretched out in paleness / In endless doorways thrown wide by time; / City the Dismal Past can only bless: / Body galvanized for sufferings yet to come."

Morrison's motif of the city is as surrealistic as it is symbolic in the strange juxtapositions of vivid imagery, symbol, and metaphors of human consciousness. Throughout Morrison's poetry, the city appears paradoxically as a place of despair, yet a place where experiences of sensuality and euphoric indulgence abound. It is a place of malaise and tensions, yet it offers art and life as well as an ominous source of disease and death. Nevertheless, this place of binaries and complexity is his primary source for an assortment of bizarre characters and experiences from the dark side. It is a place where the lords and the new creatures cohabit.

Morrison's notion of American society and its effect upon culture and people, is one of the main concepts behind The Lords. He defines it as "the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that people have in the face of reality. They have no real control over events or their own lives. Something is controlling them. The closest they ever get is the television set. In creating this idea of the lords, it also came to reverse itself. Now to me, the lords mean something entirely different. I couldn't really explain. It's like the opposite. Somehow the lords are a romantic race of people who have found a way to control their environment and their own lives. They're somehow different from other people."

The notion of the lords is a philosophical construct and a poetical device used to distinguish society as hierarchical. Morrison's idea of the lords can be related to Friedrich Nietzsche's view in The Will to Power, of "the Lords of the Earth -- that higher species which would climb aloft to new and impossible things, to a broader vision, and to its task on earth." The lords are the poets and artists--the people who are revolutionaries, who seek to change the conformist culture in which they exist and lead society forward:

"The Lords. Events take place beyond our knowledge or control. Our lives are lived for us. We can only try to enslave others. But gradually, special perceptions are being developed. The idea of the Lords is beginning to form in some minds. We should enlist them into bands of perceivers to tour the labyrinth during their mysterious nocturnal appearances. The Lords have secret entrances, and they know disguises. But they give themselves away in minor ways. Too much glint of light in the eye. A wrong gesture. Too long and curious a glance. The Lords appease us with images. They give us books, concerts, galleries, shows, cinemas. Especially the cinemas. Through art they confuse us and blind us to our enslavement. Art adorns our prison walls, keeps us silent and diverted and indifferent.

Door of passage to the other side, he soul frees itself in stride."

Philosophy, Poetry, & America

To decode Morrison's poetry, we need to recognize the philosophy that informs and underlies the meaning, symbolism, imagery, and theme. The philosophy is primarily Nietzschean in origin, although the poetry is not singular in its allegiance to the European philosopher. Rather, Morrison adapts variations of Nietzsche's philosophy to correlate with his own experience as expressed within the verse. In other words, the philosophical system behind the meaning of the poem is not really a system as such, but more of a set of ideas which Morrison draws upon for inspiration.

Morrison's various biographers concur that he read and revered the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. In the most widely read biography of Morrison's life, No One Here Gets Out Alive, the authors attest to the fact that Morrison "devoured Friedrich Nietzsche, the poetic German philosopher whose views on aesthetics, morality, and the Apollonian-Dionysian duality would appear again and again in Jim's conversation, poetry, songs, and life." John Densmore, the percussionist in The Doors, wrote in his memoir Riders on the Storm that "Nietzsche killed Jim Morrison . . . Morrison the Superman, the Dionysian madman, the Birth of Tragedy himself."

Ray Manzarek, the organist of The Doors, also remembers "walks in the soft shore break of Venice Beach discussing Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy" with Morrison. Morrison himself revealingly suggested to New York Magazine reporter Richard Goldstein in an interview, that he should "read Nietzsche on the nature of tragedy to understand where he's really at." [Goldstein noted that] His eyes glow as he launches into a discussion of the Apollonian-Dionysian struggle for control of the life force."

Pervading Morrison's work is an unshakeable dedication to Nietzsche's ideas on aesthetics and human nature. Intermingled with this influence is a loyalty to the theatrical manifestos of Antonin Artaud, and an understanding and empathy with the poetic dictums of visionary poets such as Rimbaud and William Blake. This forms an underlying blend of philosophy that is apparent in Morrison's words and actions. He welds philosophy, myth, and his own contemporary perspective of culture, society, and the world into his poetical vision.

Using an everyday symbol of modern existence, such as television or the cinema, he associates it with the timeless philosophical and existential subject of life: "the attraction of the cinema lies in the fear of death." Combined with the excesses of an age where stimulants, sex, quasi-religion, and cultural revolution are the norm, it is both surprising and understandable that he had such a consistently borderline nihilistic tone in his verse:

We live, we die
& death not ends it
Journey we more into the
Nightmare . . .
We're reaching for death
on the end of a candle
We're trying for something
that's already found us . . .

Do you know how pale & wanton thrillful
comes death on a strange hour
unannounced, unplanned for
like a scaring over-friendly guest you've
brought to bed
Death makes angels of us all
& gives us wings
where we had shoulders
smooth as ravens

Simultaneously, and paradoxically, a relentless optimism pervades. In "An American Prayer", the poet calls for life to be invigorated and made sensual by the turning away from a chaotic present, sick with the throes of materialism and war, to a mythic past full of meaning and example:

Let's reinvent the gods, all the myths
of the ages
Celebrate symbols from deep elder forests
{Have you forgotten the lessons
of the ancient war}
We need great golden copulations

Despite the fact that in Notebook Poems and Paris Journal his poetry is concise and profound in the clarity of expression, imagery, and tone, depression clouds Morrison's later work. The verse is simple, emotional, and pessimistic -- an honest depiction of a melancholic and resigned reality. A poem such as "If Only I" expresses Morrison's existentialism in a confessional mode very similar to other poets of his day. The narrator of the poem laments the loss of his self, and then the illusion of the notion of self. The poet's disillusionment with life, has reached the point where he can not even feel himself to determine the validity of his own existence:

If only I
could feel
The sound
of the sparrows
& feel child hood
pulling me
back again
If only I could feel
me pulling back
& feel embraced
by reality
I would die
Gladly die

Morrison's self-conscious portrayal of the anguished poet paused on the edge of the abyss of the self, is a symbolic expression of an ultimately destructive conflict between birth and death. It is a resolutely sad search for an ideal--it is the distance between an ordinary human and Nietzsche's ubermensch, and very similar to Nietzsche's own sentiments and poetry in Entflohn die Holden Traume (Fled Are the Lovely Dreams):

Fled are the lovely dreams
Fled is the past . . .
I have never experienced
The joy and happiness of life.
I look back sadly
Upon times that are long vanished . . .

I do not know what I believe
Or why I am still living. For what?
I would like to die, die " ...

The fact that Morrison's death looks increasingly like a heroin overdose (the culmination of self-destructive excess and aesthetic idealism), gives the above mentioned poem and his earlier poems an autobiographical significance in relation to his life, thoughts, and intentions. Ironically, and somewhat prophetically, in his earliest writings, The Lords, he speaks of death, fate, and the consequences of the game:

When play dies it becomes the Game.
When sex dies it becomes Climax.
All games contain the idea of death . . .

French Deck. Solitary stroker of cards. He
dealt himself a hand. Turn stills of the past in
unending permutations, shuffle and begin. Sort
the images again. And sort them again. This
game reveals germs of truth, and death.

This understanding of death reflects an existential world-view (as in his poem "If Only I") and a belief in the ultimate sacrifice/demise of the outsider artist with whom Morrison identified himself. Sex is the connector to the physical, to the realm of the real, populated by other players in the game. Love or attachment to another, is an emotional experience which leads to a metaphorical death of the self, in the very act of coitus or ejaculation. Denial of the self is the consequence of not experiencing the void, or the abyss of the self. As Morrison himself states emphatically and ironically, "Love is one of the handful of devices we have to avoid the void, so to speak."

Morrison's sense of isolation is complete in his concept of the game--it is existential in its inescapable net of death, and the performance or existence is his only saving grace. It is an acknowledgement of the solipsistic nature of the poet, the sacrifices to be made, the psychological pain of giving birth to a new self:

Urge to come to terms with the "Outside," by absorbing, interiorizing it. I won't come out, you must come in to me. Into my womb-garden where I peer out. Where I can construct a universe within the skull, to rival the real.

Like the metaphorical imagery in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, the womb is a symbol of the earth, the place where, like a flower or a clay man, the superman or ubermensch is born. It is a goal and a belief that we are capable as humans of constructing a heightened existence by the destruction of the old self or reality. It is an ideal, very much a part of the Morrison myth, and the American myth that through self-destruction comes enlightenment, transcendence of the unnatural societal-self. This creative destruction is also evident in the lives of other American literary figures like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Hart Crane.

Another interesting connection to Nietzsche is Morrison's use of the metaphor of the Edenic garden/gardener, as a kind of internalized organic place/state of being, or symbolic representation of the intellectual or creative genius. In Daybreak, Nietzsche draws a very similar parallel between thinker and the earthy allegorical figure of the Gardener and garden:

Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus: one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and grey. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him!

Themes of power and violence in The Lords and The New Creatures were also part of the dark aspect of the '60s. Morrison's song lyrics that spoke as much about death as they did about love were associated with an end of an era. With the Vietnam War in full flight, Civil Rights protests and assassinations, the death of hippie naivete was imminent. Morrison himself sums up the reasons why things had changed: "It's different now. (Pause) It used to seem possible to generate a movement--people rising up and joining together in a mass protest--refusing to be repressed any longer--like, they'd all put their strength together to break what Blake calls "the mind forged manacles" . . . [t]he love-street times are dead. Sure, it's possible for there to be a transcendence--but not on a mass level, not a universal rebellion. Now it has to take place on an individual level--every man for himself, as they say save yourself. Violence isn't always evil. What's evil is the infatuation with violence."

The end of the 1960s was characterized by an exalting of passion over intellect, body over mind, the perverse over the normal, the risks of violence and disaster over normal modes of existence. When asked by an interviewer his opinion on the social climate of America in the late '60s, Morrison summed up the feelings of a generation and the effects of cultural change on the nation: "I think for many people, especially city dwellers, it's a state of constant paranoia. Paranoia is defined as an irrational fear, but what if the paranoia is real? Then you just cope with it second by second."

As a poet of his time, and as someone with a sensitive social consciousness, Morrison makes his poems reflect the age and place in which he writes. Yet, he does so in a way that makes a current event seem timeless, even ancient in its cloak of metaphorical language. In The Lords, what is possibly a simple interpretation of the savage Tate-LaBianca killings by Charles Manson and his followers is turned into an archetypal image of the power of violence. Their capture in Death Valley California, hiding out in caves after the murders, waiting for their apocalyptic race war (Helter Skelter) to begin, is reflected in Morrison's perception of the media events of his day:

It takes large murder to turn rocks in the shade
and expose strange worms beneath. The lives of
our discontented madmen are revealed.

Within the context of the surrounding poems, we recognize other significant events in American cultural and political history. In "Baths, bars, the indoor pool. / Our injured leader lies prone on the tile," we can find a reference to the death of Brian Jones who drowned in a swimming pool. Kennedy's assassination is mentioned: "Modern circles of hell: Oswald (?) kills President," and indirectly Vietnam and "people burdened by historical events or dying in a bad landscape." The more these references are turned over, like "rocks in the shade," the greater the depth and significance of meaning revealed in the verse.

Poetic & Poet

In contrast to The Lords, Morrison's companion text The New Creatures, emphasizes the nightmarish existence of other creatures who are submissive and almost sub-species in their herd mentality and hellish existence. The violent imagery and surreal nature of the verse in The New Creatures, creates a disorganized and chaotic collection of poetry that seems to have no apparent motive or logic. The content is highly subjective and foreign to most readers; some allusions and imagery are familiar in their generality, yet pointless in the apparent obscurity and juxtaposition. The poems' personal content unfortunately makes most of The New Creatures inaccessible in their metaphorical and symbolic rendition of Morrison's psyche. In parts, Morrison evokes a tone and a cadence with the structure of word and image interplay similar in effectiveness to the lyrics he wrote for The Doors, some of which he actually performed:

the dead seal
the dog crucifix
Ghosts of the dead car sun.
Stop the car.
Rain. Night.

Most of the poems in The New Creatures seem strange and unrelated. Morrison gives the reader a clue to his method of poetry, by his comments on art forms like film, especially when his poetry is so obviously cinematic in its style and effect. He states, with a reference to the modernist idea of art replicating stream of consciousness, that he was "interested in film because, to me, it's the closest approximation in art that we have to the actual flow of consciousness."

Many of Morrison's poems throughout his work are like film clips in an avant-garde surrealist cinema. There is an intellectual, yet dreamy quality to his juxtaposition of ideas and insights about the world. Like the main technique of crowd manipulation he used on stage, Morrison uses the pause for great effect, yet not in the conventional grammatical or formal sense. Instead of a caesura, ellipsis points or a new line (all of which he also uses to effect), he uses an image as a barrier to overcome, to be broken through:

Savage destiny
Naked girl, seen from behind,

on a natural road

explore the labyrinth

young woman left on the desert

A city gone mad w/ fever

This pause, this break in flow or subject (in this case the metaphorical labyrinth) renders the verse as a staccato series of images rather than a progressive stream of ideas and words. In other words, the structure of the poem does try to replicate the irrational logic of stream of consciousness. Often these poems differentiate themselves from Morrison's more coherent pieces; characteristically, they are like abstract paintings of violent and bizarre scenes, giving the reader a sense of the intoxicated state prevalent throughout much of Morrison's notorious alcoholic and drug-abusing life.

Reading some of Morrison's less adept poetry is like reading notes someone took while experiencing an LSD trip. This is what a vast percentage of them actually are according to legends of Morrison's excesses. The same elements combine in his more proficient poetry; in intonation, profound visions, states of consciousness, and hallucinatory images, all culminating in a unique contemplation of the world. His cinematic technique of image juxtaposition also emulates the effects of a psychedelic experience, which could also be interpreted as no less than an experience of Morrison's world and the '60s itself.

Poetry was the genesis for most of Morrison's experience. Poetry inspired and vocalized his love of the cinematic visual, performance art, and musical lyricism. It also expressed his most profound thoughts, philosophies, and beliefs; it was a means to relay his world, which was increasingly close to destruction. In The American Night, his poem "An American Prayer" echoes Frazer's "Golden Bough" along with the philosophies of Artaud and Nietzsche. Morrison appeals in his lament for understanding, for a consensus that technology and so-called progress is not necessarily better or more exciting than the mythically imbued past:

Let's reinvent the gods, all the myths
of the ages
Celebrate symbols from deep elder forests . . .
We have assembled inside this ancient
& insane theatre
To propagate our lust for life
& flee the swarming wisdom
of the streets . . .
I'm sick of dour faces
Staring at me from the T.V.
Tower. I want roses in
My garden bower; dig?

In this sense, his attitude toward modernity is one of disdain, similar to Eliot's perception of a defunct Western civilization in "The Waste Land". Throughout his poems, Morrison is consistently anti-TV, almost as if he sees it as responsible for contemporary society's decline. It is paradoxical in that he vehemently supports a view of the world through the camera lens of the filmmaker's eye.

Apart from this cinematic aspect that carries through from his earliest work, the consistent use of dark and violent imagery, and the allusion to sublime philosophy and art, there is no one unifying aspect to his poetry. There is, however, an element of autobiography in the poems, subtly placed in the symbols and motifs associated with the lead singer of The Doors:

Snakeskin jacket
Indian eyes
Brilliant hair
He moves in disturbed
Nile Insect

In The New Creatures, references abound to his clothes, Indian visions, Alexandrine hair, and shamanic dance moves--it is a story about himself. We then are introduced to the poet's perception of his reader:

You parade thru the soft summer
We watch your eager rifle decay
Your wilderness
Your teeming emptiness
Pale forests on verge of light
More of your miracles
More of your magic arms

"You" are the reader along for the journey; "we" are the lords, the poet speaks--enlightened ones, the ones who can see "your wilderness" . . . America? He continues: You are lost now, we are still the ones who can see what the reader cannot. Morrison invites us into his world, but the reader is always kept at arm's length.

In the next section of the poem, we are introduced to the state of the world and its inhabitants, as well as disease, despair, images of torture, and the ominous presence of death always lurking in the background. A strange exotic world is revealed, with rites and customs straight out of Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough":

Bitter grazing in sick pastures
Animal sadness & the daybed
Iron curtains pried open.
The elaborate sun implies
dust, knives, voices.
Call out of the Wilderness
Call out of fever, receiving
the wet dreams of an Aztec King.

The elaborate sun is elaborate in its context; the iron curtain forcibly opened reveals war, communism, Stalinist tyranny etc. The sun could be a reference to the east, the land of the rising sun (also the name of a city in Ohio); its place in the wilderness implies its ancient and customary qualities of meaning. The Aztec King brings a whole new dimension and significance to the sun as the ancients used the blood of human sacrifices to strengthen the daily journey of the sun across the sky.

The characters of the poems are creatures of a nightmarish world. It is only upon realizing that the creatures are meant to be us--we modern humans--that the fragments of society, held up to us as a mirror of ourselves through the experience of the author, become familiar. Robert Duncan, a poet from Morrison's era, in a passage reminiscent of Morrison's credo of wake up and the paradoxical consequence of his (Morrison's) beliefs, perhaps best sums up the poet's meaning and reason for creating such a world: "It is in the dream itself that we seem entirely creatures, without imagination, as if moved by a plot or myth told by a story-teller who is not ourselves. Wandering and wondering in a foreign land or struggling in the meshes of a nightmare, we cannot escape the compelling terms of the dream unless we wake, anymore than we can escape the terms of our living reality unless we die."

Later in his life, as a more mature and serious writer, Morrison attempted to awaken from his own living reality, he had become very aware of the naivete of his early work. He reflects on the significance of some of his early ideas and acknowledges the limits of his experience and youthful literary talents in terms of an expression of his life, art, and as a prophetic poet: "I think in art, but especially in films, people are trying to confirm their own existence. Somehow things seem more real if they can be photographed and you can create a semblance of life on the screen. But those little aphorisms that make up most of The Lords -- if I could have said it any other way, I would have. They tend to be mulled over. I take a few seriously. I did most of that book when I was at the film school at UCLA. It was really a thesis on film aesthetics. I wasn't able to make films then, so all I was able to do was think about them and write about them, and it probably reflects a lot of that. A lot of passages in it--for example about shamanism--turned out to be very prophetic several years later because I had no idea when I was writing that, that I'd be doing just that.

Trials & Tradition

After the publication of Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, an increase in availability of drugs, and the popularity of Blake's poetry, radical experimentation by poets and artists flourished in the '60s. Morrison, equally influenced by these ideas, applied them to his life --romantically drawing on Blake's dictum that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." He inundated his senses with a barrage of stimulants in order to invoke the shaman's vision -- an aspect of Morrison's aesthetic ideal of the role of the poet-performer. It was also a belief that he was directly linked with his American compatriot, the indigenous Indian shaman. He saw himself as poet and as an American, in terms of a lineage of unity:

Like our ancestors
The Indians
We share a fear of sex
excessive lamentation for the dead
& an abiding interest in dreams & visions

However, Morrison's notion of a shaman's vision, somewhat differed from that of a Native American: "The Shaman . . . was a man who would intoxicate himself. See, he was probably already an . . . unusual individual. And, he would put himself into a trance by dancing, whirling around, drinking, taking drugs--however [he could]. Then, he would go on a mental travel and . . . describe his journey to the rest of the tribe."

Morrison's ideal is saturated with contemporary white-American values and beliefs, which did more to invoke the struggle of good and evil than dispel it with any transcendental magical rite. His combination of traditional shamanic rites with Blakean dictums of knowledge by excess were a recipe for self-destruction and characteristic wild swings between good and downright obscure poetry. The association between the shaman and the figure of the poet was at times written as poetry:

In the seance, the shaman led. A sensuous panic,
deliberately evoked through drugs, chants, dancing,
hurls the shaman into trance. Changed voice,
convulsive movement. He acts like a madman.

Morrison's interest in the shaman was common amongst other poets of the time as well, but each had different views that represented an era of diverse, often exotic beliefs. For example, Jerome Rothenberg, a poet and critic associated with deep-image verse in the '60s and '70s, encouraged a shamanistic type of poetry, where primitive song takes precedence over received forms of English letters. However, Rothenberg did not want to appropriate shamanship, and what he called the "fable of ascendancy," nor did he want to have much to do with people who did:

the old people
ghosts will arise anew
in phantom cities
they will drive caravan across the land
bare chested gods
of neither morning
shaman serpent in thy final kingdom leave
my house in peace

In this poem, characteristically similar to Morrison's work, but different in ideas, Rothenberg emphasizes the resigned tone of the mature realist, a tone that Morrison himself would adopt in his later verse. Instead, Morrison's idea of the shaman's vision is the antithesis of Rothenberg's:

The dark girl begins to bleed.
It's Catholic heaven. I have an
ancient Indian crucifix around
my neck. My chest is hard
& brown. Lying on stained &
wretched sheets w/ a bleeding Virgin.
We could plan a murder, or
start a religion.

Aside from shamanism, Rothenberg also summed up nicely in a letter to Robert Creeley -- another well-known American poet of his day -- the principles of deep image, which apply appropriately to Morrison's style and also express the common stylistic concerns of artistic peers:

The poem is the record of a movement from perception to vision.
Poetic form is the pattern of that movement through space and time.
The deep image is the content of vision emerging in the poem.
The vehicle of movement is imagination.
The condition of movement is freedom.

The idea that perception can be altered and consciousness enlarged, was a central tenet of the Beats as well as Morrison. The idea was made explicit in the French poet Rimbaud's derangement of the senses and in Baudelaire's Le Voyage, the "fire that burns our brains, to plunge into the depths of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, what does it matter? To the depths of the unknown to find something new." Rimbaud's proclamations in his 1871 letter to Paul Demeny, would prove the most influential to Morrison's aesthetic sensibility and his notion of himself as poet seer:

The first study of the man who wants to be a poet in the knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it! It seems simple: in every mind a natural development takes place; so many egoists call themselves authors, there are many others who attribute their intellectual progress to themselves! -- But the soul must be made monstrous: in the fashion of the comprachicos [kidnappers of children who mutilate them in order to exhibit them as monsters], if you will! Imagine a man implanting and cultivating warts on his face.

I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed--and the supreme Scholar!--Because he reaches the unknown! Since he cultivated his soul, rich already, more than any man! He reaches the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has seen them. Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where the other one collapsed!"

Rimbaud's views, combined with Morrison's knowledge of Native American shaman rituals, romantic poetry, and Beat attitude, was enough to formulate a prescription for experience and what he thought would be an expanded consciousness: "By listening to your body - opening up your senses, Blake said that the body was the soul's prison unless the five senses are fully developed and open. He considered the senses the 'windows of the soul.' When sex involves all the senses intensely, it can be like a mystical experience . . . If you reject your body, it becomes your prison cell. It's a paradox--to transcend the limitations of the body, you have to immerse yourself in it--you have to be totally open to your senses."

In addition, in relation to his stage performance, which is as much about his experiences offstage and his poetry, he continues:

It's a search, an opening of one door after another. Our work, our performing, is a striving for a metamorphosis. Right now, we're more interested in the dark side of life, the evil thing, the night time. But through our music, we're striving, trying to break through to a cleaner, freer realm. Our music and personalities as seen in the performance are still in a state of chaos and disorder, with maybe an element of purity just showing. Lately, when we've appeared in concert, it's started to merge.

More in line with Blake and Nietzsche's aesthetic and messianic path of knowledge, Morrison manages to give his quest a distinctive flavor with the use of indigenous folklore and cultural symbology -- characteristics that make it distinctly American.

Morrison acknowledged he was a product and the embodiment of a violent age; he had reached a crossroads of self-realization, it is as if Morrison desired the death of all he had come to represent. A poem such as "Hurricane and Eclipse" epitomizes this weariness and self-flagellation:

I wish a storm would
come & blow this shit
away. Or a bomb to
burn the Town & scour
the sea. I wish clean
death would come to me.

When he states in his poetry his wish to die; it is hard to see it as merely a desire to die figuratively. Rather, there was a sense that it was somehow the shamanistic poet's duty to sacrifice the self in order to save the tribe. As he had said earlier in an interview, the whole death trip was not entirely of his own making although he wore the role of martyr like a crown: "I'm not sure it's salvation that people are after, or want me to lead them to. The shaman is a healer--like the witch-doctor. I don't see people turning to me for that. I don't see myself as a saviour . . . The shaman is similar to the scapegoat. I see the role of the artist as shaman and scapegoat. People project their fantasies onto him and their fantasies come alive. People can destroy their fantasies by destroying him. I obey the impulses everyone has, but won't admit to. By attacking me, punishing me, they can feel relieved of those impulses."

The Influence of Style

In his book The Living Theatre, Art, Exile, and Outrage, John Tytell recalls Morrison and poet-friend Michael McClure participating in performances of Paradise Now with The Living Theatre company. He also recalls how Morrison offered financial aid to the theatre troupe such was his commitment to the art. Tytell offers an important insight into Morrison's political and aesthetic beliefs and also his loyalty and support of fellow artists: "Morrison--who had read Artaud and Ginsberg in college--saw himself as a revolutionary figure. Agreeing that repression was the chief social evil in America and the cause of a general pathology, he was typical of the sectors of support The Living Theatre had received in America. His long improvisational song 'When the Music's Over' was a basic statement of apocalypse. Another of his songs proclaims, as in Paradise Now, 'we want the world and we want it now.' Morrison had seen every performance in Los Angeles and followed the company up to San Francisco."

The founder of the Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud, described the motifs of his plays in his manifesto Theatre and Cruelty, as "eroticism, savagery, bloodlust, a thirst for violence, an obsession with horror, collapse of moral values, social hypocrisy, lies, sadism, the plague, disease and depravity" amongst other things. Upon reading Morrison's poetry, this will appear to be a catalogue of his themes and subjects.

As Tytell recollects, Morrison read Antonin Artaud's theoretical ideas, and saw them performed by The Living Theatre Company, which affected his own performances with The Doors. Less has been said about the influence of Artaud the poet on Morrison's verse style. Artaud's poetry is very similar in the free-verse form style and subject matter, especially the way in which he juxtaposes violent imagery with archetypal symbols to invoke a nightmarish sense of reality. In a remarkable passage where Artaud describes what surrealism means to him, we find an almost accurate description of Morrison's perspective on art and performance:

Surrealism was never anything else than a new sort of magic to me. Imagination and dreams, all this intensive freeing of the unconscious whose aim was that those things the soul is accustomed to hiding should break through, and must of necessity usher in a profound transformation in the scale of appearances, in the value of meanings and creative symbolism. Concrete matter entirely changes its garb, its shell and no longer applies to the same mental gestures. The beyond, the unseen, reject reality. The world collapses. Then we can start examining our illusions and stop pretending.

And Morrison:

I offer images -- I conjure memories of freedom that can still be reached -- like The Doors, right? But we can only open the doors -- we can't drag people through. I can't free them unless they want to be free -- more than anything else ... Maybe primitive people have less bullshit to let go of, to give up. A person has to be willing to give up everything -- not just wealth. All the bullshit he's been taught -- all society brainwashing. You have to let go of all that to get to the other side. Most people aren't willing to do that.

Let's just say I was testing the bounds of reality. I was curious to see what would happen. That's all it was: curiosity.

Ginsberg's use of Whitman's epigraph, preceding his poem "Howl", is in the same sense as Morrison's conception of the doors:

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!"

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, his own howl--his declaration of the sacred self, an egalitarian America, and the immortality of the soul, was the precursor and the model for the American poet's sense of duty to expand their own, and their nation's, consciousness. Morrison possibly took his cue as much from Ginsberg's adoption of Whitman's symbolic poetic principle, as he did from Blake's dictum in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" that "if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." The Doors as the title of his band, and as the symbol of Morrison's own search for enlightenment, was evidence of his knowledge and use of symbolism, but also of his awareness of a tradition in signs and their resonant qualities in literature.

Morrison's writing is a creation of his own world, a journey into the unknown, an extension of the rebel's philosophy to break on through to the other side, where everything is spontaneous and unassured, apart from immortality. His work is a quest, not so much into the world of the unknown universe or spirituality, but rather an immersion in his own being, a search for the essence of the self of the individual and of the nation: "America was conceived in violence. Americans are attracted to violence. They attach themselves to processed violence, out of cans. They're TV-hypnotised -- TV is the invisible protective shield against bare reality. Twentieth-century culture's disease is the inability to feel their reality. People cluster to TV, soap operas, movies, theatre, pop idols, and they have wild emotion over symbols. But in the reality of their own lives, they're emotionally dead ... we fear violence less than our own feelings. Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict." Eliot's free-verse pastiche style of "The Waste Land", combined with Ginsberg's apocalyptic tone and gritty perception of America in "Howl", provided the structural models for Morrison's longer poems such as "American Prayer", which also focuses on aspects of society, in terms of a psychological landscape, and its imperfections. The poems can be read literally with the effect being a sense of malaise or confusion. Read figuratively or metaphorically, the better poems take on a multi-layered depth filled with allusion, imagery, mood, and meaning that is either quite sublime or disconcerting. Most of the poetry unfortunately is fragmented, yet the reader must not forget the chaotic and experimental age in which it was written and intended to translate.

Morrison chooses androgynous symbols and metaphorical figures to convey the mutability and temporality of his era, as in the lyrics of his song "Riders on the Storm" off LA Woman, the last album he made with The Doors. "Riders on the Storm" is a metaphor for those, such as the character of the lord, who is a god in his own right, riding the storm of violent experience and tempestuous forays into evil. It is also a literary allusion to two particular poems by English and American romantic poets whose lives were similar as were the style and subject of their verse. William Cowper's hymnal poem "God Moves in a Mysterious Way", calls to saints to trust the storm, for it is of God's making, it is he that "rides upon the storm":

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

The other reference is from the poem "Praise for an Urn" by Hart Crane, the wildly romantic American poet who inspired modern poets such as the Beats with his lust for life and experience, and his ultimate poetical act of suicide. The act of self-destruction placed Crane in a tradition of the poet as junction, where art meets life with fatalistic results, beyond the aesthetic realm of words. In his poem, the riders are those fragile words that ride the tumultuous storms of the mind and emotions. It is a poem full of sentiments suitable for thoughts on funeral rites, on a friend about to be cremated:

His thoughts, delivered to me
From the white coverlet and pillow,
I see now, were inheritances
Delicate riders of the storm.

The words for the poem within the poem are inherited from the person whose epitaph he writes. Like Morrison's later poems, they are personal moments and thoughts shared from someone whose mind was in turmoil, who perhaps in hindsight may have been whispering for help. Aware that those words, about to be cast into the crematorium with his friend's corpse, have a bittersweet profundity hard to match in other poetry, he realises that "they are no trophies of the sun." Morrison's use of riders on the storm is different again in its implications, but shows an awareness of a romantic motif and subsequent tradition. His rider is the poet figure, the wanderer, "like a dog without a bone / an actor out on loan", yet not the romantic version of the wordsmith of Cowper and Crane's making. Morrison's version of the rider is more like Stephen Crane's Rider from "The Black Riders and Other Lines":

Black riders came from the sea.
There was clang and clang of spear and shield,
And clash and clash of hoof and heel,
Wild shouts and the wave of hair
In the rush upon the wind:
Thus the ride of sin.


James Douglas Morrison died in Paris on July 3, 1971 at the age of 27 and was buried in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, alongside his literary heroes such as Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine. Paris was an ideal world for Morrison, a world that was as equally ideal as his notion of the poet; it was a place to be a poet, not a famous American pop icon. Arguably, it was there that Morrison wrote his best poetry -- his verse bursting with American landscapes, history, philosophy, and literary allusion. However, it was a place that would make him feel isolated, depressed, and ultimately, suicidal, which was reflected in his poems. The outcome may have been different if Morrison had only heeded the words of his favorite philosopher Nietzsche, who said, "as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself [...] It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the Will to Power, the will to 'creation of the world,' the will to the causa prima." As Morrison found out, he could not escape the inevitable consequence of his idealism.

Just as Jim Morrison and The Doors were a significant part of America's musical tradition, so too was Jim Morrison's poetry a unique and influential chapter in American literary tradition. He was a poet on paper and in every other sense of the word. Rather than write about experience, he would subject himself to that experience first, physically, psychologically, or chemically, before he wrote about it.

Morrison proceeded to transform himself during his short life, through a series of comprehensive rites of passage. The delving into select works of literature and music, experimentation with different kinds of drugs, physical forays into states of isolation and sexual encounter ... the crucial element was that whatever happened, it was always an intense experience. He methodically sought a transformation and an awakening through rituals and intoxication, and was honest enough to write it down for all to read:

Why do I drink?
So that I can write poetry.
Sometimes when it's all spun out
and all that is ugly recedes
into a deep sleep
There is an awakening
and all that remains is true.
As the body is ravaged
the spirit grows stronger.

Forgive me Father for I know
what I do.
I want to hear the last Poem
of the last Poet.

Morrison saw poetry as an art form used to push the boundaries of convention and of reality. The concerts of the Doors were infamous for Jim's wild Dionysian use of poetry to incite his audience into a state of reckless abandonment and transcendence. More than the power of words to uplift people and to change their lives, he also saw poetry as a means of continuing tradition, history, and art.

In order for the reader to see Morrison as a serious poet, with a clearly defined poetic, we must read his work as poetry, rather than as a strange relic of a dead rock god. What follows is the prologue from Morrison's posthumous collection of poetry, Wilderness:

I'm kind of hooked to the game of art and literature; my heroes are artists and writers ... I wrote a few poems, of course ... real poetry doesn't say anything, it just ticks off the possibilities. Opens all doors. You can walk through any one that suits you ... and that's why poetry appeals to me so much -- because it's so eternal. As long as there are people, they can remember words and combinations of words. Nothing else can survive a holocaust but poetry and songs. No one can remember an entire novel ... but so long as there are human beings, songs and poetry can continue. If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it's to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel.

As can be seen, Morrison had a clearly defined poetic that would steer both his poetry and his performances (both onstage and off) throughout his life. This connection, between the poetic and the actual poetry itself, is what makes Morrison the committed figure of a genuine poet.

Whether Morrison will ever be recognised as a poet, rather than remembered as mythical pop idol, will depend largely on the passage of time and due critical attention to his poetry. His notion that "nothing else can survive a holocaust but poetry and songs" could perhaps be changed, substituting the word "time" for "holocaust". A century from now, literary critics will look back on the twentieth century as a period of literary change and diversity, unequalled in the history of the printed word. Their focus on the various movements and figures of American literature in the '60s and '70s will be tempered by prejudices and preferences of their own time. Literary historians will be looking for examples of an age when literary and social experiment was at its peak. Morrison will stand out as a poet who represented a time when writers experimented with drugs, language, form, philosophy, music, theatre, and social revolution. It was a time similar to the Romantic era of the French Revolution, but a time and a set of characteristics distinctly relative to literary America in the '60s and '70s.

Heroes of that age will stand out by their text's appeal to a future age when radicalism will perhaps say more than the regional voices of more conventional and canonically recognized poets. After all, Morrison's heroes such as Rimbaud, Artaud, Blake, and Van Gogh are examples of visionary artists, deemed unworthy of the canon in their own age, now considered exemplars of aesthetic style and genius in our time. Likewise, the same will be said of a poet like Morrison, whose work is, at least, no less significant or deserving than minor canonical poets of his time.

(For more of William Cook's thoughts on Jim Morrison's poetry, visit his website).


An extensive study of the poetic influences, traditions and radical ideals about nature, modernism, shamanism and native culture that inspired Doors singer and lyricist Jim Morrison.

view /JamesDouglasMorrison
Saturday, July 12, 2003 09:48 pm
Jim Morrison of the Doors, and his hand
William Cook
One of the major problems when writing in a form such as the ghazal-a form in which repetition plays such a major role-is keeping the rhyme fresh at all times. If the rhyme stagnates, the poem will fail, no matter how potent the images themselves may be. This essay will propose a few suggestions for rhymes in ghazals that, hopefully, will keep their lines fresh.

The first thing to consider is the use of half-rhyme or slant-rhyme in ghazals. I would advocate strongly against either of these tools, with one possible exception. The addition of "-s" or "-ed" to rhyme words, if used extremely sparingly-I would suggest one per ghazal, possibly two if the poem is long enough-can add a slight alteration to the mono-rhyme, and keep the whole poem fresh and buoyant. However, were a poet to constantly do this, or, even worse, depend totally on half-rhyme, the poem would cease to exist. Indeed, the fragile chain of rhyme-refrain that holds the beads of the ghazal together would be broken. Half-rhyme or slant-rhyme are simply not options at this time in a form such as the ghazal; The form is too new and too fresh to the English language for us to begin wrenching it around to fit our laziness. A strict rhyme scheme must be maintained for the poem to succeed.

How then can poets hope to keep their ghazals alive and energetic?

The first goal would be to vary the types of words used in rhyming. By this I mean avoid using all adjectives, all nouns, all verbs, etc. when choosing rhymes. In my failed ghazal below (hands), one of the major problems is the constant use of the rhyme as an adjective describing the hands. The only time the poem changes this scheme, S1L2, the grammar of the line is so twisted and unnatural that the rhyme becomes forced. However, in the ghazal with the refrain "or you", the rhymes consist of five verbs, two prepositions, and one conjunction. By varying the types of speech, the lines cannot stagnate, i.e., the phrasings of the second line in each stanza cannot help but be invigorated, simply because the grammar demands it.

Another possible solution would be to vary the syllables in the rhyming words. There are many ways this can be accomplished. If one is lucky enough to come up with a long enough list of feminine rhymes, a successful ghazal can be written based on those. However, this is an extremely hard task to accomplish, and usually requires some playing with the language. One idea would be take two words that match the rhyme being attempted. ("give her/quiver" "I went/silent" etc.) Another idea is to match a masculine rhyme to the feminine rhyme, in other words, rhyme an accented syllable with the unaccented syllable, as in S5L2 of my poem. This is, of course, impossible in a strict metrical line, but in a looser accentual rhythm, this trick is an extremely fun way to shake up both the rhythm and tone of the poem. Much like the old Elizabethan trick of opening occasional lines of iambic pentameter with trochees, the masculine/feminine rhyme combo is a surprise and, hopefully, a delight for the reader.

Another take on this is to keep the rhymes masculine, but change the number of consonants in the rhyming word. In other words, rhyme one syllable words with two syllable words. This is a favorite technique of the late Agha Shahid Ali in his ghazals, and something I have endeavored to work towards in my ghazals, as is seen by "you" where two syllable words-"abhor", "adore" and "before"-are rhymed with one syllable words "for", "nor", "pour" and "tore". This may not shake up the rhythm as completely as a masculine/feminine combo, but it does create a visual imbalance, as well as a slight aural imbalance, that hopefully succeeds in amusing and fascinating the reader. This technique also expands the list of rhyme words available, and leads to more interesting images, if not variable lines due to grammatical variance in the rhyme words.

Rhyme, of course, is not the only component to the ghazal. Stanza disparateness, strong imagery, and good choice of refrain are all important, not to mention the mixed bag of guidelines handed down by those great poets who wrote before us. However, as a half of the rhyme-refrain combo that strings the beads of the stanzas together, rhyme should be one of the major focuses when attempting to write ghazals. Keeping the rhyme fresh and enlivened will help keep the stanzas, and indeed the ghazal itself, from growing stagnant. By varying the parts of speech used in rhyme, by varying the syllabic count of rhyme words, and, in cases of extreme playfulness, by rhyming masculine and feminine words together, a poet can avoid some of the common paths that lead towards unsuccessful ghazals.


Justice, slip a steaming mug of yourself into my cold hands.
At night, my love, around your belly, I dream that I fold hands.

I wander the iron veins of this city, a dog in heat for you.
Where were you when they forced a pink slip into these old hands?

Were I to consume you like a lemon, would you sour in my mouth
or would you stain my skin with your rind. Could I brag gold hands?

My helmet light rips through the mine like a canary feather.
Wake white, my sleeping love, to chiseled stink, black eyes, coaled hands.

The Prophet drowns alone in a numb curse of beer and whiskey.
Oh, my love, come soak his tongue and fill his steel souled hands.

--for CMAH

Your lover ghazals in order that the world may adore you.
Why is it, my dream, that you, alone, abhor you?

We are all chalices, filled with the mead of delight.
Here, taste my lips. This is the wine honeyed for you.

I have no silk to spread beneath your feet.
Please, tread soft on the dreams I lay before you.

The world is a rug, woven from foam on the waves.
Who can sleep here alone? Not I, nor you.

See with your heart. It will guide like a flickering candle.
For your eyes are blind, and will only serve to detour you.

If the wine does not consume you, it is but vinegar.
Why drink if this is all the jar can pour you?

Seeing the moon strip naked, the Prophet rejoices.
Come, let his love heal the wounds where heartache tore you.

view /RhymeInGhazals
Monday, July 7, 2003 03:10 pm

"We have faith in poison.
We will give our lives completely every day.
-- Arthur Rimbaud, "Drunken Morning"

"The revolution was in his poetry from the beginning and to the end: as a preoccupation of a technical order, namely to translate the world into a new language."
-- Herbert Marcuse, paraphrasing Breton's comments on Rimbaud

Confrontation, Subversion, and the Aesthetic Turn

In considering the socio-ethico-political function of art, it is easy to lose sight of art itself. We become so enraptured by classification, hierarchies, theory, and the hermeneutical act itself, that hermeneutics ceases to take place at times. The systematization of art, or the experience of art is beneficial for scholarly purposes, but when one speaks of relating art to society, art must not only transcend its origins and facticity, but also the ideas and presuppositions of art itself perpetuated by academics. The aesthetic schema and social schema are often viewed as totally different organisms that are inextricably linked through some genetic quality: both humanistic, yet one is scientific and the other sensual. Both the scholastic and sensual views of art and society are misconceived and erroneous. Art is not any less technical, specialized, or scientific than psychology, sociology, or philosophy. Yet, at the same time, the humanities (including the aforementioned social and intellectual disciplines) are too often devoid of their artistic legacy. Social analysis has lost its sensuality somewhere along the way in its attempt to perfect theory, and keep in touch with science's attempt to understand the human being in her/his totality. There are exceptions, such as Bataille, whose aphoristic meditations on sadism, masochism, and morbid eroticism became autobiographical expressions and introspective meditations that related his personal worldview and psychology to his social theory; and Sartre whose later works, like The Family Idiot and The Critique of Dialectical Reason stretched the idea of the historical diary, existential psychoanalysis, and existential authenticity to the realm of Marxist and literary theory. Yet, with the rise of structuralism in the 1960's and its subsequent influence on postmodernists (for the sake of classification this is what we call them, although most of the thinkers I discuss transcend the term) such as Lyotard and Baudrillard, social and historical theory has become more about system, structure, and binary opposition than human agency or feeling of the world. Both systems of thought have valuable legacies and practical applications within today's social theory, yet the prevalence of either one over the other effectively negates the structural and critical multiplicity postmodernism itself has exposed. The dialectic between generality and particularity, structure and existence, system and sens is unbalanced and unresolved due to the academic prejudice toward postmodern or post-structuralist theory. To reinvent either method to suit the needs of the other is counterproductive, yet that is the closest thing to a mediation between the two we have seen. The debate lingers on (the fire fed by both sides) steeped in word play and analytical critique, and in the meantime, the capitalist mode of production flourishes as it expands not only globally but ideologically (some say the two are identical). Our attention must switch from theory and methodology (we already have an adequate exposition of the theories and methods proposed by both camps), to praxis and an effective alteration in proletariat consciousness. The attempt to mediate between the anti-existentialism of postmodernism and the humanism of critical modernism or even existentialism itself must lead to action.

Our preoccupation with theory becomes a roadblock in the way to revolutionary or hermeneutical praxis. What I attempt to illustrate here in this essay is how both the hermeneutical--or interpretative--action in art must go beyond mere interpretation or favoritism toward a particular critical methodology. My method of critique is both deconstructive and constructive. It is an attempt to synthesize the tremendous potency of structural analysis in light of deconstruction in conjunction with unfinished modernist project to substantiate claims of validity so that effective, grounded praxis becomes possible. Therefore, hermeneutics must not end in the capturing of meaning, but rather in the moment of power, or of action. In other words, it must function as a method to reveal how art transcends personal expression and becomes a confrontational act; it should function as a negotiation between two positions rather than a determinate affirmation. Once we have reached this point, we can demonstrate the revolutionary function of art without becoming encumbered by arbitrary aesthetic labels like classicism or romanticism. At the same time, it is important to be aware of the play of ideology in aesthetic and social classification as well. It will prove important in our discussion of art as a subversive action.

For purposes of this essay, the revolutionary function of art will be discussed primarily as ideology critique. Ideology critique amounts to the shattering of an illusionary or false consciousness that has been reified in to the subjugated classes so as to prevent any type of class or revolutionary consciousness from being aroused. Furthermore, ideology is expressed through the ways in which we construct social structures (in particular for this work, religion as ideology and politics as ideology). It does so because this false consciousness is built into our media, our morality, our value system, and our psychology (and consequentially, in many cases, our art). In many ways, ideology is a matter of discipline. The disciplinary technique in the play of capitalist ideology is strong. Part of this false consciousness (capitalism) becomes our dominant ideas of normalcy and deviancy related to social activity. As Foucault so brilliantly exposes in Discipline and Punish, our bodies have been turned into objects. Objects not of the phenomenological Other, but of a machine. This atomization, or alienation, turns the body and human existence itself into a place of technical discourse rather than the existential language of authenticity or mood incorporated by, for instance, Heidegger. Beyond these disciplinary techniques are the social structures which discipline is meant to uphold. There is nothing outside of the social structure itself, however. Capitalism has become so firmly entrenched that nothing escapes its vacuous gaze. Within schools, prisons, even the public park nothing is hidden. Panopticism, the idea of being seen, of having presence, has taken premiere importance in our everyday lives. Therefore, what is seen must be controlled.

It is here that two concepts, one aesthetic in a manner of speaking, the other political, become useful in our discussion of ideology and art. The first is confrontation. The clearest articulation of the concept of confrontation in the aesthetic sense is that of Artaud. Furthermore, Artaud's "theater of cruelty" and its primitive and ritualistic recommendations for the artist stretch beyond the aesthetic realm into the realm of revolution and social change.

Artaud suggests that, in theater particularly, the abolition of the separation between the audience and performer is key. In this way, it becomes possible for the performer to directly confront the spectator. The performer is no longer the object of the spectator, but rather her/his confessor. Theater becomes an interrogation of the person's own psyche (personal reflection brought on by the action of the performance). The spectator's emotional response should be induced by a confrontational, violent experience. There should be a disruption of consciousness where, entranced by the performance, there occurs an internal "revolution" of individual consciousness through which the audience member transcends his/her own faculties of reason, submission, and morality, thereby gaining access to subconscious desires and expressing them: power, potentiality, lust, excess, or to sum up briefly, mania and ecstasy. The catharsis for the audience member is not the purging of emotions, but the embrace of those emotions, or the violent collision between desire and repression, facticity and transcendence, consciousness of itself and the visible world and the world of the unseen--the invisible presence of "the want".

Artaud's suggestion, however, goes beyond mere shock. Shock can pass one by and be overcome. Artaud believes the audience should be infected as if they were transmitting a plague to one another:

"And just as it is not impossible that the unavailing despair of the lunatic screaming in an asylum can cause the plague by a sort of reversibility of feelings and images, one can similarly admit that the external events, political conflicts, natural cataclysms, the order of revolution and disorder of war, by occurring in the event of theater, discharge themselves into the sensibility of an audience with all the force of an epidemic."-- Artaud, The Theater and its Double

Theater becomes a "plague" which affects the audience in such a way that its entire sensibility changes. This philosophy carried over into a more blatantly political theater with the arrival of Brecht and his Marxist epic theater. He purposely made his plays anti-climactic and refused to allow the audience member to forget that what s/he was watching was merely a play. Brecht achieved this through breaking into song randomly, leaving the theater lights on, and having characters wear signs with the act numbers on their chest, for instance. In this way, the audience member could not be emotionally involved and was forced to view the play intellectually and be affected by its political content. However, I would rather show how art which may not be directly or intentionally political functions in a political way.

It is interesting that in the above quote, for instance, Artaud likens his "plague" to the effect that a lunatic has on the public. If the insane were left to wander the streets, if science and hierarchy had not deemed what we term to be "insane" exactly that, the line between mere eccentricity and absolute delirium would be blurred. It is only through language and classification that such distinctions become possible. So, very much like Foucault in Madness and Civilization, Artaud exposes the marginalization of the "insane", seemingly without knowing it.

This may be because so much of Artaud's art likens itself toward magical, deranged imagery. He is an alchemist, turning our perceptions of reality into what they are not, forcing us to confront that which has been excluded from "proper" discourse. Artaud seems to feel that delirium, or distorted and disjointed perception expressed through imagery should be the visual effect of the theater. For Artaud, confrontation is evident in the way true theater "disturbs the senses' repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolt ... and imposes on the assembled collectivity an attitude that is both difficult and heroic." (Artaud, The Theater and its Double)

The visual effect (lighting, the imagery constructed within the set itself, costuming, etc.) and the audible effect (speech, shrieking, laughter, screams, sound effects, and the delivery of lines) in Artaud's theater become unconventional, uncomfortable, and unorthodox. Artaud's key to the arousal of a certain consciousness is to shock the audience members out of their complacency and so enchant them that this new consciousness is not ephemeral, but lasting and transmittable so that it might infect others. Within Artaud's own work the characters are blasphemous, crude, offensive, and downtrodden (for example, the blasphemous priest and the whore that bites the wrist of God in Jet of Blood). Artaud's staunch atheism, drug use, and homosexuality in and of itself creates a shock for the conservative or repressed individual.

Here is where the concept of subversion begins to play itself out. Within Artaud's theory there is a suggestion of praxis. A performance that shocks, offends, confronts, indicts, and enthralls all at once. At several points in his writing on Occidental theater he uses the word "spectacle" (just leaf through the essay in The Theater and its Double entitled "On Balinese Theater"). But this spectacle is no circus sideshow act. It becomes more than spectacle through its expressive quality and its powers of affectation on the audience. The expressive quality of theater, says Artaud, should be primal, unrestrained, violent, magical... it should be unlike reality. He suggests that themes do not become a matter of "boring the public to death with transcendent cosmic preoccupations." (Artaud, The Theater and its Double) Rather, the performer should employ masks, ritualism, groans, cries, distorted language, violent imagery, and vile humor to destruct and deconstruct the goals of theater itself, and thus, the audience's reaction to theater. If we destroy the normalcy of the theater itself, we eliminate the possibility of normalcy in the audience's reaction. Artaud's method becomes a matter of turning the "normalizing" or "disciplinary" technique on its head: show what should not be seen. This disruptive praxis then subverts common or "customary morality" (Nietzsche) engendered in the population by bourgeois culture. Artaud's goal is to distort the face of reality into a cruel, yet comical grimace; to expose to the audience the very primordial desires and potentials that have been repressed in them. Language and symbol become visceral rather than formal. Both romanticism and classicism are rendered insufficient and boring. "Ritual, spectacle, horror, ecstasy; or nothing at all!", becomes the cry of the performer. It is in this way, through altering the concepts of the real and normalcy, by undermining traditional moral and ethical standards, and vocally expressing the disillusion, repression, and frustration that the masses feel due to their utter lack of freedom, creativity, and satisfaction in the face of an oppressive social structure, that art becomes subversion. Once confrontation has resulted in subversion, and thus the arousal of revolutionary and radical consciousness, praxis has already occurred, and can continue. This is the aesthetic turn. Art turns itself inside out: it ceases to redefine or reinterpret the known and instead, becomes the "mystical key" to revealing the knowable unknown, or the repressed desires of the human heart.

This is one way in which art becomes ideology critique. Artaud's theory becomes a brilliant example of how we can reclaim the sensuality and creativity that capitalism has stifled in the masses for so long. Religion and its adjacent traditional moral values of charity, submissiveness, and humility are only disciplinary concepts reified into the consciousness of the masses so that they may be controlled, not only by the religious institution, but also by the religious population's own internal sense of guilt. Here is where the Nietzschean critique proves helpful. It elucidates the social construction of moral values, and furthermore how they engender a "slave morality". However, the egoism and self-righteousness of master morality is not sufficient either. This world is a will to power, but this is not an allowance for dominance. To disenfranchise another person is an affirmation of weakness. It illustrates that our autonomy is contingent upon our social environment and the people in it; in this case specifically, the marginalized or weak. The presence of the infinite, of Being within all of us than becomes the demand for an ethical relationship. We cannot escape the Look. The face of the Other should not be a tether, but at the same time it should not become a mere object, or means to an end. It is in this way that we must become utterly free, yet totally aware of the Other and our ethical demand to her/him. The Übermensch is the achievement of power for the individual to master her/himself while coexisting with the other. This way, authentically, there is no dominance or control, because each person "rules over" her/himself, and thus reaffirms the ethical relationship.

Rimbaud, Kinesis, and the Critique of Ideology

While Artaud's theory predominantly spoke of the theater, its scope could be stretched to encompass any art form. In modern times we have seen elements of Artaud emerge in the sado-masochistic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, the poetry and "heroin lore" of Burroughs, Jim Carroll, and Richard Hell, as well as the particular brand of punk rock that grew out of New York City. At the same time, Artaud's thought has a rich historical legacy within the French avant-garde itself. Writers like Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Sade, Jarry, and Rimbaud all find some little niche in Artaud's writing. However, at present I would like to focus on Rimbaud, while some of these other figures shall play a mere supporting role, which, I do realize, is a diminutive role to be played by artists of their talent and importance.

Within Rimbaud's writing we again find the two important concepts that make social consciousness by way of art possible: confrontation and subversion. Rimbaud's brand of confrontation is often far more playful and spiteful than Artaud's, especially in his earlier poetry. It is evident in places that despite its mature subject matter, tone, and talent, these are the writings of a teenager. Even Rimbaud's last known poem is a poem about soldiers farting (see Paul Schmidt's edition of Rimbaud's complete works). The immaturity and brazenness may be obvious in poems such as this, but at the same time there is a scathing and cynical critique of all things deemed wholesome. There appears to be a growing reverence for science, and method, as well as a growing political concern. However, Rimbaud's concern with method or science became a way of transcending his own bourgeois background. Initially, Rimbaud sought to escape the bourgeoisie by entering the intelligentia and later, after growing disenchanted with the supposed anti-bourgeois intellectual circle of Verlaine, Rimbaud sought to escape his background by forcing the intelligentia to enter into the realm of the "common", or to borrow a phrase from Dostoevsky, "underground man".

Rimbaud's poetry intellectualized and beautified what was traditionally seen as vile. His political concerns also showed a distinct interest in the lower classes, commonly viewed themselves as vile by the French bourgeoisie of the time. Rimbaud drafted his own plan for a communist society, and was sympathetic to the efforts of the Commune itself (Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt). Still, his method in achieving these goals through art was audacious, to say the least.

Rimbaud's ill-temperedness, his arrogance, and his rancor may be attributed to his youth, but even more, they are a reflection of his headstrong, dissatisfied personality. This is the disillusion, sadness, and bitterness reflected in A Season in Hell. Rimbaud's mother, we know, was oppressive and attempted to stifle any efforts he made into branching out into writing, especially once he showed an interest in the French avant-garde writers of the time such as Hugo and Baudelaire. Furthermore, Rimbaud never found the freedom and intellectual understanding he desired socially (as is quite evident in his tumultuous relationship with Verlaine. Their conflict began when Rimbaud simply grew bored of Verlaine's bourgeois sentimentalism and paranoid religiosity). Rimbaud's restlessness makes him naturally confrontational. With titles like "Confessions of an Idiot Old Man" and "The Wastelands of Love" surely he was prone to offending sensibilities.

However, his sometimes bleak world-view and cynicism is offset by an uncanny affinity for lyrical beauty, the pastoral, and genuine sorrow. His poem "Drunken Morning" from Illuminations especially shows the multi-dimensional perspective and language of Rimbaud. The first stanza praises the "marvelous body" and glorifies the "rack of enchantments". It serves almost as an invocation...an invocation of his Muse. This Muse is the sensual, the ecstatic, and the manic of the human soul, all that is restless, striving, creative, and anxious. In the second stanza we hear Rimbaud's sudden and vicious attack of morality as an ideology. He equates morality to a false consciousness, a misrepresented idea of how human behavior should be controlled and labeled.

Let us re-create ourselves after that superhuman promise.
Made to our souls and bodies at their creation:
That promise, that madness!
Elegance, silence, violence!
They promised to bury in shadows the tree of good and evil,
To banish tyrannical honesty,
So that we might flourish in our very pure love
-- Rimbaud, "Drunken Morning"

The above passage is very Nietszchean. We have a powerful and individualistic portrait of the human being corrupted by "tyrannical honesty", striving to bury the "tree of good and evil". The idea of "tyrannical honesty" hearkens to Nietzsche's critique of our moral value system. Our valuation of honesty is "tyrannical" because it is a rigid determination, lacking the possibility of modification, alteration, or new understanding (this is reinforced by the Judeo-Christian moral schema). Honesty is "good". All that is "dishonest" is therefore bad. It is not that Nietzsche is defending malicious lying (although there is an interesting discussion to be had about Nietzsche's concept of honesty). Rather, he is dissatisfied with the arbitrary determinations made by moralists. Morality demands fluidity. Rimbaud echoes this sentiment in the above passage. Burying "the tree of good and evil" is an obvious reference to overcoming these arbitrary distinctions Rimbaud and Nietzsche both seem to feel stem from Christianity. Both call for the devaluation of values as social standards, so that they might become a matter of people creating values for themselves. In this way, morality becomes more authentic than the fascistic tendencies to marginalize, label, and exclude as "deviants" those people who do not have a distinct, normalized relationship to bourgeois culture.

In the stanza immediately following the above quotation from "Drunken Morning" Rimbaud states that this promise, this vision of humanity has "... ended in the scattering of perfumes". These perfumes merely cover up the odor of our discontent and our exploitation and dissatisfaction. Rimbaud reflects to us the lies that we accept. He calls for reinvention, for destruction, so that we might transcend our own faulted perception of the world around us. The perfumes are ideology and his "Little drunken vigil, blessed!" is his confrontation. In this way, the poet as seer and as visionary makes art more real than reality. In accentuating his desires and sensuality Rimbaud creates a "real" more honest than the reality we live in now. Our present reality has been reified by ideology, by discipline, and by fear. Our complacency becomes the reason Rimbaud becomes so cynical. As Marcuse says:

True and false, right and wrong, pain and pleasure, calm and violence becomes aesthetic categories within the framework of the oeuvre. Thus deprived of their (immediate) reality, they enter a different context in which even the ugly, cruel, sick become parts of the aesthetic harmony governing the whole.
-- Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt

While Marcuse can adequately explain how art, even when it is deviant or unreal, becomes more real than reality, there is a certain hermeneutical tendency to categorize operative in his theory. Marcuse's Counter-Revolution and Revolt expresses political radicalism yet it champions intellectualism and classicism in aesthetic theory in response to the confrontational nature of much of avant-garde revolt. In his opinion, it is counterproductive to revolution because of the negative reaction it draws from the Establishment. However, in the case of Rimbaud this reaction is what is intended. His intention amounts to disgusting those opposed to him. He is a seer and he wants to reveal his visions to everyone, even if they expose what we would rather not see. He is Jeremiah, the unwanted prophet. In poems like "Cities I" (again in Illuminations) he speaks of cities where "... companies shouted the joys of new labor/ into thick air, restlessly moving/ but never escaping those phantoms come down/ from the heights where we were to have met." These words are prophetic in light of capitalist globalization and programs like Workfare. More than ever our refusal to confront the Establishment has made us more dependent on the good graces and mock liberalism of representational government.

Again, we have been duped by ideology. This disdain for the complacent masses is illustrated in Rimbaud's most ironic and sarcastic poem in Illuminations, "Sale".

For sale-
Anarchy for the masses;
Wild satisfaction for knowing amateurs;
Atrocious death for the faithful and lovers!

And later:

Senseless and infinite flight toward invisible splendor,
Toward insensible delight-
The madness of its secrets shocks all known vice!
The mob is aghast at its gaiety.

Still, Rimbaud manages to find hope despite the cynicism that pervades so many of his views. In "Genie" Rimbaud makes several observations about the potentiality present within the world and humanity. Though the critique of ideology is still present in the mocking sarcasm directed at the idea of custom and tradition (" ‘Away with these ages and superstitions' "...), he still resonates with hope that someday we may transcend the internal fear, anguish, and external oppression that demeans our very being. He refers to the genie in a messianic tone, proclaiming:

He is affection and the future, the strength and love
that we, standing surrounded by anger and weariness,
See passing in the storm-filled sky
and in banners of ecstasy.

Rimbaud's messiah is far different than the conception we have of the Judeo-Christian messiah. The genie makes no promises, and his resurrection and arrival is signaled not by a chorus of angels but by "The splintering of grace before a new violence!" which Rimbaud hopes will so shock our being and our consciousness of being that we will learn to "... follow his image,/ his breathing, his body, the light of his day."

Rimbaud's subversion exists not only in confrontation itself, but also in resolution. The tension he creates between confrontation and resolution is dialectical in that both the moment of conflict, or the collision, and the resolution of the conflict, the denouement of our confrontation, are abolished before they are completed: they are destroyed, and thus transcended; exploded in consciousness and replaced by the suggestion of praxis. Rimbaud's notion of praxis or action is founded on movement, motion or change. The "assassin's hour" is a call for uninhibited, violent action. Not violent in the sense of an emotional release or act of violence, it is violent in its virility, its power, and its self-sufficiency. The explosion of Rimbaud's dialectical images in the consciousness of the reader or listener combats "the disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock" (Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire").

Rimbaud's influence is still felt today within artistic circles which still attempt to challenge the spectator. Patti Smith (and many other artists in the punk movement) take a cue from Rimbaud in their confrontational performance styles and purposefully blasphemous or controversial statements. The rallying cry for the disenfranchised transforms from "For this is the assassin's hour" into Smith's exclamation in "Rock n' Roll Nigger" from the Easter album: "Outside of society, that's where I want to be". Even the title of the song itself expresses incredible anger, and purposely tries to touch a nerve by firstly, using a racial epithet to express the disillusionment and alienation suffered by Smith's generation regardless of race, and secondly to confront society at large with its own capacity for marginalization, hate, and ignorance.

Rimbaud, as well, confronts us with the sordid and uglier side of our nature, our world, and our own private thoughts. The kinesis of Rimbaud's poetry is substantial motion: generation or decay (hearkening back to pre-Socratic philosophy and poetry of Heraclitus and Empodecles). He moves, effortlessly from the sublime to the depraved, the insane to the methodical, always fluctuating, following the ebb and flow of his own design. Rimbaud's poetry is polarized between his optimism or messianic-prophetic language and his extreme cynicism or apocalyptic-prophetic language. The imagery and word-play moves between death and life, heaven and hell, cruelty and divine agony. Rimbaud does not fear confronting the reader, as he is not looking for approval from the reader. He wishes to evoke a response to his poetry. In that response to Rimbaud's audacity, his chiding sarcasm, his visionary and ecstatic language, is precisely Rimbaud's suggestion of praxis. Hopefully, through pushing the reader to respond to his poetry, the reader finds the potential for action within him/herself; action that ceases to be reactionary and instead becomes the result of personal and possibly even collective initiative. Rather than submit to family pressure, or social tradition, Rimbaud remained iconoclastic in his work. No church, moral code, or government could alter his poetic vision. It is for this reason that Rimbaud is so effective at criticizing these various ideologies--he has no sympathy for or dependence upon them. Arthur Rimbaud lived outside of society and so he was an objective witness to the world that unfolded around him. He did not regret his headstrong or iconoclastic stance, however. He was too in touch with his own creative and sensual impulses to deny himself his own nature. In some ways, he remains outside of alienation through alienating himself (although, this may not be a viable option for everyone; nor am I suggesting it as one). He saw, all too early, the effects of the social order upon the lives of his peers and family. It fostered in him a disdain for the bourgeoisie. Yet at the same time, it fostered frustration in him; not out of hate, but rather disillusion, because he saw the potential for creativity, beauty, and divinity within humanity itself. Rimbaud's negativism is not a condemnation. It serves a two fold purpose: firstly, to shock the masses into a realization of their own power and creativity, so as to overcome their own complacency and unwillingness to change, express themselves, and question established moral, cultural, and political points of view and secondly, to reaffirm to those already aware of the stifling oppression spawned from capitalism's tainted seed, that their unrest can be expressed in a productive and meaningful way, through art and therefore also affirming that the possibility of achieving the change they seek lies buried within the system itself and that it is their responsibility to find that possibility and uproot it. Rimbaud's radical, eccentric, and ecstatic lifestyle was also an affirmation of the possibility of "the good life"; of freedom, joy, and untapped ecstasy. His disillusion and cynicism was not a forgone conclusion. It was merely an honest reaction to the disappointment he faced throughout his life as he attempted to realize in himself and others the happiness that he saw flickering dimly in the eyes of humanity. He attempted to save that ember within each of us by pouring gasoline on the fire. And despite his disillusion and eventual retirement from poetry, one can still find inspiration in Rimbaud's passion and his uninhibited quest for contentment, personal satisfaction, and a greater understanding of himself, and the people and world around him. His poetry is a monument to his own radical legacy. As he says in his poem "Lines", the most poignant moment of his last poetic work, of his final epiphanic Illuminations:

When we are very strong-who can hold us back?
And very gay-how can ridicule harm us?
When we are very bad-what can they do to us?
Dress yourself up,
And dance,
And laugh.
I could never throw Love out the window



The performer is no longer the object of the spectator, but rather her/his confessor. The spectator's emotional response should be induced by a confrontational, violent experience.

view /RimbaudArtaud
Saturday, June 21, 2003 02:52 am
A drawing by Antonin Artaud
Matthew Landis
In an interview with Y.T. Wong in the August 2002 issue of Jacket magazine, Steven Ford Brown, editor of One More River To Cross: The Selected Poems of John Beecher, said, "John Beecher is an American hero. He challenged the system. He said, Listen here America, live up to the promises you made to your people." John Beecher "challenged the system" indeed. After building a characterization of Beecher's desire to get to the "damn truth" of who killed Viola Liuzzo, a woman murdered in Civil Rights-era Alabama, Studs Terkel wrote in his foreward to One More River To Cross:
    In these poems, you will find Beecher's damn truth and, I've a hunch, ours, as well. I'm not certain how to describe his style. At one moment, he's Huck Finn, grown-up, and long after having lit out for the territories, telling us like it is. At another moment, he has the fire of an old-time preacher lining a hymn. Always, it's hot with passion and a belief, that this world can be a better place for all those anonymous millions who make the wheels go round. And that's the damn truth.

Beecher wrote verse that slammed the foundations of the American consciousness about our own society, and as a result suffered strong social consequences personally, like being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and losing various teaching jobs on various occasions. His poems, and also his prose writings, illustrate, according to Brown, in his editor's Introduction, "the idea of America as the great experiment in democracy gone awry:. As well, Frank Adams wrote of Beecher in a 1981 article in Southern Exposure magazine: "Like Isaiah, or Bunyan, and even Sandburg for a time, his poems were for average people. Beecher seemed to know instinctively that poetry was not just for the critics, but that people used it in one way or another every day not to flatter but to survive, to express the uncommon or mysterious in their own, often tragic, lives. The poet's task was to listen, to record, then to chant his poetry".

Beecher's Report to the Stockholders (published in 1925) is a nine-part poem that carries a double meaning in each anecdotal section, while piling on examples of unfairness in the work environment. Robert Meredith, in his article Homage to a Subversive : Notes Toward Explaining John Beecher, from the American Poetry Review, writes, "As much as one-fourth of Beecher's poetry is in this mode which, with its invariable ironic structure showing the discrepancy between the official report and actual happening, is not my favorite Beecher. All the same, especially taken as a whole, it is a powerful, highly controlled writing which reveals and identifies with a class and a world unfamiliar to most readers of contemporary poetry". Regardless of whether it is Meredith's favorite or not, the powerful irony is there. The title indicates that the poem is a fictitious account of life in the company for those whose money represents the capital, but who are not involved in the daily operations inside the company's walls. The poem is certainly drawn from Beecher's own experiences as a worker in steel mills, as the son of an executive for U.S. Steel, and as a government social worker helping poor farmers. Adams's biographical comments relay : "For the next six years [1919-1925], his life was a mixture of academic vagabondage punctuated with sweat-streaked stints at the faces of open hearth furnaces in the Birmingham mills".

His poems are the culmination of his sympathies with the working man and his rejection of his father's lifestyle, relying on the reader to take the irony like bait. There are no overt statements, and no crashing indictments. The accusations against corporations, against the wealthy business owners, and against the system are heavy and subtle. To a certain extent, a knowledge of Beecher's overall biography and agenda help in the reading, but are not necessary. The statements tend to speak for themselves as he presents us with a new view of our fellow man. Other prime examples are In Egypt Land, a long poem about an episode in Notasulga, Alabama, when white landowners began harassing and even attacking local sharecroppers because blacks and whites were forming a union together to improve their conditions, and Peanuts, another long poem about a commune in Americus, Georgia, that was attacked by locals for treating blacks equally.

Beecher's writings won him few popularity contests. He is enigmatic in many ways: a social rebel from a wealthy family, a post-Eliot poet whose work is for common people, and a man who faced threw himself head-long into difficult situations seemingly on purpose. He also, perhaps, wrote poetry for people who didn't read poetry. Maxwell Geismar, in his Introduction to 1968's Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest and Prophecy by Beecher, called him, "a poet who speaks [common people's] language, and whose poetry in turn can be understood by these people". He also called his work, "so proud, angry, rebellious; so full of moral dignity and so rocklike". However, others, like Marjorie Perloff, were not so keen on his work; in her article Tradition and the Individual Talent: A Review, published in 1976 in the Southern Humanities Review, she wrote: "Beecher's verse is, however, not poetry at all," and in the same article, "Beecher's characters are generally sentimental cardboard figures, and his solutions to America's problems are touchingly simplistic". Her words are a stark contrast to Meredith's assessments in the same year: "powerful, highly controlled writing" or Adams' words five years later: "His most enduring lyrics are about the downtrodden's fight for economic justice, human dignity and political fre'dom". Not everyone took Beecher's bait. There is a lot of debate over whether or not Beecher is a viable 20th century poet. Perloff seems to say no; Adams, Marsh, and Meredith seem to say yes. I side with the latter to say that no one doubts his volatility, nor his ability to cut deep down to the "damn truth" as he saw it.
view /JohnBeecher
Saturday, May 31, 2003 04:28 pm
There is nothing more apt to write about in this political climate than the link between civilization and barbarity, beauty and violence. As a politically and ideologically motivated war breaks out about us, we can justifiably enter into the writings of W. B. Yeats - a poet who collapsed the boundary between our particular categories when he uttered a simple phrase that may be termed a paradox, an oxymoron, or an expression of absolute ambivalence - "A terrible beauty is born."

This one refrain, the core idea of "Easter 1916", is an emblem that represents a subjective reaction of the poet to his culture, an ambivalent reaction, to Irish national uproar.

The birth of a "terrible beauty" cannot, then, be separate from the idea of radical change: "all changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born". What we witness in this poem is a poet's confusion when deeply rooted traditional ideologies are uprooted, in a process represented by its historical equivalent, "The Up-rising". Yeats was well aware that his tradition, his ideology's home - his das Heimliche - was over. The uncanny complication we feel when hearing the phrase "terrible beauty" is not then particularly surprising; with the loss of traditional meaning, it is uncomely; W. B. Yeats has found himself faced with spiritual eviction - his das Unheimliche. A normalcy of "Polite meaningless words" changes to a paralyzing shrillness that seems to come with overthrowing transitions.

What was once a living stream, its change continuous and natural, is now disturbed by what is perceived as stubbornness, a stone-like commitment to one political cause.

"Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream."

With the reference to seasonal fluidity in "The Waste Land" where spring - a typical time of positive movement and change - is met by paralysis and decay. Despite it being spring, Eliot writes,

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water..."
(T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land", l. 19-25)

In "Easter 1916", Yeats (like Eliot) uses the universal paradigms of permanence and flux, in the form of stone and water, to show how tradition's flow has been disturbed by a headstrong single-mindedness - a nationalistic political ideal. Yeats, rightly or wrongly, paints such unchanging ideals as futile when he surrounds them with the growth and movement of a multitude of natural processes ("Easter, 1916", l. 40-56).

What we witness then in "Easter 1916" is the same thing we perceive in "The Waste Land" - the sense of an unwillingness to grow, an unwillingness to be renewed by spring's call. One prefers the death of winter than the rending pains of growth. Though we might accuse Yeats of being that changeless death of winter (in the form of his traditionalism), Yeats sees it otherwise. This idea is underwritten by Yeats' central refrain proclaiming radical "change" and the birth of a "terrible beauty". Paradoxically, it is the very changelessness of the rebel's ideals that cause such radical change. Historically, on Easter 1916, Dublin erupted into violence - civilization divided into barbaric confrontations. The radical change is for Yeats a reality of radical decay caused by an unwillingness to change or to grow.

Still, historically, such barbarism continued, and as it persevered, Yeats' ambivalent connection between a sense of terror and a sense of civilization was investigated in his subsequent works.

Yeats re-evokes the metaphor of water in "The Rose Tree" where the sustaining life force of "the living stream" might "Make the green come out again/ And spread on every side/ And shake the blossom from the bud/ To be the garden's pride". But such water is nowhere to be found, and again, the desert planes of "The Waste Land" are evoked, drawing the same spiritual drought, and the need for the redemptive element of Water, that is, renewal. In "The Rose Tree", the lack of water leads to a consideration of blood (one thinks "Water into Wine; wine into Blood of Christ") and the idea of blood sacrifice. The fact that Yeats has "Pearse" suggest this in the poem distances the poet, and allows for the poet's continued - and probably genuine - ambivalence. In context with our question then, it seems the barbaric act of self-sacrifice to a loving/vampiric "motherland" is in fact offered as a way to nurture a budding civilization. The idea of violent revolution in a time of spiritual drought is all done in the name of a new, "up-rising", civil nation. The central idea is that the foundation of civilization is sometimes founded by uncivilized acts, and is found in much of Yeats' poetry.

In a perfect balance, Yeats in a way also re-evokes the metaphor of the river-disturbing stone in "On a Political Prisoner". Compare

"That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill."

Which was associated with the stone amid the flowing waters, with

"Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?"

The stone in "Easter 1916" had represented single-mindedness, even stubbornness, or "hearts with one purpose alone", and coincide with "a bitter, an abstract thing".

We see now that Yeats has gone further since "Easter 1916". Now the crowd - the mob - has been incorporated into the equation as a catalyst for "her" mind's bitterness. "The Crowd" had become a major issue in Yeats' time, in philosophy and psychology, and Yeats had in no small way ignored the masses. He offered a popular theatre to the people of Ireland; but, Yeats quickly became disillusioned with such an ideal -

"...the dream of my early manhood, that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false; though it may be we can achieve it for some small circle of men and women, and there leave it till the moon bring round its century."

Yeats abandoned the idea of mass politics, and retreated to the comforts of his own close group of literary acquaintances; indeed, one may say that Yeats' poetry from this point on constitutes a lengthy process of complete retreat: a retreat from the Modern Age, the body, from life as lived (politically / practically speaking). "Sailing to Byzantium", a poem looming in the poet's future, holds within its words just such a reality of Yeats' retirement from mass-politics. However, in "The Leaders of the Crowd", Yeats still offers his unique wisdom - "truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone/ and there alone." That lamp will reappear in "Sailing to Byzantium" but it will be no "singing school" this time, but rather, a study of "unageing monuments of the intellect". It seems at this point that the barbarity (sometimes) necessary in creating a society or civilization has forced Yeats-as-poet towards Byzantine past in a form of nostalgia, but, immediately, when we reach "The Second Coming", we see it also pushes him into the future in the form of prophecy.

In "The Second Coming" we receive Yeats' philosophy of history:

"urning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

What, indeed, can we say about this? The four lines chime universal - they appeal to a grand pattern, a cosmological vision. Plus, this is the second coming, so eternal recurrence is added in to the conceptual cocktail - with a dialectical twist - we have, according to Yeats, reached an antithetical moment, a reversal or trans-valuation of values. The poet's Hegelianism seems clear. By now the D
view /YeatsBarbarityCivilisation
Friday, April 25, 2003 04:18 pm
John McGuirk
Even in a life constantly teetering on the edge and possessed by moments of genius, there was no more spectacular day in the life of Hart Crane than the day he left this world.

The facts are that over 70 years ago, the poet was on the SS Orizaba, a ship traveling 275 miles north east of Havana from Mexico to New York. It was there he drank copious amounts of alcohol, and after several violent outbursts, had to be locked in his cabin. It is said he was in such a fierce state that the door had to be nailed shut. Somehow, against all odds Crane managed to escape and was seen heading for the sailor's quarters in search of "the secret oar and petals of love" which translates from Crane-speak as a hefty bout of buggering. He was found later that night beaten up and relieved of his valuables.

The next morning, he visited his companion and sometime lover Peggy Cowley, who at the time was trying to "rescue" him from the terrible affliction that he happened to be attracted to people of the same sex. His last words to her were "I'm not going to make it dear, I'm utterly disgraced." With this he left, and was seen at the boat's stern where he approached the railing in an overcoat under the midday sun. He removed this and, in his pajamas, leapt over the side and was last seen swimming strongly towards the horizon. Lifeboats were sent out to search for him but returned empty-handed. His body was never found. The ship's captain, a man called Blackadder (clearly not skilled in the art of bereavement diplomacy), said, "If the propellers didn't grind him to mincemeat then the sharks would have got him immediately."
Though it is undoubtedly the deed that has immortalized the poet, all his work is unfairly viewed in its shadow. Certainly, it played its part in telling the story of who he was, but it shouldn't tell the whole story.

If you are looking to find out where he was born and all that Catcher in the Rye sort of crap, all I can tell you is that he was born in Cleveland, Ohio into a wealthy middle class background. Through the manufacture of maple syrup, his father made a fortune but lost it all in the Great Depression. The young Crane did not have a happy upbringing, later writing to his mother: "it's time for you to realize that my youth has been a rather bloody battleground for yours and father's sex life and troubles." Obviously taking it seriously, he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists but thankfully survived. Whether his upbringing led to his poetic inclination to unify themes, to prevent conflict and separation, as psychologists have claimed, is either the truth or psychobabble according to your view of these self-absorbed analytical times. Rejecting the business path that his father attempted to coerce him into, he struggled to hold down the monotony of a steady job, the sure sign of a genius or a rogue or both. He drifted into New York and, mesmerized by the city and filled with mad ambition, found a cheap flat at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn above the harbour, above the sound of the river, the passing boats and the fights and intrigues of the waterfront. From the window where he sat his desk, he could see the granite gothic arches and the steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. His muse stared in at him as he struggled to think of something to write. Later he found out that his window was the very one from which Washington Roebling, the bridge's engineer, had watched its construction.

Intoxicated by his hero Edgar Allen Poe's assertion that the thirst of the poet was that "of the moth for the stars", he set about to try and bring the wonderment of WBaudelaire enthused, or to reach "the rational derangement of the senses" of Rimbaud. Or they may have simply been excuses to get his rocks off and get pished.

Indeed Crane has often been called the American Rimbaud, but though he was similar in his incendiary personality he was not quite the poetic revolution that young Arthur was. Nevertheless he searched for "divine madness" and found it fleetingly in some remarkable works. It was not an easy life. He regularly struggled with poverty, trying to extract money from his parents like teeth from a drunkard, and suffered artistic frustration, resorting to throwing his typewriter from his window onto the pavement below. Staggering whiskey-sodden through the streets in search of a willing sailor he'd shout, "I am Baudelaire, I am Marlowe, I am Whitman" into the night. His only problem was that despite his calls he remained Hart Crane, and for him, that wasn't quite good enough.

At more successful productive times he would sit writing in an alcohol-induced frenzy, listening to the same song over and over again on full blast from his Victrola, and when finished, he would leave to go down into the city under the pseydonym Mile Drayton, where he'd cruise the rough spots looking to get laid.

One reason why he echoes Rimbaud is, like the demented Frenchman, he was the scourge of the intelligentsia. "Who is this young poet?" the fashionistas would ask and, "Can we have him at our next dinner party?" And sure enough he'd turn up and they would never invite him back. For this alone, I will always toast the man's memory. Oh and almost as an afterthought, his work was also quite good.

After much time and effort, his central work The Bridge was eventually forged. The Brooklyn Bridge, the "terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge," would be a symbol which would unify all the disparate elements of what he thought America was. The native, the colonizer, science and art and business and technology, the modern and the ancient into "One Song, One bridge of fire!"

Amongst this and the follow up White Buildings, there are some stunning pieces of writing. Metaphors such as "adagios of islands" gliding past slowly and gracefully like the melody of a string quartet blissfully recreates ocean travel. Nor was it all positive and idealistic. The lines
"Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft

A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan"

refer to both the individual submerged by the sheer mass of the city and Crane himself the displaced homosexual.

There is no doubt he wrote some tripe, but search through his writing and you'll be rewarded. The most admirable characteristic of his work was the fact that he sought to celebrate the world and what life could be with "rapturous intensity" and in doing so, put his neck on the chopping block for all the arch miserabilists who earn their living trying to fool us into believing that life isn't worth living. The fact that it was unfashionable, at a time when most poets revealed, and reveled in, how brutal and terrible the world was made it refreshing. His novel approach was basically "enough moaning, we require new sensations" and like the futurists of Europe, he believed we needed a new poetry for these new times. So rather than write of old women sitting drinking tea talking about Michelangelo, he'd write about the mighty Charlie Chaplin and suspension bridges and skyscrapers. He summed up the situation perfectly when he said, "The poetry of negation i s beautiful, alas too dangerously so for one of my mind. But I am trying to break away from it. Perhaps this is useless, perhaps it is silly but one does have joys. The vocabulary of damnations has been developed at the expense of these other mood. Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!" In this way his work may be the antidote to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", an upper to Eliot's downer and his America a fresh start as Europe collapsed.

The Bridge, somewhat a breath of fresh air, received critical acclaim. A lone voice, influenced by unfashionable Elizabethan poets as well as a desire to write the epic of the metropolis, he belonged to no school, no -ism, no following, and he is perhaps all the better for it. His natural allies would only come after he had died. Tragically, he is very close to the same trajectory of the Beats, merging supposedly high discourse and low street talk, celebrating bebop and swing and getting high and seeking to find out what America was or could be. This is tragic because perhaps he was a Beat born too early and was set adrift on his own, spurned by the establishment and without comrades to rely on.
Remember the words of his quoted earlier, "Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!" They could have come from the mouth of Keroauc himself. Think of the similarities: the homoeroticism, the jazz, the searching for boundless beauty through travel and intoxication. Think of On the Road ending in Mexico or Burroughs in Tangiers and it is all too easy to sense the presence of the ghost of Hart Crane, or at least the echoes of his lonesome paths. Perhaps he was a Beat born too early or the Beats were Hart Cranes born too late.

It is tempting to borrow his own iconography and say that Crane was the bridge from Walt Whitman to the Beats. Sure enough, I can imagine his lines: "We have seen the moon in lonely alleys make a grail of laughter of an empty ash can" taking flight over "the Negro streets at dawn" and their "angel headed hipsters" and deep into Howl.

To leave it at that would be a disservice to the man. For he deserves the respect to be seen as important in his own right--an end rather than a means to an end--a "was" rather than a "might have been". Due to The Bridge, Crane won a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and with the money, he set sail for Mexico where he intended to research an epic about Cortes' conquests of the Americas. There he rented a villa next to the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, who recalled that he was charming company except (and this is a big except) when he reached "that point of drunkenness when he cursed all things; the moon, the air we breathed, the pool of water with its two small ducks. He didn't hate us...he hated and feared himself." This highlighted an increasingly prevalent part of his character--a self-destructive self-loathing--which is not something that should be fed by those distanced enough to romanticize about the tortured artist, that most voyeuristic of myths. It should be remembered that self-disgust is self-attention and is narcissistic, an obsession with selfhood which should never be celebrated as a virtue. This was a human being trying and failing to endure, and it was a pitiful sight.

While in Mexico, David Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, painted his portrait but chose to portray him with down turned eyes because he said there was too much desperation in them. Crane's reaction was to slice the painting to ribbons and drink a bottle of iodine in another botched attempt to kill himself. You could speak all day about how he wrestled with his repressed sexuality, and he undoubtedly did, but to blame all his troubles on this would be a cop-out, for the man positively adored the act of homosexual sex and his character in almost every aspect of his life, not just sex, was leaning towards manic depression.

Perhaps like his descendant Keroauc, his search for happiness and beauty gave him a purpose but no contentment. Perhaps all art is, as Wilde admitted, the telling of beautiful lies. By the time he left Mexico he wasn't believing his own poetry anymore and wrote only one poem, "The Broken Tower" where he lamented each "desperate choice," all transitory in nature. He left when the money (and the inspiration and ambition) ran out and headed back to an America that seemed determined to repeat the mistakes Europe had made. It was not quite the fresh start he had envisioned.

Suffering from hallucinations due to his alcohol intake and having left poetry behind (or it having left him behind), there was only one end for the man and, having written for so long about the sea, there was only one means of doing it.

There are quite a few reasons for reading Crane. One is because of his extraordinary life or the admiration for those who follow their passions and live their lives precariously on the edge. That stunningly beautiful paragraph in On the Road:

"the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,"

...the paragraph that probably cost Neal Cassady his life attempting to live up to it, and probably cost Keroauc's his running away from it--that paragraph that could just as well have been written about Crane.

Or you could read his works just to see what he had to say about the world while he was here.
view /HartCrane
Thursday, April 3, 2003 05:34 pm
Darran Anderson