Poets for our time (about 30 years ago)

The rise of folk and, ultimately, rock music was grounded in a lyrical foundation that gave us pop stars who were also poets. Beginning with the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel, it’s a tradition that has stalled in the contemporary era. Though Jewel may have published a book of poetry – including “I lived in a car/But couldn’t drive far/My teeth they are weird/It’s chewing I’ve feared/Yet somehow I’m hot/Which forgives quite a lot” – it’s hardly comparable to what the giants of the 1960s and 1970s were able to produce.

Two of my favorites from that earlier period were the Doors and John Denver. Mercurial front-man Jim Morrison composed lyrics for the Doors that were every bit as evocative and stirring as anything written by bards as far back as Shakespeare. When Morrison cries out “Father/Yes son?/I want to kill you/Mother/I … want…  to/Waaarrriiiihhhhyyyyaaaa!” in his masterpiece “The End,” it’s not hard to imagine Coleridge, Byron or even Emily Dickinson adding “right on, dude.” When John Denver soars through the musical heights of his beloved Rocky Mountains, he’s flying in the experimental tradition of earlier wordsmiths such as Buddy Holly, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Amelia Earhart.

I thought I’d take a look at one short piece from each of these inspired giants, and try to analyze what it was that causes our emotional reactions to be so profound. I start with Morrison’s tone-poem “Horse Latitudes”:

When the still sea conspires an armor

And her sullen and aborted currents breed tiny monsters

True sailing is dead

Awkward instant, and the first animal is jettisoned

Legs furiously pumping their stiff green gallop

And heads bob up

Poise

Delicate

Pause

Consent

In mute nostril agony

Carefully refined and sealed over

I remember when I first heard this piece as a young man how sad it struck me that early seamen had to throw horses overboard when the winds died. What a terrible fate those noble beasts faced. They suffered at least as much as Morrison himself did after his arrest on obscenity charges for exposing himself during a concert. I see the exposed horses as an allegory for the act he allegedly performed on stage in Miami, though I hesitate to think what the “mute nostril agony” might be symbolic of. This poem captures perfectly the angst of a time when America’s youth were questioning traditional morals, and what the hell something like this was doing on a rock album.

Now, let’s contrast that hallucinogenic imagery with a folksier sentiment from Denver’s classic “I’m Sorry”:

It’s cold here in the city
It always seems that way
And I’ve been thinking about you, almost every day
Thinking about the good times, thinking about the rain
Thinking about how bad it feels alone again

 

I’m sorry for the way things are in China
I’m sorry things ain’t what they used to be
More than anything else I’m sorry for myself
Cause you’re not here with me

 

I’m sorry for all the lies I told you
I’m sorry for the things I didn’t say
More than anything else I’m sorry for myself
I can’t believe you went away

I’m sorry I took some things for granted
I’m sorry for the chains I put on you
More than anything else I’m sorry for myself
For living without you

Denver, obviously, is sorry – he’s very, very sorry. To this day, some critics claim he was a sorry songwriter in more ways than one, though I tend to see his pathos in a more positive light. Remember that this song debuted in an era when the U.S. was feeling its way in a post-Vietnam world, trying to consider old relationships in a new light. Amidst the profound self-pity about his girlfriend leaving, he still takes time to offer regret about the Cultural Revolution in China and the hardships that caused for a billion people, as well as the cold and rainy forecast in his hometown. By the end of the song, you can tell he’s heading to a better place – this is about the time he left Colorado for California and the contentment that came from his role in movies like “Oh God” and “Walking Thunder.” We lost a great poet but we found an even better actor.

 

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One Response to “Poets for our time (about 30 years ago)”

  1. E.F. Misanthrope Says:

    EF Misanthrope is glad to see that Davis W and he have similar musical tastes, and I now, for the first time, have the courage to say that I rather liked John Denver, but have kept him locked in a cupboard until now, fearing the derision of others. I was also interested to have him put in his historical perspective.
    And Morrison’s genius is, of course, admitted by all, except perhaps for the likes of Jewel and co., whom I’d like to light my fire with.
    A semi-serious piece for E.F. Misanthrope’s morning coffee today from the pen of Davis W, and I hope I will read many more. Just out of curiosity, has Davis W ever come across the works of Morrissey and the Smiths, or perhaps Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses-the two musical Gods of E.F.’s world?

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