The writer's year: March, Paul Morley
From Marc Bolan to Lord Byron - Paul Morley celebrates the diversity of the poetic...
I still have the first book of poetry that I ever bought, The Warlock of Love, by Marc Bolan. It’s a magical thing, and each poem is about magic, opening the curtain on enchanted forests, mythical creatures, gypsy lords, storm stallions and weathered eggs, and possibly sex, although at the time I barely sensed that. It was published in 1969, when he was not yet a pop star, and I got it when I was fourteen, in 1971, when he was. In 1970, The Warlock of Love had been the best-selling volume of poetry, 40,000 sold, out- selling a book of poems by Mary Wilson, “reflecting the compassion of a serious, kindly and sensitive woman”, wife of the then Prime Minister, Harold.
On the cover, the quill-holding poet in flowing robes on the verge of a glam rock future posed like a golden lion with smoke for wings. He looked like he hung out with the ghosts of Blake, Byron and Shelley as they gazed deep into the heart of things, knowing how to throw the best parties. Inside its seductively slim-volumed 64 pages I began to learn about poetry, even if to his critics it was a vanity project, and he was a mere pop singer playing at being poet, more Rod McKuen than Lautreaumont, a fey, attention-seeking charlatan who read too much myth soaked Tolkien and nicked too much Keats. For all the dark pearls of hate and turbans of glitter that infuriated mean-spirited purists, the book showed me what a poem could be, all shapes and sizes, the chopping of logic, the breath-taking precision, the banging and angling of language. Some poems were just three or four lines long, presented like ancient riddles, some a little more lavish, staggered ladders surrounded by tantalising white space.
Motivated by Bolan’s prancing dreams to chase revelation, I rapidly shifted from one poet to another, self-made legends with fabled lives. I quickly found – or they found me – the legendary Laforgue, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Pound, Sitwell, Ginsberg, Yeats, Carlos Williams, Pound, Auden, Eliot, Graves. Amongst them, stringing us along wearing numerous masks, Bob Dylan, a definite descendant of Dante and Whitman, all that irresistible, slippery verbal energy pointing in multiple directions at once. The field was wide open and flying through space. It contained Joni as well as Emily, Dory as well as Neruda, Sly as well as Bukowski. Then there was Plath, the dew that flies, the magician’s girl that does not flinch, the pure gold baby. Then there was not quite next door Patti Smith, with her hymns to possibility, who made you think without poetry there would be no Hendrix, no Hank Williams, even no history. There was Howard Devoto, descendent of Dostoevsky and Bowie, and then Morrissey, a descendant of Byron and Bolan, grounding his wreathed visions firmly in a spellbinding Northern geography.
Some would say I am wrong, to find poetry in Stephen Malkmus as much as Don Paterson, in Roy Harper as much as Simon Armitage, in Rakim as much as Larkin, in Slim Shady as much as Ashbery. It never feels wrong. The best lyrics and poetry, by rearrangers constantly rearranging the rearranged, are closely related, both inducing exhilarating spiritual vertigo. Either can make amazing sense, perhaps because for me it all started with The Warlock of Love, by Marc Bolan, spinning an embroidered poetic fantasy, which somehow didn’t seem nostalgic for a lost world, but ached for the future, and
the other lives, worlds and realities that poems constantly invent, maintaining even if very few notice
a slender but absolute continuity, before the curtains close.
Paul Morley, for Waterstones.com/blog