Grateful Dead

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Documenting The Dead: The Poetry of the Archive

By Nicholas Meriwether

The Poetry of the Archive

Dozens of themes knit together the various sections and collections in the Grateful Dead Archive, but one of the most interesting and evocative is poetry. Although there are no collections exclusively devoted to poetry in the Archive -- the Robert M. Petersen Papers are mostly, but not exclusively, poetry -- poems can be found throughout. Robert Hunter's published poetry, and translations of poetry, are a prominent part of the band's library; they represent the best-known poetic voice in the Archive. Other published efforts from the band's inner circle include a recently issued collection of occasional lyricist Peter Monk's poems and lyrics, as well as volumes by Petersen.

Fig. 1. Alan Trist, “The Field of Hypnocracy.”

But the greatest vein of poetry in the Archive is largely unpublished, a scattered trove found throughout the band's papers. A sheaf of Robert Hunter's and longtime band staffer Alan Trist's poems turned up in the band's business papers, for example, along with dozens of poems by band family, friends, and fans, most often in the correspondence series but some dotting other sections, from fan art to press. Even more pepper periodicals and books devoted to the Dead or touching on the broader phenomenon they sparked, many in privately printed Deadhead chapbooks and broadsides, distributed in concert parking lots and often mailed to the band. This glorious profusion makes poetry a kind of common artistic ground between the band and fans: not just a shared artform but one that documents a common wellspring, whether from antecedents like the Beats, who inspired both band and fans, or the wide-ranging experience of the Dead phenomenon itself, beginning with the concerts. When Robert Hunter wrote, “When the Dead are playing their best, blood drips from the ceiling in great, rich drops”, it may have appeared in a prose setting, but sharp-eared fans heard the poetry in those lines.

Poetry was a major form of artistic expression in the Haight-Ashbury, where the dividing line between the Dead and their fans was blurred from the beginning. Even in their early days the band attracted well-known poets such as Richard Brautigan, who wrote “The Day They Busted the Grateful Dead” as a surrealistic homage to their travails, and their neighbor Michael McClure, who gave Garcia a lyric that he tried to work up into a song. Though that failed to come to fruition, both McClure and Brautigan remained lifelong fans of the band's music and lyrics. Brautigan made it a point to share his admiration for the band with other poets; one of his early biographers recounts a memorable occasion when he played American Beauty for an appreciative Robert Creeley.

The Dead returned the favor. Most of the band members, to varying degrees, had an affinity and respect for the Beats as bohemian elders and avatars, most famously in their friendships with Neal Cassady, but the connections between the two generations of artists are more extensive and nuanced. Pigpen's library included seminal works by San Francisco poets, and he even tried his own hand at poetry: one of his Beat-inflected efforts appears in The Grateful Dead Family Album. Phil Lesh found Allen Ginsberg's Howl so inspiring he began to set it to music. Lesh has a keen eye for poetry: in one interview he recites a favorite poem, written by an original Haight-Ashbury fan commemorating the band's celebrated St. Valentine's Day performance in 1968. It begins “Tonight we danced to the Grateful Dead,” and ends with the lines:

Did you see God? the people all around were asking.
Did you slip through the fire without getting burned?
Till one cool head, turning out his inner eye, said,
I made the trip
God's not dead
He's a beautiful joke.

Lesh's appreciation for Deadhead poetry goes to the heart of how both the band and its fans approached the Grateful Dead phenomenon, as a mutual effort and collaborative artform. Poetry is one of the ways to trace that sense of a shared artistic vision, which turns up throughout the Archive. Early chroniclers helped establish that: Dennis McNally's authorized band biography A Long Strange Trip notes one literate Deadhead outside of the show, quoting Beat poet Gary Snyder's line, “Tibetan Army Knives for sale, special mind opening blade,” but he also recounts a brief, almost Brautigan-esque couplet coined by crew member Steve Parish. Announcing his “first poem” to his crewmates, Parish recites: “Everyone in the world but me is crazy / And I started to feel crazy today.” His epigram invokes the idea of the crazy fool, a figure found in the Dead phenomenon as well, and it describes the sub rosa perspective that subcultures have always offered: the wisdom of the margins that poets and novelists and astute scholars have always sought to ferret out from the hidden voices buried in archives and dusty, forgotten publications from the past.

While the band was touring, Deadhead poets could be found in parking lots all over the country, some hawking chapbooks or passing out broadsides, others just listening and learning, absorbing it all before finally giving voice to their experience. Their efforts span the gamut from amateur to professional. Award-winning poet Robert Cooperman has published many poems about his decades with the Dead, including one chapbook built around motifs and images drawn explicitly from the band's songbook. Peter Conners has achieved renown as a chronicler of the Beat generation; a novelist who is an accomplished poet as well, his superb memoir Growing Up Dead describes how he used his time in the Dead scene to become a writer and find his voice as a poet. Most Deadheads know Steve Silberman as coauthor of Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads as well as the thoughtful and eloquent writer of numerous articles, liner note essays, and other celebrations of the Dead; his deep background in modern American poetics informs that work, and it is especially clear in his interview with Robert Hunter for Poetry Flash magazine. That encounter created one of Hunter's best interviews, and deftly reveals how poetry can describe and evoke the Grateful Dead phenomenon.

Silberman lives in the Haight, where noted poet Thom Gunn lived; a visit with Silberman in a Haight Street coffeeshop can prompt a flood of colorful stories about the San Francisco poetry scene, the Haight-Ashbury, and all of the ghostly palimpsests of artists and writers who have passed through those foggy environs. On one memorable afternoon in the early 1990s, Silberman talked about Gunn, who appeared almost as if summoned, walking up the street. A more concrete connection between Gunn and the Dead is Deadhead Jim Powell, one of Gunn's younger friends who counted him as a mentor. An accomplished poet in his own right, Powell won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1993, and he makes no secret of his affinity for the Dead in his interviews.

But most Deadhead poets labor outside of the limelight, still an honorable position in American arts and letters and a time-honored place in Bohemia. Some are lucky enough to find synergy between their careers and their vocation as poets: Brent Wood and Mark Tursi are both published poets, as well as fine scholars whose work includes important contributions to the Dead's growing scholarly bibliography.

Wood's scholarship includes an important treatment of Hunter's lyrics as oral poetry, and no discussion of the poetry of the Archive is complete without mentioning the band's lyrics. Although those have been published, the Archive still has surprises. For Phil Lesh's “Equinox,” for example, an outtake from the Terrapin Station sessions, there is an eloquent variant, written in Garcia's hand:

Fig. 2. Phil Lesh, “Equinox.”

Another fascinating surprise is a typewritten draft to “Ripple” that has a final, unpublished verse:

The wisest man
is but a pilgrim
he will not claim
to know the way
He will not promise
dreams of glory
his words are few
and his ways are kind

It could also serve as an eloquent statement of the role of the poet in the world of the Grateful Dead.

When Donald Allen compiled his groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, he noted that the poets included had “created their own tradition, their own press, and their public.” It is still too early to tell whether the poetry of the Dead will approach that level of influence, but already it can lay claim to a number of accomplishments. Some critics may fault its variability, but even there a thoughtful interpreter can see merit, a powerful flicker of the American bohemian tradition. The range of expression in that body of work illuminates the enduring power and appeal of the Grateful Dead experience -- and how its democratic inclusiveness enabled and encouraged all who partook to become artists of their own experience, and to express that. Then as always, poetry was an ur-form that called for and could absorb the full range of talents drawn to and informed by the Dead.

As Phil Lesh observed in an interview, “In my opinion, the more facets you can find in a work of art, the greater the work of art is -- and the more there is for you.” He could just as well have been describing how both the band's lyricists and Deadheads were moved to express their own lives with the band in poetry -- and reminding critics to look beneath prominence and polish to see emotion and connection. Viewed in the right light, even a rough-cut elegy can be a facet of a more luminous whole. Discussing his work and his time in the scene, Peter Conners commented that “The beauty of both poetry and music -- and all art forms -- is that once you tap into their power they never cease influencing you.” So it is with the poems in the Archive. Along with the music, the poetry of the Grateful Dead phenomenon will endure.

Fig. 3. Robert Hunter, “Ripple.”


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Heywood Jablome's picture
Joined: Mar 19 2012
The poem from the Grateful

The poem from the Grateful Dead movie should be immortalized here.
"If the dead were to die
I'd have reason to cry,
'cus the band i used to see
would be a cold memory;
But if the dead were to live,
free concerts they'd give;
Jerry G. on guitar
Would bring ... near and far;
If the dead were deceased
there would be no street peace,
we'd take all the power,
skin the cat and take a shower;
But if the dead live long
we'll be singing there songs,
and we'll all be so glad
momma' hated diesel so bad."

Joined: Mar 4 2011
Lesh Quote Cite

Hi Grateful Prof,

Thanks for your kind words! The Lesh quote is from David Gans's revised edition of Conversations with the Dead (the Da Capo edition), on page 102. Good luck with your book!

ckcoffman's picture
Joined: Aug 16 2010

@grateful prof: I don't have the book with me, so don't have the full biblio info, but the Lesh quote comes from one of the interviews in the "Conversations with the Dead" book that Gans put together.

The Dead and poetry is indeed a great topic to consider--thanks, Nick, for deciding to write about it! I always especially dig it when I come across some GD allusion in a work by a writer who doesn't self-identify as a DeadHead or who falls outside the Beat/post-Beat universe. James Merrill, for instance, mentions the Dead in his late poem "Self-Portrait in a Tyvek Windbreaker." I never met him, but based on what I've read and heard from his family and friends, he's one of the last people you'd find twirling around at a Dead show. That said, he seems to have had a tape or two at hand, if the poem is to be trusted. I like to imagine that at least once when that heir of the Merrill Lynch fortune and opera aficionado was cruising along in his beloved VW bug, the GD were coming out of the speakers, and he leaned forward to turn it WAY up. Maybe he was amused by Row Jimmy?

Too, I seem to recall that there's some Silberman / Hunter interview where they speak with great admiration of Merrill's poetry, so perhaps he knew some of the band's circle? I can imagine some connection to Silberman may have developed. Anyone know?

Joined: Oct 1 2007
fascinating post...

on an under studied subject. Could you perhaps supply a full reference to the Lesh interview you quote from in the last paragraph? The view he expresses here is one I would like to quote in a book I am completing. Thanks for the help!


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