Fifty years ago in March 1969, a rather odd book of verse hit Britain’s bookshelves. Its jacket contained no description of what lay inside — only the image, on both its front and back, of an ashen-faced man, sceptre in hand and visage obscured by corkscrew curls, sitting proudly beneath an egg-like orb. Its title, in the florid lettering of the day, read The Warlock of Love, and its author, the ever-elusive Marc Bolan, dedicated it to ‘the Woods of Knowledge’.
Though he was the progenitor of the glam rock movement, and, in his heyday in the early seventies, a rock and roll star who was regarded as the successor to the Beatles and whom David Bowie dreamed of being as big as, Bolan today is a much-overlooked figure. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that, even in his native Britain (he never ‘cracked’ America, much to his dismay), he remains misunderstood amongst many as a fame-hungry teen idol who fizzled out after a few years of gobbledegooky glory.
‘He loved the glamour and drama of stardom’, admits renowned British publicist Alan Edwards, who once worked for Bolan, ’but in some ways, that overshadowed his writing.’ Indeed, there are few who aware that Bolan wrote poetry, let alone The Warlock of Love, and even two fantasy stories (Pictures of Purple People and The Krakenmist). Although Bolan was a rock and roll star, he was a poet first and foremost. When asked at a 1965 press conference whether he regarded himself as more of a singer or a poet, Nobel Prize-winner Bob Dylan responded, ‘Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know’. Not so Bolan. As Mark Paytress notes in his book, Marc Bolan: The Rise and Fall of a 20th Century Superstar, a thirteen-year-old rock and roll-loving Bolan brusquely declared he was a poet when asked at a local Labour Exchange about his chosen profession.
In many ways, The Warlock of Love can be seen as an extension of Bolan’s work with Tyrannosaurus Rex, the folk duo he played in at the time. The book echoes the spirit and ethos of Bolan’s early music, and deals, more or less, with the same subjects and themes. Just as Bolan sang about wizards, bejewelled Abyssinians, and Eastern spells on tape, so too did he write poems about mages, ‘Celtic woadmen’, and the all-round exotic and otherworldly in his book. Characters like Aznageel the mage and a mysterious wizard, featured in two Tyrannosaurus Rex tunes, also reappear here. Interestingly, years earlier, Bolan had told a story about a meeting of his in Paris with a levitating wizard who imparted arcana to him. If not the same warlock Bolan wrote about in the book’s first poem — ‘pure of skin but soiled of soul’ — the Parisian, factual or fictional, was evidently a major creative stimulus and recurring figure in Bolan’s oeuvre.
The wizard aside, other influences can be clearly seen throughout the book. The surprisingly dyslexic Bolan may have ‘[dug] a Ginsberg poem’, as he wrote in a 1966 poem, but it’s difficult to find any traces of the Beats here. Rather, his poetry — and lyrics, too, for that matter — exhibit a Romantic sensibility coupled with Tolkien-esque imagery. This comes as no surprise, given Bolan’s familiarity with Romantics like ‘Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Byron’, as Paytress points out, and well-documented adoration of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Years later, he would remark that ‘even William Blake would have grooved to my lyrics …’
Bolan, however, was a one-off in all respects, and his poetry defies categorisation. The Romantic influences are clear — for example, in his lush nature imagery, allusions to Greek mythology, and overall hypersensitivity — as is the Tolkien connection, but only Bolan could have penned something like The Warlock of Love. The short, lyrical poems are sensual, mysterious, and otherworldly, and appear as flurries of sublime images rather than coherent pieces. What is a ‘hairwish’ or a ‘zinc of finches’? None can say, and it would be foolish to read too much into things. Bolan didn’t intend to write about ideas clear and definite, but rather to impart particular feelings and emotions to his readers. ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ this is not; one leaves the book not knowing what on earth Bolan was writing about, but with the memory of the most ethereal of dreams. ‘Marc’s [poems] were more dependent on imagination’ says Edwards. ‘In that respect, they were timeless, and will repeatedly come back into vogue and be reassessed in the future.’
It would be a couple of years before Bolan would achieve superstardom with 1971’s Electric Warrior album, and The Warlock of Love was his first (and only) book of poetry. Yet, according to London booksellers Sotheran’s of Sackville Street, it did quite well, selling some forty-thousand-odd copies and becoming Britain’s best-selling poetry book of the year. In 1992, it was lovingly republished by the Tyrannosaurus Rex Appreciation Society, but today, even this edition is out of print. One can only hope that the major forthcoming BMG Bolan tribute album will provide the impetus for another reissue of this essential work by one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating artists:
And with the coming of the sweet breath,
the seeds in the garden of all hearts
will flower immense,
and such flames licking and long,
will be sighted upon our lands,
that it will seem to the highborn
that the Earth has hatched anew.
Words by Joobin Bekhrad
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