Friday, January 30, 2015

Bubble gum, peanut butter, kitschiness & Rod McKuen

“Rod McKuen, former prolific poet and songwriter of the 60s and 70s, died today. He was 81.”

This was a brief mention on the 11PM local news last night. When I got up today, I was surprised there was zero mention on or on the homepages of several other news outlets. It took a Google search to pull up the details.

Seems a little disrespectful, something McKuen was probably used to.

I first encountered the poetry of Rod McKuen when I came across his books in the Hallmark store on Broad Street in New Castle, Indiana in the late 60s. The same place I bought my beloved sandalwood candles.

The books had warm abstract covers and simple titles: Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, Listen to the Warm, Lonesome Cities, And Autumn Came, In Someone's Shadow, Twelve Years of Christmas.

If you were alive in the late 60s, early 70s, you may remember the song “Jean” sung by the recording artist Oliver. McKuen wrote the song for the 1969 movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

What? You never heard of the movie, the song, the singer, or McKuen?

Sad. But not unusual.

McKuen was, as my friend and former high school English teacher Steve Dicken so aptly noted, my “gateway” poet. Dicken also referred to him as a “bubble gum” poet.

Someone once told me reading McKuen for them was like getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of their mouth. Peanut butter is tasty but the experience is a tad discomfiting, was the point they were making.

Okay, I get it. Now.

But back then, I was completely enamored of McKuen’s poetry. Unlike so much “better” or “real” poetry, his writing was accessible. That it tapped into the always-in-flux emotions of adolescent romanticism was probably also a factor.

Dicken wisely maneuvered me toward the better poets and craftily whetted my appreciation for finer writing. Dr. Zenas “Big Z” Bicket picked up in college where Dicken left off.

I grew up, my literary sensibilities shifted, and I grew away from McKuen.

But not entirely.

McKuen, by critics and academics, has been pooh-poohed as smarmy, saccharine, schmaltzy, mawkish, and he was even dubbed “King of Kitsch” at one point.

Snark is easy and cheap.

Yet, the man was prolific and successful. In fact I have to wonder if at least some of the harsher criticism was fueled by jealousy.

McKuen published more than 30 books of poetry and song lyrics, plus two non-fiction books. He produced hundreds of albums of music, spoken words, original compositions, and movie soundtracks. He earned two Oscar nominations and one Pulitzer nomination for his music. Frank Sinatra even commissioned him to compose an entire special album of music.

His books and albums sold in the millions.

He did this coming from an abused background, with no formal musical or literary training, producing poetry every day, proud to write what anyone could understand and that millions appreciated.

And you have to respect a guy who, for years after running away from home and an abusive stepfather, supported himself by holding a variety of hard labor kinds of jobs such as ranch hand, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, and  stuntman, among others, always sending money home to his mom in the process.

Not too shabby for a “bubble gum” poet.

Still, as my literary sensibilities “matured,” his books were slowly culled from my library. Somehow I managed to keep one and recently picked up another in a moment of nostalgia in a thrift store. I also still have two of his old albums, as well as a Jacques Brel album with whom McKuen collaborated.

In recent months I had been wondering what ever happened to McKuen. It turns out he fell into a depression in the 80s and basically stopped giving concerts, more or less withdrawing from public life. And his poetry just wasn’t cool anymore. His final books were published in 2001 and 2004.

But here’s the thing.

If, for some weird reason I was about to be exiled to a desert island and told that the only poetry I could take with me was either the complete works of Rod McKuen or the complete works of, say, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, or Charles Bukowski, I’d go with McKuen in a heartbeat.


Because his writing is accessible, warm, genuine, and unpretentious, like having a good friend to hang out with. Which is the effect you’d want if alone on a desert island.

Of course, if my choices were expanded to include James Dickey, Wendell Berry, Stephen Dunn, or some others, well, my decision would be a little more difficult.

Still, if it weren’t for McKuen piquing my interest in poetry and drawing me in, I might never have discovered the “greater” poets and writers. Or wanted to try my own hand at the writing craft.

So, all you teachers of English out there. When one of your students shows interest in words and shares with you their favorite, but in your opinion “somewhat poor excuse for a writer”, be careful not to speak that thought. Instead, validate their interest, and gently nudge them toward what you believe to be “better” writers.

Besides, if those you believed to be the worst of the worst wrote as well as Rod McKuen did, it would not be a bad thing and all poems would be at least as lovely as a tree, if you catch my drift.

As for me, I’m unashamedly grateful for the gentle influence of Rod McKuen.

Thanks, Rod. I owe you.


Links to more about Rod McKuen:

Are there writers or musicians that have influenced you or that you enjoy that others pooh-pooh? Do you snark about the likes and dislikes of others? Why? To feel better about yourself? For shame. Share and sound off in the comments!

“It's Bartok time and this party’s had it.”:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stinking to high heaven: Sorry dad.

In the 60s and 70s I think every teenager went through a phase where they were into burning incense or scented candles.

Sometimes the point of these were to disguise other, um, shall we say “troublesome” odors?

For me, I just liked them. I wasn’t trying to cover up other smoky smells.

My favorite scent was sandalwood. I made frequent trips to the Hallmark store to purchase the largest orange sandalwood candle they had. One nearly new candle bit the dust.

The college I went to grew up around an old Army hospital. Some of the original buildings were still in use as dorms and heated with steam. Over one Christmas break, for reasons still unclear, the maintenance department went into our vacant rooms and opened the radiators full blast.

Returning from vacation, when we opened our doors our rooms were bursting with heat! It took hours with the windows open to cool everything down.

In addition to warping a few of my vinyl albums, a sandalwood candle I had sitting on a shelf completely melted away. Since the shelf was a hunk of unfinished wood, the wax simply absorbed into it!

C’est la vie.

I also liked those little black cones of pine incense, especially around Christmas.

My dad, on the other hand, had a much different attitude about these and other artificially scented things. He hated those “smelly candles” and you didn’t even want to get him started on incense.

I never really understood his objections. I mean, how could you not enjoy the lovely scent of sandalwood wafting through the house?

He didn’t. At all.

In recent years, something has happened to my olfactory system.

As a result I’m realizing what my dad was objecting to. And now I feel a little bad I wasn’t more sensitive to his nasal sensitivities.

My wonderful wife loves scented candles. She’d have them burning all the time if she had her way. But not me. Not anymore.

Maybe it’s years of sinus infections or who knows what, but now, I’m just like my dad when it comes to those smelly candles.

We’ve experimented with various scents, all to no avail and to my wife’s grave disappointment. Just going into a candle shop is a challenge for me.

In fact, walking past a perfume counter in a store can send my head reeling. Dad had the same problem!

Strong smells do me in. When she needs to do her nails, my wife, lovingly, goes upstairs to our bedroom, closes the door and opens the window, even when it’s cold outside. I love her for that.

Oddly, her sense of smell is somewhat lacking. As a result, our opinions on how strong something smells will vary, to say the least. Like when she decides to roast garlic in the oven. Oy!

But we work through it. Sometimes I just have to endure. Still, she is more sensitive to me than I was to my dad.

Sorry, dad. Really. I get it now.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some candles to blow out.

What do you think the moral of this story might be? Or is there one? Any spiritual application(s) you can think of? What memories do you have of your mom or dad? Share in the comments!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Keep this in mind when writing anything (#PoetryMonday*)

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful.

Power influences.

Influence changes behavior.

Behavior reveals character.

Character is defined by passion.

Passion follows from thought.

Thought generates ideas.

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful...


  * It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

 This is a repost from June 3, 2011 (also reposted on June 9, 2014)

Okay, so technically this may not be poetry. But poetry is a flexible and fluid concept, so maybe it is. At any rate, how we use words, in speech or in writing, is serious business. Words do matter.

Agree? Disagree? Neutral? Share your reactions and thoughts in the comments!

This poem is included in this collection:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

5 tips for clearer thinking. Or, Don’t be lazy! Take two minutes to clear off all the snow to navigate safely! Or, don't be a port-hole...thinker.

Every winter you see them out on the roads and do your best to avoid them.

They are the cars covered in snow with only a small port-hole sized spot cleared on the windshield. The rest of the car is covered in snow and ice.

Could these people be any lazier?

How much more time would it take to clean off the entire car?

Whenever I get in my car in the winter, I clear it off completely, including the roof, hood, and back of the car, as well as the lights all around.

I want to be able to see clearly on the road, as well as be seen clearly. It only takes a minute or two to get the job done right.

Sadly, there are people who are like snow covered cars careering through life with a distorted, incomplete “port-hole” viewpoint.

Are you like this? Don’t be! “Port-holing” is a good way to get blind-sided and be viewed as a jerk.

Here are five view-inhibiting lazy-minded attitudes to clear away from your thinking.

1. Truisms are often false

I hate truisms. Especially when people cling to them like life rafts.

A couple of my most loathed are “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” and “Past behavior dictates future behavior.”

Both are incredibly dismissive of people. They deny the power of God’s transforming grace, the reality that people do change, and that we often misperceive others.

While there may be some modicum of truth to these and other truisms, when applied to living, breathing people they fail to reveal the multi-faceted dimensions of individual personalities.
The truth: People are complex, defying easy categorization. Even though we like to box each other in with our quick, shallow impressions of one another, truisms always fall short of describing who a person really is. They may make for clever posters, but they are damaging to people and relationships.

2. Issues are not one-sided

When I was in high school, part of our speech class involved debating. We were required to argue both sides of an issue. This was especially tough when the issue was near and dear to my heart and I felt strongly about which was the right side.

But it was an excellent exercise. Even if I still held my position in the end, I gained a much better understanding of those on the other side.

Actually, there are usually multiple “sides” to any issue or argument. You know, like that proverbial accident viewed from different positions in the intersection?

As a result of my debating experience I get a little suspicious of those who refuse to see the various sides to an issue always insisting there’s only one right way to see everything.
The truth: Events and issues are seldom black and white but rather abound in complexity. Insisting on interpreting events and issues through a myopic viewpoint is as dangerous as going the wrong way on a one-way street.

3. Rumors deflect away from truth

It wasn’t too long ago a rumor that was burning up the Internet and filling everyone’s inbox with forwarded messages revolved around the P&G logo and company executives.

Rumormongers insisted the logo was filled with Satanist imagery, that company profits supported the devil’s causes, and that some executives worshiped Satan.

None of it was (or is) true.

But even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the rumor persisted for decades. I’m sure that there exist pockets of wrong-believers who still cling to the idea that the rumors were indeed true. Nothing will dissuade them from their port-hole wrong-headed view.

Sadly, starting a rumor or making a false accusation are easy while countering them is arduous. This shouldn’t be the case.
The truth: Rumors and its cousins -- hearsay, gossip, speculation, and innuendo -- will always bear false witness to the truth. Slander and libel are founded on rumors and false assertions. Rumors must always give way to facts.

4. Ignoring context leads to wrong conclusions

A minister told an anecdote recounting what a senior member of a congregation had alleged to have seen.

Esther, a bit of a biddy, reported to anyone who would listen that she had witnessed Eddie, the president of the church youth group, smoking by the school. She was outraged and poor Eddie was scandalized. At least until their pastor brought context to the situation and confronted Esther.

It was true that Esther saw Eddie standing near the school with his hands up to his face and what looked like smoke coming from his mouth. It was a cold day and he was waiting for his parents to pick him up after band practice. While he waited, he was idly fiddling with his trumpet mouthpiece and warming his hands blowing “smoke” through the mouthpiece.

Had Esther paid attention to the context of Eddie’s character, the fact that his trumpet case was at his feet, and knowing as she did that Eddie was in the school band and was not a smoker, she may not have jumped to a wrong conclusion. Unless that’s what she really wanted to do.
The truth: Context is king! Too narrow of a focus or personal agendas will block out essential facts leading to a skewed understanding. A broad, open view is needed to see clearly.

5. Your first impression is probably wrong

Socrates is to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” An unexamined life is one that is lived without contemplation or thoughtful consideration.

Information and data pour into our awareness. We skim it all, make snap assessments and quick judgments, and move on. We live, believe, and offer opinions while stuck in our initial knee jerk, bone-headed reaction.

Kind of like looking out your window and thinking that you see a rabbit, when, upon closer examination, it’s revealed to be a chunk of frozen slush fallen from a car.

We eschew the effort of careful examination and avoid taking time to reconsider. We ignore new information and insight. As a result, we become convinced dirty slush is a bunny.

Too often, whatever fits our preconceived notions is all we care to hear, read, or learn. We feed our foolishness and send truth on a holiday while basking in ignorance.
The truth: Refusing to mull, to go deeper into context, and to question ourselves is choosing to operate from willful ignorance. And that is a dangerous place to be in a world that is as complex and troubled as ours. It is also how bias, prejudice, bigotry, false assumptions, and wrong-headed beliefs are created and fueled.

Better living with nuanced thinking!

In the Bible, we are encouraged to be “sober minded” (1 Thessalonians 5:6, Titus 2:6, et al). R. C. Sproul, Jr. explains, “To be to treat truth seriously and to have a healthy doubt as to our own understanding of truth.”

Being sober minded is practicing nuanced thinking and being willing to engage others without bias, as opposed to flat-line thinking, being hard-nosed, and short-sighted.

The Apostle Peter puts it to us like this: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:13-15, ESV).

The bottom line is that, especially as Christians, we should eschew lazy thinking and take the time to listen to, learn from, and love those around us, even when we disagree with them.

Sober up! Be smart! Clear off all of the snow! Take the time to discern truth with the Holy Spirit’s help (Romans 12:2).

Relevant links:

“No one wants to consider that it's not a SKIN issue but that it's a SIN issue.”


Have you ever realized that you were engaging in faulty thinking? If so, how did you become aware of it and how did you change your attitude? Do you believe there are some issues that do have only one right way of seeing them? What are they? Please share your thoughts in the comments!