Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bubble gum, peanut butter, kitschiness & Rod McKuen

REPOST: It’s been almost two years since McKuen died.
Since then his books seem to be turning up more frequently
in the thrift stores I browse. I noticed the same thing with
John Updike’s books after he died in 2009. Weird. Anyway, with
the recent passing of Leonard Cohen, my thoughts went back
to this piece I wrote about McKuen and some musings about
poetry and tastes. It was originally posted on January 30, 2015.
For those who are teachers of English,
heed the advice near the end. Enjoy!

“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 CNN.com 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.

Why?

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.

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Links to more about Rod McKuen:


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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.”:


If you’re interested, my most recent book of poetry is “Home Noise: new poems.” Visit www.HomeNoise.us. to learn more.

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