Art

Stanyan Street.

There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Rod McKuen. There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Rod McKuen and just don’t know that you have, yet. A prolific poet and composer, credited with more than two hundred albums and more than thirty collections of poetry, including work in prominent films and the music industry, earning an Oscar nomination, Rod McKuen was sometimes referred to as “the accidental hipster”. In his heyday of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, as he achieved something that few poets ever do, widespread, mainstream, commercial success. His work was popular, he is one of the best selling poets in history. Born in Oakland, California in 1933, Rod McKuen passed away yesterday in Beverly Hills, at the age of eighty-one.

I first heard of McKuen when I was a kid without paying much attention to it and then not knowing that I was listening to his work or who he was.

     Sinatra recorded McKuen…
        It would be accurate to say that at one time not only was McKuen popular, his work was wildly popular.
“Jean,” theme song for the film “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” for which he received an Academy Award Nomination.
     My next introduction to McKuen was when I was in my early twenties. Though I’ve been writing poetry since grade school, seriously and sincerely since junior high, I hadn’t read a lot of it because I didn’t like what was offered up and suggested. The work of Emily Dickinson, that I’ve since learned to appreciate, simply didn’t do it for me. I was like, “What’s this? A poem about a tree?” The other thing that had shut me down about reading poetry was that someone had suggested T.S. Eliot’s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”  and I thought… “Could this poem go on any longer?” Lastly, I did not want to be influenced by the poetry or work of any other writer, I did not want to learn how to write like someone else, I wanted to write like me.
And thus, I really did not start reading the work of other poets, a variety, until I was in my late twenties. While I don’t know if I recommend such methods, it did allow me to establish my own preferences and unique voice. Poetry is so very personal when one writes it, even if a person is making up the verses in accordance with a fiction, the emotion involved is true in some regard and so it is difficult, sometimes, at first, to talk about a part of or a complete poem because those words are pieces of flesh that we’ve cut off and served up for the consumption of others, or extricated from ourselves, and sometimes good riddance. Truly though, for most pieces of work that goes away, because time moves forward, with most pieces it later becomes “that thing I wrote when,” most.
     Wandering around a new and used bookstore when I was about twenty-one, I stumbled onto a very old, very cool, book of poems by Robert W. Service, which I immediately knew that I was going to have despite the ten dollar price tag, due to it’s age. ( “The Spell of the Yukon”, first printing, 1907.) The other book that I knew that I was taking home that day was, “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows” by Rod McKuen. Simple, clean, stunning word portraits of love, loneliness, life, of savoring the simplest of pleasures in the realization that they are the most decadent and worth savoring, I knew that I was going to begin collecting the work of Rod McKuen. My God, I still haven’t read all that I’ve collected yet, but I know that I will.
    As anyone who’s ever been paying attention knows, or may have noticed, my favorite McKuen poem is titled simply, “Thirty-Six,” and appears in the collection titled “Listen to the Warm”, which was the second book of McKuen that I bought. From reading that on, I was all in, you learn so well the ones that get you.

THIRTY-SIX
I live alone.
It hasn’t always been that way.
It’s nice sometimes
to open up the heart a little
and let some hurt come in.
It proves you’re still alive.

I’m not sure what it means.
Why we can’t shake the old loves from our minds.
It must be that we build on memory
and make them more than what they were.
And is the manufacture
just a safe device for closing up the wall?
I do remember.
The only fuzzy circumstance
is sometimes where-and-how
Why, I know.
It happens just because we need
to want and to be wanted too,
when love is here or gone
to lie down in the darkness
and listen to the warm.
– from “Listen to the Warm”, 1967, Rod McKuen

Another favorite became “Under Capricorn” because it just rips, and I wasn’t expecting it..

Desperation in the saddle,
not the clean broom sweeping.
It is the yoke so stringent
that no farmer would permit its use.
The rivet gun that shoots out hate.
The chain saw cutting life in two.
Desperation is to death
what medals are to heroes,
condiments, proof.
The Great Divide is not a land mass
Capricorn drives
through.
It is the highway
leading from the soul into oblivion.
~ Rod McKuen

In page after page of emotion, ranging from passionate and poignant, to disinterested and numb, McKuen cut to the quick of it all.

Every now and then, I would check his webpage to see if he was still around and thought it so incredible every time that he was, but what I wish is that more people of my generation, of younger generations, knew his work, or that they would get to know his work.

I’m not as “afraid” to read the work of other poets, or of influence, as I used to be or once was, I think that that comes with years, with confidence, with gaining some faith in who I am as a writer, as a person, but I return to the work of McKuen time and again and know that I always will. There are “discoveries” as writers that mark personal milestones for us, same as regular people, and McKuen is so very definitely one for me. I was heartbroken to hear of his passing, as though an old friend whom I’d never met were no longer in the world, but then in that same vein  thought, as one would of an old friend who had lived to be eighty-one and accomplished so very much from such humble beginnings, good show.

Rod McKuen, 1933 -2015.

 

 

~ TS