Monday, October 11, 2010

I’m Strong But I Like Roses…

A New Look at Rod McKuen

By Barry Alfonso


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Pop Void #1. I thought it deserved an encore.

Tomorrow I’ll buy you presents,” muses Rod McKuen in his poetry collection Listen to the Warm.  “Pomegranates and breadsticks, / tickets round the room and back/ and red red roses like everybody buys everybody.” Much is revealed about McKuen, the Writer and the Phenomenon, by the last line quoted above. Just as a romantic automatically purchases the reddest of roses for a sweetheart, so millions upon millions of sentimentally-inclined bought McKuen records and books in the late 1960s and early ’70s. If it became trite to use his work as a valentine gift, there was no shame in that—in fact, it may well have been a plus for many of his devoted fans. McKuen’s special niche was as a bard of common-place joys and sorrows. To be among the vast numbers who took him to heart was an act of beautiful conformity.

Today, more than a decade after McKuen’s peak in popularity, it may be hard to recall the magnitude of his appeal.  First came his hit songs as a lyricist: “If You Go Away,” “ Jean,” “Love’s Been Good to Me.” Then there were the volumes of poetry, the sell-out concert tours, the television specials. His face became a familiar one: toustled yellow hair, wrinkled brow, sad eyes, a mouth never in a full smile. His hoarse mumble of a voice complimented his appearance. He was an anomalous celebrity, but a true media star nevertheless.

The jacket copy of his 1972 book, And To Each Season, sums up his impact neatly: “Rod McKuen is both the best-selling poet in history and the best-selling author in this country (USA). In the past five years, his poetry has sold nearly eight million copies, and his songs, which have been translated into at least ten languages, have sold more than one hundred million records.”
The best-selling poet in history—allow the full impact of this fact to sink in for a moment. Might it be fair to call McKuen, rather than the likes a Bob Dylan or Allen Ginsberg, the true voice of his era? It’s a justifiable observation, but definitely not a critically fashionable one. Hand-in-hand with McKuen’s mass appeal came the abuse of intellectuals and tastemakers, who were positively enraged by his success.

How could this shy, profoundly mellow man stir up such hostility? By reminding those of “culture” that the aesthetics of the average man were still rooted in the baser emotions: excessive sentimentality, self pity, Christian guilt, torpid frustration.  English teachers might praise “The Waste Land” and counterculture hipsters point out the weighty significance of Blonde on Blonde, but, for millions of “ordinary folks,” these sorts of works had nothing meaningful to offer. Instead, they took to heart such observations as the following: “Your smiles were bright as birthday wrapping paper/ your touch was like the angel cake you tried to bake but couldn’t”; “I wish I knew a new lullaby? That began with love and ended with love / and had only love in between....”

Highbrow TV personality Dick Cavett was once quoted as describing McKuen as “the most understood poet in the world.” Most likely this was meant as a witty insult —in any case, it makes clear the elitist bias of the critics and academics. To laugh at a writer for his ability to communicate serves to ridicule his audience as well. This is worse than snobbery—it’s irrelevant.  McKuen’s popularity in the late 60s and early 70s is a sociologic fact of great significance.  It transcends mere questions of “taste.”

Still, there is something to be learned by delving into the specific charges his detractors made against him. Louis Cox’s review of McKuen’s Twelve Years of Christmas and In Someone’s Shadow printed in the January 3, 1971 issue of New Republic, contains some of the important ones. “What are these poems for?” Cox grumbles. “They are poems to screw by, for one thing, and to masturbate to .... The poems make no demands.... What Mr. McKuen guarantees is that a certain California sexual day-dreaming can be yours for the asking even if you do move your lips rapidly as you read.... Mr. McKuen is no dope and knows very well what he is doing: i.e., weeping nostalgically all the way to the bank or broker’s.”

Let’s examine this indictment. The comment about the use of poetry as an aphrodisiac prompts the logical question —what’s wrong with that? The same may be asked concerning the undemanding quality of McKuen’s work. Why can’t art be valid for its functional value? Using word on the printed page to induce orgasm (or even mild arousal) is as defensible as pondering them for intellectual fodder. And, considering the demands that job and home life make on most people every day, why does art have to be a further imposition on one’s frayed nerves and taxed brain? If these sound like spurious or bizarre remarks, it’s only because “smart people” don’t often make them in print. Nevertheless, audiences have used poetry and songs to induce specific, easy-to-predict sensations since the dawn of man—isn’t that why hymns are sung in church?

Cox’s final jab—that McKuen was only in the writing game for money—is hardly worth responding to. The statement by Jesus regarding those free of sin casting stones is worth recalling here. McKuen’s royalties no more destroy his credibility than they invalidate the responses of his fans. If he wrung tears and coaxed smiles, his work accomplished its ends, just as a bottle of aspirin that relieves headaches may be called effective no matter how much profit the drugstore made from selling it.

With the typical lines of attack used against McKuen dealt with, there are some further aspects of his songs and poems worth discussing. Despite the undeniable commonality of his work (and this is in no way intended as a criticism), there are idiosyncrasies and paradoxes to be found in both the man and his writing. The most obvious is the sense of alienation and fatalism found in so many of his recordings and books—how odd for a man so apart from the crowd to be embraced by so many.  Again and again, he talks about “loners” and “single men” who cannot sustain contact with anyone for very long. Melancholy, resignation and defeat are reinstated again and again until the reader/listener wonders why McKuen bothers reaching out to others at all. Appropriately, his last major hit in America as a song lyricist was Terry Jacks’ 1974 version of “Seasons in the Sun,” a dying man’s farewell to the world.  McKuen’s stylistic tendencies reinforce this sense of disappointment and wistful pessimism. There is little or nothing transcendent about his writing, no larger meaning behind the words. His language is conversational—and, as in a conversation, banal remarks can convey tenderness and pathos (perhaps, in part, because of their sheer banality). Clichés are delivered with a natural ease, used the way they were meant to be used. Often, his chains of associated images are so sweepingly ordinary that they almost appear to “found art.”

One example from the collection, Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, serves to illustrate this. “I know that love is worth the time it takes to find,” McKuen consoles a friend in the poem. “Think of that / when all the world seems made of walk-up rooms / and hands in empty pockets.” Choosing “walk-up rooms” and “empty pockets” as symbols of loneliness rather than more exotic images helps to depersonalize the writer and bridge the gap between him and his (largely) unsophisticated readers. Using utterly bland language taps into something deeper than the unconscious it’s almost writing from beyond human thought. When Arthur Rimbaud described the artist’s mystical derangement with the maxim “‘I’ is another,” he may well have been predicting McKuen’s strange combination of achingly introspective sentiments and numbingly anonymous technique.

When the otherworldly does intrude into McKuen’s writing, it takes on an incongruously commonplace shape. The Sky, the third LP from a series of recordings with composer Anita Kerr, contains several examples of spirituality from a man-in-the-street perspective. In ‘”The Butterfly is Drunk on Sunshine,” he has a vision of angels walking the Earth at a lazy pace, “all in white” (of course!). The Lord himself is depicted in “Mr. God’s Trombones” as ruling over a heaven resembling “a wide grey football field filled with pretty clouds.” The mood of these two songs (enhanced by Kerr’s pacifying music) is drowsy, comforting, not “serious” but not intentionally ludicrous either. It’s reasonable to say that, in McKuen’s conception, God and his minions are no more or less remarkable than a nice cup of hot coffee, or one of his beloved “kitty cats.” (In the 1920s, advertising executive Bruce Barton wrote a hugely popular novel called The Man Nobody Knows, describing Christ as the prototype for the successful modern businessman. At one point, he reminds the reader that Jesus’ physical appearance went unrecorded, then, apparently accidentally, refers to the Savior as having blue eyes. Similarly, McKuen, when he must portray God, seizes upon descriptions so shopworn that they are probably thoughtlessly-chosen as well.)

It is possible to overemphasize McKuen’s lack of conscious control as a writer. There are certainly devices he relies upon to underscore his ideas. One of the most frequently employed is the listing of everyday objects, then ending with an emotion eliciting word. “A Patch of Sky, Away from Everything,” from the Sky album, contains a typical example: “You move through the house / Sweeping down the bedroom with your eyes / Like sun on Sunday / But more like—you.” Or in a Stanyan Street poem: “You’re filled completely this first November day / with Sausalito and sign language / canoe and coffee / ice cream and your wide eyes.” And this, from one of his most famous works, “A Cat Named Sloopy”: “Every night she’d sit in the window / among the avocado plants / waiting for me to come home / (my arms full of canned liver and love).” If they were aware of these obvious stylistic mechanisms, I doubt that many McKuen devotees held such devices against him. A little awkwardness of speech made him seem more fallible, and therefore more likable.

McKuen’s writings, then, are as full of contradiction as day-to-day living itself. His conflicting love/hate expressions gave him the aura of a romantic realist, someone who’s “been through it all” but still wants to care. This description also fits the persona of another much-loved figure—Frank Sinatra. The “Chairman of the Board” identified enough with the poet’s work to record A Man Alone, an entire album of McKuen songs, in 1969. Despite the surface incompatibility of the two, it was a highly appropriate match-up.

Sinatra has been termed, among other things, a “saloon singer”—songs like “One For My Baby (and One for the Road)” and Films like Pal Joey established an explicit connection between “Ol’ Blue Eyes” and the bleary sentimentality of the tavern. It’s worth noting that McKuen identified with the European chansonnier tradition of Jaques Brel and Edith Piaf. Marlene Dietrich, the archetypal cabaret singer, was a great fan of his.  Despite the frequent outdoor settings of his songs, McKuen’s sensibility is more compatible with cocktail lounge ambience. The emotional states induced by alcohol, than, provide a common ground between him and Sinatra.

When intoxication takes effect, even a self-consciously masculine figure like Sinatra finds it possible to call himself “a man who listens to the trembling of the trees / With sentimental ease.” Beyond such gentle poesy, there’s a current of disillusionment and impotent anger running through A Man Alone. In “From Promise to Promise,” Sinatra confesses his hurt in the face of petty lies told by newsboys and laundrymen. Life is so wearying that, in “Some Traveling Music,” he ponders heading for an island “with a mess of records and a ukulele,” where he can just sit “strummin”’ (would Louis Cox find this an onanistic reference?) and “thinkin’.” It’s interesting to consider the similarities between the attitudes expressed in these songs and Sinatra’s own public posture in the early ’70s. Formerly identified with the Kennedy family and New Frontier liberalism, Sinatra evolved into a vocal Nixon Administration supporter. The resentment and bewilderment expressed on A Man Alone have their political parallels in the singer’s hostility towards student unrest and the anti-war movement.

The above relates to McKuen’s own ambivalence towards the young. In a December 1972 Saturday Review interview, he stated: “I don’t consider myself a spokesman for the young, although I do strongly identify with them. I wouldn’t mind turning the country over to the kids today.” (McKuen was 39 when he made this comment.) As expressed in a number of his writings, this ‘“identification” was not an uncritical one, at least towards the more unconventional youth of the time. “The Mud Kids,” found on McKuen/Kerr LP The Earth, portrays hippies who “BB gun the street lights, roll the old bums in the park and build doll houses out of sugar cubes instead of Lincoln Logs….” A few lines later, he blames poor upbringing for such delinquency and concludes, “Maybe they [the kids] will make it [the world] better.” Clearly, his audience was not the Turned-On Generation—if he could sympathize with hip alienation, he spoke more for those who lived conservative lifestyles. “These are the days of the dancing—six feet apart,” he comments in a poem found in Listen to the Warm. “Let’s not wear mustaches and funny clothes / .... They can keep their butterfly collections / their nineteen-thirties songs and one-room trips.”
McKuen’s constituency was not that of the trendy or fashionably radical. This doesn’t mean that it was primarily middle-aged either—press descriptions of his concerts indicate that he had many, many young admirers. It’s also clear that his devotees were not among the so-called counterculture. The term “Silent Majority,” used back in the Nixon days to describe the quietly-conservative segment of America, may be applied to McKuen’s audience as well.

“Rod McKuen comes out and says what people have been trained not to say,” an associate of the poet’s commented in the April 4, 1971 issue of The New York Times Magazine. “Some guys bring their girls to Rod’s concerts as a way of telling them how they feel.” This is a remark worth considering—in fact, I think it should be taken completely literally. The reason why millions of rather unspecial people loved McKuen is that he was no more “poetic” than they were. So much of what he said they themselves could have said just as well and in the same words, if they only had the self-confidence to do so. If what he created was not poetry (as the critics claimed), then it’s because “true poetry” is the province of a particular elite in the contemporary world.  McKuen served as the embodiment of a lifestyle and reality held to be drab and outré by the literary establishment—thus, his true role was as a soldier in a cultural class war.

McKuen’s audience identified with his relaxed, casual image because it implied something more meaningful: resignation.  Unlike bohemians, campus radicals and others of their ilk, the common folk have little opportunity to break out of their mundane living patterns. Mind-expanding drugs are not an acceptable way of altering their reality (though alcohol can be to a limited degree). All that is left for them is to examine the minutiæ of a modern consumer society over and over again with a mixture of affection, confusion and fear.  Nostalgia for a long-lost past figures into the drab dreams as well—a return to simpler times, perhaps to the tranquility of the prenatal state. McKuen phrases like “listen to the warm” and “caught in the quiet” suggest more than placid introspection. In an increasingly meaningless world, the security of the womb is the last refuge for those seeking solace.

Short of suicide or madness—options that few would consciously choose—a way out can only be provided by the temporary balm provided by a McKuen. To callously denigrate those who read his work is to attack people in pain. What sort of a planet do we live on where “artistic standards” take priority over human suffering? Is it any wonder that the much abused “Average Joe” despises the intellectual? In his gut, he knows full well that the intellectual would let him die in the street rather than compromise “art.” Perhaps McKuen did “weep all the way to the bank” as he considered the success of his superficial, mediocre verse.  Maybe he did bottle and merchandise “love” like a cheap patent medicine. If he granted one lonely soul relief for a few minutes, he is a humanitarian and his enemies are sadists.

Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever lost a friend and felt that all mercy had been extinguished from this world? And have you ever felt reassured to know that at least one man understands your condition?  Then you can comprehend why Rod McKuen became the best-selling poet in history. And if you would still call him worthless, perhaps you don’t deserve anyone’s love. It’s a petty, boring and futile life we lead. Listen to the warm, and endure.

More about Barry Alfonso.