McKuen, Rod (1933—)

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McKuen, Rod (1933—)

At his apex, Rod McKuen was the unofficial poet-laureate of America. Penning best-selling songs, composing classical music and film scores, and, in his own right, enjoying a certain stature as a recording artist mixing his poetry and lyrics in a series of well received albums, delivered in a reedy voice fractured by years of singing in nightclubs, McKuen was adored by his legions of fans. "In the sad, minimal world of Rod and his eager know-nothing millions," as one critic describes the poet's rapport with his audience, life exists in an ineffable mist of kittens and sheep dogs and chance encounters in parks and on public transportation. The poet of foggy afternoons and post-coital introspection, McKuen was, in the words of critic, David Harsent, a poet with "a formula likely to appeal to the groupies and the grannies alike" with a "neoplastic pleonasm rooted in his universal proposition of the world."

Born in the Oakland, California, charity hospital, McKuen grew up not knowing his father, a fact that left a deep wound but would later prove a goad to his endless productivity. McKuen was truly a child of the Depression. After his mother married, her husband took a job with a Works Progress Administration road-gang, which kept the family moving from state to state for much of McKuen's childhood. As a result, McKuen's schooling was spotty. He also suffered under the steady stream of physical abuse inflicted upon him by his step-father. In his later years, McKuen would become a spokesman for children's rights. After several failed attempts at escaping from his family, at 11 McKuen finally succeeded, fleeing to Elko, Nevada, where he found work as a ranch-hand, spent three years in a Nevada reformatory, and later joined the rodeo circuit as a trick rider. He also began keeping a journal in this period, describing the events of the day, the weather, scraps of dialogue, in an earnest tone that reveals shades of his later development.

Returning to Oakland after a freak injury ended his rodeo career, he was reunited with his mother and half-brother for a time, then volunteered for the draft in 1953, first serving in Tokyo as a "public information specialist," (McKuen's words) or, according to one depiction, as a "Psychological Warfare Scriptwriter." Evening would find McKuen polishing his voice at various Tokyo nightclubs, an activity which resulted in his reassignment to Korea. Also during this time, his first book of poetry was published, a volume entitled And Autumn Came. Mustered from duty in 1955, he returned to the Bay Area, where he secured a job singing at a San Francisco nightclub. With his chiseled features and lank, blond hair, he was a natural for movies and it was around this time that Cobina Wright, Sr. of Universal Pictures discovered him and invited him to be her guest in Los Angeles. McKuen spent the next two years as a Contract Player at Universal, taking supporting roles and starring in a few westerns until a dispute over a script left him summarily suspended. With a poet's impetuousness he then moved to New York, focusing exclusively on his musical career with occasional unsuccessful forays into the world of theater until, in 1962, his throat gave out and he returned to the Bay Area.

In San Francisco, McKuen recovered his voice and began a gestation period in which he traveled, wrote poetry, and collaborated with French composers, co-writing the hit "If You Go Away" with Jacques Brel. Having already developed a cult following, in 1966 he self-published his second book of poetry, Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows, selling it through a classified advertisement. Despite this primitive arrangement, the book sold briskly. It was picked up by Random House. The follow-up, Listen to the Warm, perhaps McKuen's most famous work, was a runaway success. With the publication of Lonesome Cities, McKuen could boast of finishing the year with three books on the Publisher's Weekly year-end top ten list, making him the first author in 70 years to do so.

McKuen is the poet critics love to hate, and through the years his books have drawn uniformly unkind reviews. In fact, criticism of his poetry is uniformly vituperative, as if his popular success was a direct affront to the academy at large. McKuen reacts to his critics distaste evasively—"the people who find it easy to criticize my work more often than not haven't even read it"—or with hurt—"I would be dishonest to say it didn't bother me." How could "so devitalized a singer, so bad a poet, so without wit or tune," as Margot Hentoff wrote, prove such an abiding success? "Why the commercial success with poetry of such poor quality?" was the way critic Andrew Hirt posed the conundrum in the Spring 1970 issue of the Journal of Popular Culture. McKuen's figurative answer—"It just happens I've said something at a time when people need to be talked to"—was occasion for Hirt to suggest, "Maybe great masses have latched on to his poetry because it satisfies a desire in them to feel intellectual."

The brief liner notes from one of McKuen's albums sums up his appeal to the masses: "Rod McKuen speaks to those who've lost them for those who seek them." His ineffable yearning-to-be-loved poetry stemmed from the trauma of his attenuated childhood, and particularly the absence of his natural father. In 1976, he wrote Finding My Father, a book about his unsuccessful quest to find this phantom, the presumptive father who, ironically, died ten years previous to the book's publication, an ice-man in Santa Monica, only a few short miles from McKuen's house.

While the period when critics actively loathed him is long over, McKuen remains a seminal figure, not in the arena of poetry where the gates have long since been barred against any serious consideration of his work, but in the annals of publishing where McKuen's massive popular success may never be equaled again.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

McKuen, Rod. Finding My Father. New York, Coward, McCann &Geoghegan, 1976.

Nykoruk, Barbara, editor. Authors in the News. Detroit, Gale Research, 1975.

Riley, Carolyn, editor. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 3.Detroit, Gale Research, 1975.

Stanley, Debra. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 40. Detroit, Gale Research, 1987.

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McKuen, Rod (1933—)

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