Rod McKuen (1933 - 2015)

For a certain, very narrow slice of the population (of which I count myself a part)--namely "serious" poets--the name Rod McKuen is the punch line of any number of jokes. These jokes are invariably told with a knowing sneer and a big dollop of condescension. You see, Rod McKuen, for a considerable stretch of the 1960s and 70s, was something most younger Americans cannot imagine: a well-known and well-paid poet. He managed to become rich and famous by writing very accessible poems--lots and lots of them. How accessible, you ask?

My grandmother, whose personal library fit on the top shelf of her contempo mahogany hutch, owned two of his more than thirty books of poetry. Rod McKuen wrote poems grandmothers loved--hence the derision from people like me. His poems were sentimental and homely. His subjects were traditional: love, the spirituality of nature, cats. He was not much interested in nuance and existential dilemma; there is little complication in his verse, or at least none that couldn't be assuaged by a sunset and folksy turn of phrase. In nearly all of his poems, you can fairly easily identify three or four lines that tell you exactly what the poem "means." And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. That is exactly what my grandmother and millions of others turned to his poetry for: consolation and a little reassurance that there is attainable meaning in this world that so often seems to be lacking in it. McKuen, for over half a century supplied just that, without--and this is important--without apology to the critics and to condescending jerks like me. He knew what we said about him and he went on being Rod McKuen and writing Rod McKuen poems. Why? Because that is who he was, and that is what he was made to do. 

How many people do you know who can say the same?

R.I.P.

Works by and about Rod McKuen at HCPL