Rod McKuen Essay - McKuen, Rod (Vol. 3)

McKuen, Rod (Vol. 3)

McKuen, Rod 1933–

McKuen, an American, writes verse and songs.

[McKuen's] poetry is by no means wrought with elegant variation. The preponderant theme is a neoplastic pleonasm rooted in his universal proposition to the world. He has "no special bed"; he gives himself "to those who offer love." His desire is concise enough: those who see him "some weekend waiting" should "say hello." [His] books are permeated with this prosaic, anything-but-artful commentary from the oldest teenager around. It is strange that he has become a hero to masses of young people who reportedly place their trust in "situational ethics." McKuen's situations rarely involve ethics….

Whereas his major theme, garish sensuality, stirs an eddy in each volume, a gush of minor themes is slowed down by the McKuen touch and takes on the appearance of drifting debris. In a poem called "No," he looks at the drug-using problem with an attitude less fierce than his title suggests. He admits that every once in a while he'll "take a benny" but the metonymical "sugar cube" is "far too rich."… In "Days of the Dancing," he discusses love in a more generic sense than is his wont. In an apostrophe to Lewis Carroll's Alice he unctuously tells her that "wonderland is still there waiting"; that "it didn't die with Marilyn or Kennedy."… Occasionally, he becomes the modern cynic, unartistically berating the quiz show which will be the setting for his cousin Max's wedding. From the show Max will receive electric appliances, furnishings, "and a girl."… Perhaps this conceit appeals to the "with-it" generation, but at best, the poem is limping, labored prose—not poetry. In some poems he momentarily scans the current political scene. Far-right conservatism upsets him—modern-day caskets are not made of "pine" but "bent John Birch."… The plight of minority groups arouses his sympathy. Hills covered with "Indian paintbrush" recall the unjust treatment of the red man and the fact "that we can't buy back the buffalo."… He also attempts to be funny but the best that can be said of his humor is that is puerile and sometimes expressed in polysyllabic words…. The minor theme of religion is treated in a traditional way. God is a very personal Being Who delights in His creatures, creatures who are "beautiful in His mind's eye."… McKuen would like to return again to Nature, God's monument…. It is astonishing that in the presentation of these themes he uses sticky, juvenile imagery characteristic of the high-school poet whose poems are rejected by the student newspaper….

McKuen has put some of his poetry into song. In fact, he refers to himself specifically as a chansonnier: "I'm in sympathy," he says, "with the French artists, their ability to be men enough to say how they feel…." And he does so. In the combination of his words and music, McKuen shows his forte; he seems to be an excellent songwriter, but songs are different from poems because they are not meant to stand alone. Another art form, music, is there to support them.

But the question remains, why the commercial success with poetry of such poor quality? McKuen supplies an answer, "It just happens I've said something at a time when people need to be talked to. Husbands can't talk to their wives or parents to their children." But his explanation is as inadequate as his poetry, because man's history is wrought with poor communication, yet few poets who have said so little have sold so much. Perhaps the answer can only be guessed at. Maybe great masses have latched on to his poetry because it satisfies a desire in them to feel intellectual. His allusions and imagery are so simple, so blandly elementary, that they can be easily understood; these thin thoughts spun in the "form" of poetry make the reader feel that he has probed intellectual depths when in fact he has only been fooled by a shadow of the real thing. Certainly symbol with depth is painfully lacking in McKuen's poetry. Perhaps his followers are not applauding his poetry but themselves for recognizing a "form" and being able to digest it without realizing that what they are eating is as substantial as cotton candy…. Conceivably, the McKuen phenomenon is another case of the horizontal syndrome Paul Tillich speaks of, the syndrome of modern man's grasping for a quantity rather than a quality, and this grasping is all the sadder because so many can no longer distinguish quantity from quality, can no longer recognize poetry except for the surface "form" of stringing words in tiny lines occasionally tipped with rhymes which may or may not make sense. Superimpose the realization that McKuen wistfully, even nostalgically daydreams the same dreams of many young people who, like the characters in his poetry, are substituting over-simplified and questionable answers for deep, unasked questions. McKuen says, "I'm not a poet; I'm a stringer of words." To argue with his comment "I'm not a poet," would be herculean; to accept "I'm a stringer of words" seems plausible enough.

Andrew J. Hirt, "Rod McKuen: America's Questionable Poet Laureate," in Journal of Popular Culture, Spring, 1970, pp. 704-11.

It is very embarrassing—like having to tell 80,000,000 avid readers that Richard Nixon has Dragon's Breath—to reveal that Mr. McKuen is another nogoodnik, just right for those who, in mildly more literate days, used to go to church, heaven, bed, wherever, with Kahlil Gibran, Anne Morrow Lindburg, Walter Benton, Gloria Vanderbilt, and nameless denizens of the Beat Generation. Mr. McKuen is moody, vacuous, abstract, uninteresting, slow-eyed (sloe-eyed?) à la Robert Mitchum….

I have such total doubt in McKuen's powers of invention that I think the following—from a poem called 'Did You Say The War Is Over?'—is a delicious error, compounded from author to lazy proofreader to careless linotyper:

          "The acne of perfection now must be
          to punch the teacher in the nose
          who gave you F instead of D."

"The acne of perfection"—terrible in any context, but surprising none the less in the sad, minimal world of Rod and his eager know-nothing millions.

Jonathan Williams, in Parnassus, Fall/ Winter, 1972, pp. 98-9.

It's a good thing, the way high-school students read Rod McKuen. Of course he can't write a decent line; it's his narcissism that turns people on. But if a hundred people get thrills from Rod McKuen when they are 15, twelve of them will read William Blake when they are 20. He gets them started.

Donald Hall, in American Poetry Review, May/June, 1973, p. 56.