In honor of Poetry Friday I present my first poet, Rod McKuen. If you are twenty or thirty something, chances are you have no idea who I am talking about. That’s okay. Feel free to skip to the next blog. My feelings won’t be hurt. Besides, as you can see in this picture, I have Rod to console me after you leave.
In Junior High, back in the dark ages, a boy I liked knew how much I liked writing, especially writing poetry (see this previous Poetry Friday post) so when he saw a book of poems at a junk sale, he bought it for me. That book was LISTEN TO THE WARM by Rod McKuen. It was a small, gift-sized book about 6″ square. I read it again and again and then started haunting used bookstores for copies of his other books. He wrote about love and broken hearts but at the center of it all he wrote about being lonely and boy could I relate to that. My mom understood my obsession (even if she didn’t “get” Rod’s poetry) and she cut out clippings of interviews and news pieces about him that I saved for years and years and wish I still had but I don’t. Over the years I learned of his albums (they were these large, black things that you put on this thing called a turntable and then this needle went around and around and played a song.) I really had to hunt for those albums but I built up a complete collection which I, sadly to say, did not take with me after my New Orleans experience for the very stupid reason that I didn’t have a turntable anymore. Sigh. Some of those old albums are available on CD but not all.The albums were a mix of spoken word and songs. My favorites were the birthday concerts at Carnegie Hall.
McKuen is an award winning author and a poet. He is the recipient of both the Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman Awards for outstanding achievement in poetry, a recipient of the Brandeis University Literary Trust Prize for “continuing excellence and contributions to contemporary poetry.” And THE POWER BRIGHT & SHINING, a book in verse about America, won him the first Amendment and Freedoms Foundation Awards. (info from his website ) He is also award winning musician and you have probably heard his musical scores in some familiar movies. Oh – I can tie him to children’s literature with his soundtracks since he wrote the soundtracks for The Borrowers, A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Lisa Bright & Dark, to name just a few.
Here’s some more about his music from his website:
His film music has twice been nominated for Academy Awards (THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE & A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN). His classical works (symphonies, concertos, suites, chamber music and song cycles) are performed by leading orchestras and classical artists throughout the world. THE CITY, a suite for Narrator & Orchestra, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Music. He has received commissions for classical work from The Royal Philharmonic, The Louisville Orchestral, Edmonton Symphony and National Symphony among others. His LONESOME CITIES won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word album in 1968 against such formidable competition as “John F Kennedy: As We Remember Him” and the collected speeches of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.
What was it about Rod McKuen that kept me so connected to him over the years? The loneliness was a big part. The fact that he had never known his dad and I had never known mine made me feel like he understood where my pain was coming from. I was jealous when I found his book FINDING MY FATHER because he got to do something I would never get the chance to do, make that connection with the past. He also wrote about simple things, the sort of everyday life I could relate to, and it was in reading his books and listening to his conversations on those old albums (there’s a great story about the birth of the book STANYAN STREET AND OTHER SORROWS that I’ll share another time) that gave me hope that someone like me, someone who didn’t come from anything special could maybe write the kind of words that might really matter to someone else.
A few years ago Rod came to San Francisco to speak at the Commonwealth Club and my husband just happened to hear mention of it on the radio. He called to let me know that Rod was in town for one night, that night, and right after work we hit the freeway and the traffic and headed off to meet someone I could never in a million years imagine meeting. Rod was around 70/71 years old and yet he looked ageless, right down to his trademark hightop tennis shoes. He talked of so much writing yet to do and his quiet energy just filled the room. I don’t remember much of what he said that night when he was on stage but afterward he had time to chat and my husband dutifully kept snapping the camera. This picture is the one of the few where I wasn’t crying. I could hardly get any words out at all but Rod just put an arm around my shoulder and said in that wonderfully gravel voice of his, “It’s okay. ”
How do you thank someone for opening a door? Rod McKuen may not be an expected idol for a children’s author but it was from him that I first learned about writing with emotional honestly.
It seems appropriate to end this post with the same line that Rod uses to end every performance.
“It doesn’t matter who you love or how you love but that you love.”
Thank you, Rod McKuen.