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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Friday, March 20, 2009

THE RETURN OF THE PASTEL POET, by Eve Silberman

OMG, he's back! Poet/musician Rod McKuen, heartthrob of my vanished sixteen-year-old self, will be performing at First United Methodist Church on April 3 as part of its Green Wood Coffee House Series. And though he's no longer the handsome, soulful, blond bard who had me shrieking at Ford Auditorium in Detroit in, literally, another century, he doesn't look bad for a geezer of (pause for wikipedia check - gasp!) seventy-four.

I no longer have my Rod McKuen books, those slim, pretty-jacketed volumes whose covers featured the poet looking pensively at rivers or a collection of rocks or maybe his cat Sloopy, who rated a book of his own called, natch, A Cat Named Sloopy. I spent hours looking at those books, listening to Rod's slightly gravelly voice reciting lines I still know by heart: "Where are we now? / Where are we now? / A thousand miles apart. / What have we now? / What have we now? / Not even love enough to break each other's heart." Those lines touched me in ways that the soliloquies of Hamlet and Lear, droned in a room of bored 11th graders, did not.

McKuen, according to Green Wood's press release, is that rarity--a best-selling poet whose works have been translated into some thirty languages. His heyday was the late Sixties and early Seventies, when he took his handsome self around the country, singing/reading to sell-out, mostly teenaged, mostly female audiences. I was thrilled to snag a ticket to that Ford Auditorium performance. His closing words that night: "It doesn't matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love." The audience erupted.

Afterward, I waited in a line of awe-struck girls, holding open my copy of Listen to the Warm for his golden autograph. "Sleep Warm, Rod McKuen," he wrote--in my book and all the others. Phooey on me for losing mine -- I might have gotten $15, maybe even $20 for it on eBay.

McKuen's extraordinary popularity probably had much to do with the sweetness he brought in raucous, rapidly changing country. The times were exciting but unsettling. Music was loud, clothing was loud, the anti-war chants loud ("Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"). McKuen was pastel in a world of primary colors.

A book-loving friend of my father's was appalled when I told him I thought Rod McKuen was the greatest poet in the world. Hadn't I read real poetry? he demanded, referencing Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Wasn't I, a prize-winning, high school writer, too smart to fawn over a pretty-boy mass entertainer? Nope, I wasn't.

I'm sorry our friend died long ago. Before I went on to college and almost fell off my chair hearing a professor's reading of Yeats's "The Second Coming"--"And what rough beast / its hour come round at last..." Before I experienced loss, serious illness, the monotony of life's daily, draining compromises. Before, in short, I lived a life. It would have pleased my father's friend to know that now when I can't sleep, I turn to the words of the greats: "It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for." Or, as old age lurches toward me from the nursing home, the defiance of "Do not go gentle into that good night."

Not "A Cat Named Sloopy." Or "Listen to the Warm."

I briefly thought of checking out Rod again: it's not often that you hear an artist forty years after your first encounter. But I'm passing on the Poet of My Adolescence. Still, I hope at least a few romantic teenage girls show up at the Green Wood, convinced that Rod is the best poet that ever lived. Because, for a short time in their lives, he just might be.

posted by Katie Whitney at 2:36 p.m. | 0 comments


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