REMEMBERING ROD MCKUEN: POPULAR POET, SONGWRITER

Rod McKuen, with Frank Sinatra. McKuen sold 100 million records and 60 million books.

Scarriet owes a great debt to the cross-over genre of Poetry As Song/Song As Poetry.

Our most popular and oft-visited post is The Top One Hundred Popular Song Lyrics That Work As Poetry, published a year and a half ago, which gets thousands of hits a week.

Scarriet embraces the accessible in poetry and believes Pound and Williams killed the art.  We love Romantic poetry and believe Shakespeare, Keats and Poe represent the pinnacle of modern achievement, and that since then there has been a great falling off.

So we ought to acknowledge the passing of Rod McKuen (April 29 1933—January 29 2015) who was a popular American poet and songwriter in the French chanson tradition.

Not that we love McKuen’s poetry; it is wretched, for the most part. But the songwriting aspect of his popularity, and the way poetry and songwriting in popular culture mysteriously intertwine ought to be addressed, and we will address it here very briefly.

A popular song works its magic in a moment-to-moment fashion and will not stand still for profound contemplation; as much as poetry is like popular song, that poetry repels, by its very nature, the profound, or the deep.

But we can go even further: whatever is monumental (think of Michelangelo’s David) makes its impact on us immediately—any art product achieves true, popular, success quickly and superficially.

This partially answers the question pertaining to Rod McKuen.

How can something be bad and also good?

This question best sums up the aesthetic phenomenon in philosophical terms.

To put it as simply as possible:

To be popular, one must be bad, for to triumph in the eyes of the many is to court that which is low and unlearned.

And yet to stand apart from rivals by achieving popular success is good.

To court the low, however, even in a successful manner, is, in the final analysis, bad.

And thus the critic Julia Keller called McKuen “gooey schmaltz that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class” which “the masses ate up with a spoon, while highbrow literary critics roasted him on a spit.”

The complexity enters when we reflect that “the masses” are—to call them bad or good, or unlearned or learned, is to impose an artificial idealism upon nature—which, by its very existence, transcends all man-made judgements, no matter how “highbrow.” If “the masses” want “schmaltz,” it would be stupid not to give it to them, and whether it “passes muster in a creative-writing class” is beside the point.

Just as human painting fails miserably when compared to reality, all that is literarily highbrow also fails in the same way.  To court nature, by appealing to “the masses” directly, with “schmaltzy” poetry, is a strategy which not only courts success, but bests the “highbrow” at its own game, since the “schmaltzy,” by definition, is precisely an expression of weakness and failure characterized by the tremendous gap between attempts by the most supreme highbrow formulations of art to capture reality and magnificent, infinite reality itself—which dwarfs all human aspirations to artistically render that reality.

The spark that sets aflame any given artist’s popularity is always a complex crossroads of effort, luck, timing, and so forth, as complex as any highbrow artwork itself. Rod McKuen’s life and fame, then, deserves as much study as any other artist’s life and fame: Ezra Pound, or James Joyce, for instance.

Schmaltz is timeless, and if Pound avoided it in poetry more unique than McKuen’s, this only means Pound succeeds (in relative terms) in the lower order of humanity’s vain efforts to compete with nature and reality, whereas McKuen succeeds (in relative terms) in the higher order of reality itself, in which human schmaltz is a million times more prevalent than any quality we might extract from the work of Pound.

We find ourselves unable—and we challenge anyone else to—say one thing which makes Pound more important than McKuen, that would not immediately draw suspicion of merely saying that which sounds highbrow but has no real meaning at all.

For what is human expression which we term ‘art,’ but expression by people and for people, and for that purpose alone?

Science is another thing, and all agree schmaltz has no place there.

But to judge poetry and song by standards which have nothing to do with them is to founder on the mercantilism of creative-writing and the wind-blown delusions of highbrow criticism, and to ultimately descend to even lower depths of pretense and folly.

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5 Comments

  1. noochinator said,

    February 4, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for the mention of the Julia Keller article, the link to it is below:

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-03-06/features/0103060005_1_modern-times-concerts-susan-sontag

  2. noochinator said,

    February 4, 2015 at 11:24 am

    McKuen wrote highbrow music too — here’s the slow movement of his third piano concerto:

  3. annacottage said,

    October 15, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    I cannot understand all the hatred there seems to be for Rod McKuen’s work. When he made hardly any money he was popular but when the money started coming in the jealousy of others tried to destroy him. Surely making money is what the USA is all about. Rod McKuen was loved because all he wrote lifted one’s spirit, you never felt alone. Was not Walt Whitman resented in his lifetime and in death he was so highly acclaimed. Time full credit was given to Rod McKuen for all he achieved and all he gave to those who needed him. America should be proud of him not run him down .

    • noochinator said,

      October 16, 2015 at 10:28 am

      Amen, Anna!

      • annacottage said,

        October 16, 2015 at 12:43 pm

        Thank you. I had the honour of seeing Rod McKuen at The Royal Albert Hall in early Seventies and to this day I remember how he enthralled all of us there. Probably because Rod was so honest in all he wrote, his Poetry/his music, his life and showed us that all we were going through he had as well. Rod McKuen was a remarkable Man who achieved so much in his Lifetime and yet there are those who choose not to remember him for all he did.


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