“If you go away on this summer day
Then you might as well take the sun away
All the birds that flew in a summer sky
When our love was new and our hearts were high
When the day was young and the night was long
And the moon stood still for the nightbird’s song
If you go away
Ne me quitté pas
If you go away
Ne me quitté pas” —from Rod McKuen’s “If You Go Away”
Influenced by author-friend Jan Morrill’s post, Rod McKuen’s Time Machine, I felt inspired to write my own “in memoriam” for the poet who died last week at the age of 81. Interestingly, as Jan is a bit younger than me, she had a different perspective on Rod and his poetry. For Jan, Rod’s death brought back memories of her mom, who listened to McKuen’s poems and missed Jan’s father who was serving overseas in the military. For me, Rod McKuen was my first poet, period. The first poet I ever really heard, and certainly, the first poet whose books I owned and read.
Referred to by many critics as the “King of Kitsch,” McKuen was also responsible for bringing spoken word to the everyday housewife, the romantic couple who was stepping together into a middle class life, and millions of regular folk who could comprehend his poetry simply by listening to it. For those of us who had his albums and read his books, Rod gave meaning to our sense of loneliness and longing in the early ’60’s, a time of strife, protest and general upheaval in America. His poetry was personal. We felt like he understood us.
As a diehard romantic from the day I was born, I would lie around on the shag carpet of my room listening to his albums, The Sea, The Earth, The Sky, which I paid for with hard-earned allowances from my parents. I was always delighted to find his books wrapped and waiting for me under the Christmas tree.
Everybody has to start somewhere, and my love of poetry started with Rod McKuen. Yes, I was influenced by the Beatles’ lyrics, and by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin. When I first began hearing their raspy poetics, though, I was still too young to comprehend the complexities of their imagery and metaphor. Believe it or not, I was a naive youngster and wanted life to unfold like a fairy tale. Somehow, it just wouldn’t, and that depressed me. Rod McKuen understood that longing in his audience and talked about love and life in words my teenaged mind could assimilate into the world I occupied.
For better or worse, he helped me maintain the fantasy that everything would work out in the end, there was someone for everyone, and on some days, that kept me putting one foot in front of the other. There’s likely not a slam poet out there who would possibly identify with the likes of Rod McKuen, but let’s face it, he was performing poetry to music with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac before most of us were xx or xy chromosomes.
Born in 1933, he ran away from an alcoholic stepfather at the age of 11. He worked all the jobs that make good poets: dishwasher, ranch hand, surveyor, DJ, lumberjack. Because he had no formal education, he kept a journal of his adventures which resulted in his first poems and songs. Okay, unless you missed that in your quick scan of a post about Rod McKuen, he KEPT A JOURNAL which led to his poems and songs. This is how many poets begin. It’s how I began.
Sure, some of you may say, “Lord, I can see way too much of McKuen in Mendy’s poems and songs,” but this would not shame me. In his lifetime he sold over 100 million records and over 60 million books. He won a grammy and was nominated for a Pulitzer. He wrote lyrics for the likes of Barbara Streisand, Petula Clark, Waylon Jennings, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Percy Faith, Dusty Springfield, Al Hirt, and Frank Sinatra. He was an American poet and songwriter who came up the hard way and softened his voice so that it could make its way into the hearts of the American people at a time when they needed a little romance in Life.
So today, I want to honor Rod and his persistence–to fly in the face of the critics, to work hard at what he loved all his life, to create and to keep creating. I, too, turned my back on him. After reading Emily, Dorothy, Robert, Maya, Wendell, Elizabeth and so many more in classic American poetry classes; after attending readings and poetry slams all over the country; after struggling with my own work; after hosting events where the youngest writers wrote better than Rod, I long ago closed the book on him.
That is until my mom gave me some books she had been keeping for me for years, and there he was again. Memories crashed in on me like waves along the coast of Maine. Among those books were Listen to the Warm and Lonesome Cities. I found that Rod McKuen could still bring tears to my eyes as I was transported back to those teen years when his poetry was all I had to hold close to my heart. I had no boyfriends, no dates to the prom or football games, no hand-holding, kissy-faced young romance. I had Rod and I am grateful for his accompaniment through my own “lonesome cities.” Rest in peace, Rod McKuen. From one poet/lyricist to another, thanks for being there, and for the seed of inspiration you planted while I listened.