Former US Poet Laureate said it was irrelevant to even speak of Rod McKuen as a poet. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic called McKuen’s work gooey schmaltz. Newsweek magazine called him the King of Kitsch. In Arts and Entertainment Fads, Frank W. Hoffmann called McKuen’s poetry “verse that drawled in country cadences from one shapeless line to the next.”
Despite the criticism, his poems were translated into eleven languages. He sold over 60 million books worldwide. His songwriting earned him the sale of over 100 million records worldwide, a Grammy, two Academy Award nominations and one Pulitzer nomination. His work was covered by Frank Sinatra, Madonna and Johnny Cash. That’s absolutely phenomenal, about as famous as any poet can get. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote “There was a time not long ago when every enlightened suburban split-level home had its share of Rod McKuen.”
When you consider his horrendous childhood, the deprivation he endured in his formative years, and lack of schooling, his poetry takes on considerable meaning. Rod McKuen was born in a charity hospital in 1933 in Oakland, California. His father abandoned his mother. His alcoholic stepfather beat him, breaking both of his arms and crushing his ribs. An aunt and uncle sexually molested him. He tried several times to run away from home, finding success at age eleven, and learned how to fend for himself. I can’t imagine an eleven year old on his own in 1944. He never went back home, either. Having little formal education, he began writing in journals. His work was cathartic, the truest expression of his emotions.
Empty is a string of dirty days
held together by some rain
and the cold wind drumming
at the trees again.
Empty is the color of the fields
along about September
when the days go marching
in a line toward November.
Empty is the hour before sleep
kills you every night
then pushes you to safety
away from every kind of light.
Empty is me.
Empty is me.
Years ago I picked up a copy of McKuen’s poetry book “In Someone’s Shadow” (published 1969) at a garage sale. Not knowing his background at the time, I was surprised at what an incredibly sad chronicle of loneliness it was. Using his words as inspiration, I commemorated McKuen by creating a mixed-media art altered book, preserving a portion of the original writing on each spread that I used. Click any image to enlarge.
McKuen once said, “Physical injuries on the outside heal, but those scars have never healed and I expect they never will.” It’s understandable that he was plagued with clinical depression. He died in January, 2015.