Friday, January 30, 2015

Rod McKuen, Love and War Poet

Rod McKuen, 1933-2015     (

Rod McKuen was one of my go-to poets when I felt black and blue after serving in Vietnam. I stumbled across some of his early poetry collections in bookstores in New York and gravitated to the poems he wrote about love and loss and Army service in Korea.

There are some wounds I never
                        speak about.
Some things that words have done to me
that none will ever know…

McKuen wrote in a sequence of poems set during his tour in the Korean War, published in Listen to the Warm in 1967. Obituaries popping up in the wake of his death yesterday, at 81 in Beverly Hills, California, make little note that this prolific songwriter and poet was a war vet who battled depression by crafting a monumental collection of sweetly soaring and melancholy love songs.

I was as thrilled to discover his translated from the French lyrics for “If You Go Away”—famously sung by Frank Sinatra, among others—as I was to find his scarcely known war poems. I tried to emulate his lyrical songwriting style, with no success. What provided my poetry better grounding were his grunt-level takes on military affairs.

Who made those wars romantic in the first place?
Who led us down the line in patriotism’s name…

Who told us that as huddled masses yearning to break free
we’d have to kill a man for every foot of ground we gained?...

McKuen wrote in a poem in a sequence called “Did You Say the War Is Over?” published in In Someone’s Shadow in 1969. Even in death, this poet/songwriter mocked by critics for his often sunny lyrics has much to say about the darkness he struggled to rise from.

The first combat I saw was at Fort Ord,
down the coast from San Francisco.
During sixteen weeks of basic training
thirty-six men in my division were killed
                          or killed themselves…

Six weeks into basic,
long after the infiltration course
would take another nine men’s lives,
Corporal Garner, I think that was his name,
got up from bed while the barracks slept
                                          and hanged himself
from the rafter just above his bunk….

The shape of him that morning still circles
                                        in my mind. …

McKuen wrote in “It Was Always Winter in Korea,” published in The Power Bright and Shining in 1980. This poem is posted on McKuen’s website, A Safe Place to Land, dated November 11, 2014.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am so pleased you have found comfort in Rod McKuen's War poems, he wrote from the heart. Only he, someone like yourself who had been to War could possibly understand what you men go through. Without doubt Rod was the most vilified Poet/Composer and Singer in life and death. As someone across the water I find it absolutely shocking that Rod the biggest selling Poet in American History is not recognised as such. Before Rod made money he was credited for his work, once the money came in well that was it they just made a joke of him. "They" being a bunch of jealous individuals who not only vilified Rod but those millions of fans.

I wish you well Sir.