Publication Year: 1976
Tags: Poetry, Beat Poets, Lamentations
My paperback copy of this book has McKuen’s autograph, from 1976, displayed in prominent Magic Marker (and dated) on the front cover. My friend, who was working for the now-defunct Waldenbooks chain, got the book and autograph for me when the poet toured; Russ knew that I’d been a fan since I first discovered McKuen’s work in 1968 (I was 10 at the time). I only recently re-discovered it – I had preserved it so carefully that it was lost in some of my older boxes.
This is the first of McKuen’s works (to my knowledge) to comment on his then-newfound fame in the Introduction. He observes, “If I sell five copies of a book, [critics] are unanimous in their praise. If I sell ten, I can expect one dissent. If the number grows to ten thousand, my reviewers will always be ‘mixed.’ At ten million, I have detractors of every persuasion, most notably those reviewers who read the statistics not the books. …I say again, the poem is me. I lived, or am living it. I accept no advice on how it could or should be lived.” (p.11 of this edition)
As of this date, I have recently re-read three other collections of McKuen’s poems, then this one as if brand new (I recognize some of the works, but not all; I may have put it carefully away before reading it all). If one is to appreciate the poetry, one must appreciate the poet, from his life beginnings to his “Beat” and San Francisco coffee-house beginnings. He is, by all accounts, his poetry, just as he says. To this degree, perhaps sadly, his work is a product of his time: The late 1950s through the early 1980s. Where some poetry lasts in spite of time, McKuen’s poetry lasts because of the time in which it was created, which it described with unencumbered emotion more than technical expertise.
I apologize for seeming to praise with faint damns, as I do enjoy McKuen’s work. What I realize, however, is that his work is likely to be lost on future generations who will find it (if this word still exists half a century hence) “quaint.” I make no direct comparison to Armistead Maupin and his first book of Tales of the City; I only observe that, to those of us who lived through the 70s and know anything of San Francisco’s magic, Tales will be brilliant, impeccable, magnificent, while to those who come after, a great many references and sensitivities of the work will be lost.
Thus is it also for McKuen, who spanned that short gap between the Beats and the delirium of the delicious, love-struck city by the bay, wherein one must wear flowers in one’s hair. If you know the song, you’ll hear McKuen’s heartbeat in each poem; if you don’t, the words may seem maudlin, under-structured, haphazard. To borrow the title of one of McKuen’s collections, “Listen to the Warm.” These are private lamentations of a restless, conflicted, often tortured heart whose rhythm is better heard and felt than read. Don’t bother searching for poetic feet and meter; it can exist in these poems, but only when they happen naturally, not because they were carefully crafted.
McKuen is as much from-the-gut as Ginsberg and Kerouac, but he was content to stop there, polishing but little, letting his natural voice break through in every work. If you can still find recordings of his readings, whether or not backed by music (most notably, Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings), you will feel the poetry at its warmest. Take that measure with you as you read further, and you’ll observe the how and why of his work. This, to some, is considered a fault: The poem must be an artifact, they say, separate from the poet. If so, then enjoy McKuen’s faults, for each of us has at least as many… but few can speak them quite so well.