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Rod McKuen: An American Success Story

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Songwriter, Entertainer, Humanitarian

The late Rod McKuen was an accomplished songwriter and entertainer. He also became a humanitarian, donating time and money to charitable organizations that were dedicated to helping children.

While McKuen’s songs remain a resounding success, his poetry does not. His "poems" fail to rise above the level of doggerel; as a poet, he fails to rise above the level of poetaster.

The term "poetaster" is derived from the Latin terms "poeta" for poet along with the suffix "-aster," which signifies a pejorative; therefore, a poetaster is an inferior poet. Inferior poets are more often called versifiers or rimers, and the "poems" they create are called "doggerel."

It is thought that the 16th century poet/playwright Ben Jonson coined the term in his play The Poetaster, in which Johnson held up to ridicule the poetasters John Marston and Thomas Dekker.

The poetaster is always on the scene, whether it be 16th century England or 21st America. One of America's most famous poetasters is Rod McKuen.

If McKuen had simply accepted the label "songwriter" and not claimed that he wrote "poetry," no one could make such remarks about him as the following by freelance books and culture writer, Claire Dederer, writing about her road trip to see the poetaster perform in Palm Springs:

This is not going to be one of those articles where I reread the maligned work and discover that lo, it is actually pretty good. Because I did, and it's not.

Unfortunately, Dederer is correct. McKuen's so-called "poetry" puts serious flaws on display. Yet, some of his pieces feature better artistic skill than those of certain well-respected poetasters, including but not limited to, Robert Bly and Jorie Graham.

Still, McKuen brought undo criticism on himself by calling himself a poet. On his website, he complains: "Alas my song lyrics have often been lumped with my poems. To my own detriment and the joy of my detractors."

Here McKuen is claiming that, in fact, he does write poems as well as song lyrics, but his "detriment" comes from critics lumping them together. He seems to be saying that his poems seem flawed only because critics have lumped them together with his song lyrics.

(Please note: Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form "rhyme" into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos." Thus, "rhyme" is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form "rime," please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Lazy Critics

McKuen offers some criticism of his critics:

When an author writes both poetry and the words to songs he becomes an easy mark for the lazy critic or the one with built in prejudice. Review my lyrics or my poetry or both, but please don't count them as a single body of work.

But McKuen has caused the confusion himself. For example, is his piece "Listen to Warm" a song or a poem? He published a collection of "poems" titled Listen to the Warm, yet he also offers the piece as a song on his album by the same title.

The fact remains that his poetry is not taken seriously by most serious poetry critics.

McKuen compares himself, if not his verse, to Tennyson: "Tennyson had his share of detractors. The more famous he became in his own lifetime the more his poetry was savaged by many of his contemporaries."

And McKuen says that the same critics, who praised him (McKuen) at first, started trashing him after he became famous.

But tellingly, McKuen quotes a comment by W. H. Auden that McKuen takes as praise: "Rod McKuen writes love letters that often go astray. I am happy to say that many of them have found their way to me."

About Tennyson, Auden said, "His genius was lyrical." And McKuen thinks that Tennyson and he (McKuen) "enjoyed the embrace of" Auden. Auden clearly is not embracing McKuen's poetic mastery by calling them "love letters that often go astray."

McKuen's Real Talent and Humanity

Despite his lack of poetic talent, the late Rod McKuen was a compassionate, decent human being, who had a long list of well-deserved achievements. No one can deny his success in music. He was nominated for an Oscar for the song "Jean," the theme song for the movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

McKuen's work was strong enough to impress none other than Frank Sinatra, who commissioned him to write a whole album of songs. And he was nominated for a second Oscar for his score of A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

McKuen has had his songs recorded by many artists from Nina Simone to Glen Campbell. His accomplishment through writing is undeniable. And all this from an inauspicious beginning.

Born on April 29, 1933, in Oakland, California, his home life with his mother and stepfather was so abusive that he left home at age eleven, supporting himself with any job he could find, including digging ditches, herding cattle, working on the railroad, logging, and rodeo riding.

In 1953, he joined the U. S. Army and served in combat with the Infantry in Korea.

Often alone and lonely, he kept a journal that became his inspiration for writing. With little or no formal education, he still was able to learn a form of communication that has resonated with millions of fans.

Instead of becoming a burden to society as such an unsupported youngster could be expected to do, Rod McKuen more than earned his own way, giving his money and time to many charitable organizations, particularly those groups that struggle against child abuse and AIDS.

These accomplishments are overshadowed when his poetry is scrutinized. It's too bad that he tried to claim the title of poet, when as songwriter and entertainer, he was truly a star, but as a poet, he is merely a poetaster.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes