In My Mind

Rod McKuen (1933 – 2015)

I feel that some of my work is OK. But if I had it to do over I would do better.

Rod McKuen

Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes

by Rod McKuen

Come and take my eldest son,
Show him how to shoot a gun
Wipe his eyes if he starts to cry
When the bullets fly.
Give him a rifle, take his hoe,
Show him a field where he can go
To lay his body down and die
Without asking why
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
Sticks and stones can break your bones,
Even names can hurt you
But the thing that hurts the most
Is when a man deserts you
Don’t you think it’s time to weed
The leaders that no longer lead
From the people of the land
Who’d like to see their sons again?
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
God if men could only see
The lessons taught by history
That all the singers of this song
Cannot right a single wrong
Let all men of good will
Stay in the fields they have to till
Feed the mouths they have to fill
And cast away their arms
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians


In researching poetry of the Vietnam war, I was shocked to discover the following fact: Rod Mckuen remains to this day, the best selling American Poet in history, with more than 60 million books sold and 100 million records.  Here is what makes that fact utterly preposterous in my mind;  Rod McKuen’s poetry is insipidly awful.  It is an indictment of American publishing and the American literary consumer that by 1972, one facillitated and the other lapped up his biggest hit “A Cat Named Snoopy.” The only explanation I can offer is that by 1972, Americans were so worn out from 30+ years of war, that they had completely surrendered their brain cells to not only unsupportable politics, but also spectacularly dismal poetry.  There is a reason if you were born after 1980 that you have never heard of Rod Mckuen.  Its because your parents are too embarrassed to admit that they still have multiple copies of their parents’ version of Rod Mckuen’s Greatest Hits in their basement.  And down right ashamed that it’s the complete set, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4.  Not even Bob Dylan had a greatest hits Vol 4.   So, what gives? 

I cannot offer any sane explanation.  I think this is a case of mass hysteria sweeping the nation and deciding the only way to get rid of the influence of white, male, stupidity in American society at the time was to flog readers and listeners with Rod McKuen’s “genius,” hoping that eventually a younger generation would wake up and say, enough already and bury white, male poetry for good.  You can find on YouTube old videos of McKuen on every talk show imaginable from the mid 1960’s until the late 1970’s.   And in every single performance, whether he is singing a song he wrote the lyrics or voicing one of his poems, there is a cringe factor, that screams, “my god what was America thinking?”  He has an unremarkable voice, his lyrics are simplistic, and the musical accompaniment is either rudimentary or overly strained with violins.  It’s plain awful.  

Even McKuen was baffled by his success.   He is quoted as saying, “I am not sure why I am so popular, I guess they see in me, the everyman.”  By that does he mean every man who has ever sung off key and croaked through a rendition of a terrible poem to their girlfriend? 

The only insights I gained from this new knowledge of Rod McKuen’s superstardom is it how it explains why poetry publishing faded away and died after 1980 as part of mainstream American reading habits.  I think both the reading public and publishers mutually decided after McKuen, enough already, let’s try something else.   Let’s hope in a few years, Mary Oliver will overtake McKuen’s record for publishing, but unfortunately McKuen will likely continue to reign supreme as the American poet with the greatest record sales of all time, only because there is not a single poet who sells any records today.  Maybe this is an example of the impact of war on society’s collective amnesia?  An example of how we forget the worst of our decisions in supporting misguided earnestness in belief of a better tomorrow.  My advice if you come across your parent’s tattered copy of a Rod McKuen’s Greatest Hits, forgive them and move on.

A Cat Named Sloopy

by Rod McKuen

For a while
the only earth that Sloopy knew
was in her sandbox.
Two rooms on Fifty-fifth Street
were her domain.
Every night she’d sit in the window
among the avocado plants
waiting for me to come home
(my arms full of canned liver and love).
We’d talk into the night then
but missing something,
She the earth she never knew
me the hills I ran
while growing bent.

Sloopy should have been a cowboy’s cat
with prairies to run
not linoleum
and real-live catnip mice.
No one to depend on but herself.

I never told her
but in my mind
I was a midnight cowboy even then.
Riding my imaginary horse
down Forty-second Street,
going off with strangers
to live an hour-long cowboy’s life,
but always coming home to Sloopy,
who loved me best.

A dozen summers
we lived against the world.
An island on an island.
She’d comfort me with purring
I’d fatten her with smiles.
We grew rich on trust
needing not the beach or butterflies
I had a friend named Ben
Who painted buildings like Roualt men.
He went away.
My laughter tired Lillian
after a time
she found a man who only smiled.
Only Sloopy stay and stayed.

Nineteen fifty-nine.
Old men walk their dogs.
Some are walked so often
that their feet leave
little pink tracks
in the soft gray snow.

Women fur on fur
elegant and easy
only slightly pure
hailing cabs to take them
round the block and back.
Who is not a love seeker
when December comes?
even children pray to Santa Claus.
I had my own love safe at home
and yet I stayed out all one night
the next day too.

They must have thought me crazy
as the snow came falling
down around me.

I was a madman
to have stayed away
one minute more
than the appointed hour.
I’d like to think a golden cowboy
snatched her from the window sill,
and safely saddlebagged
she rode to Arizona.
She’s stalking lizards
in the cactus now perhaps
bitter but free.

I’m bitter too
and not a free man any more.
Once was a time,
in New York’s jungle in a tree,
before I went into the world
in search of other kinds of love
nobody owned me but a cat named Sloopy.
Looking back
perhaps she’s been
the only human thing
that ever gave back love to me.