Monday, February 2, 2015

2 notes: Rod McKuen, and lack of sympathy for characters one creates.

Sometime back in the  Seventies, Dick Cavett introduced the late Rod McKuen on his show by quoting a critic's left handed compliment regarding the writer's work, "The world's most understood poet."That was not intended as praise , and anyone in the business of writing  what's regard as serious poetry , whether a runny-nosed  Beat or a hardened Modernist , would take a the description of their work being accessible as an accolade. Poetry in the 20th century had become increasingly odd and without noticable rules, a development that marked the work of many a genius poet at the time,but the facts is that fewer people read poetry as consumers of printed books, and fewer still seemed to understand what the new scribes were going on about. 

And so, poetry became the new scripture and critics, in a sense , became the new priesthood, discoursing on texts that allow no conventional entry point in terms that were equally cryptic. McKuen dared to be direct , simple in language, easily understood, trafficking much of his writing  career in maudlin , mawkish, garish sentimentality. It worked, to be sure, as he went off to conquer the publishing world, motion pictures, the music industry. It worked and he built a huge audience that  did not read poetry nor had the slightest idea of of the medium's standards of quality might  happen to be on any  given day. He made a lot of money and in the making of his millions, he inspired young people, like myself, to become a writer myself. To be clear, it was a chorus of writers that got my fancy and stirred in me the desire to string words together and indulge in metaphor, not just the recently deceased McKuen. But McKuen was in the gallery of faces that had my attention . My tastes simply matured beyond  what he was capable of writing about. Honestly, I had a man crush on him,so to speak, as a sensitive mid teen desiring to express great things myself--he was part of the collective of Dylan, Ginsberg, Eliot and Paul Simon that made me want to say things that were significant in ways a reader wouldn't expect. 

McKuen did have a knack for slinging words--his much anthologized poem "Camera" is good at the plain-speak verse later adopted by the ever accessible likes of Billy Collins. The poem, though, was clean and lacking the sentimentalism that made McKuen a standing joke and, eventually, an overripe expression of every unconsidered emotion. I should clarify that I went the middle period Dylan/TS Eliot route in poetry and came to prefer a more surreal and harder edge verse. The change , of course, came around when I had some genuine emotional upheavals and realized that experiencing , processing and recollecting such events in the process of forming a real personality trying to engage he world wasn't as simple as McKuen's McPoems would have us think. Though I harbor a soft spot for him, I think his "poetry", such as it was, was indefensible on any grounds as verse. It scratched those places before you had an itch. I hate to seem harsh, but his writing was slick and it was awful. Now and again he could write a few lines that were acceptable because they weren't dripping with the goo of his onerously bathetic persona, but he'd soon enough lard up his line breaks with a defiantly defeatist attitude ---lost again at love, ah sigggghhhh)--and would have us believe that he spent decades turning up his collar and walking the San Francisco water front in the rain and fog, looking for bar to nurse his pain at. Though he was an influence on me as a writer, I consider his writing everything that's wrong with the idea of expression for its own sake.

_______________________
I'm not as interested in feeling sympathy for the character or having an emotional stake in their success as I am in whether the film makers keep me interested in how the activities and motivations converge to a satisfying end. Or at least one that makes sense in unexpected ways; to varying degrees both Nabokov and Updike accomplish this in their stronger novels--"Pale Fire", the "Rabbit" quartet, respectively-- and the inspection of how witless self-regarding imbeciles custom design their machinery of their own destruction is a difficult and rare hallmark for the truly subversive comedy. Coen brothers Joel and Ethan understand the need for the distance from the goings on of the chronic stupidity in "Burn After Reading" so that that their only agenda is imagine what echos in the deepest recess of any of these people's minds while they compound their ignoble fates with layers of strip-mall hubris. What the Coens do with unlikeable characters seeking their own glory isn't an easy thing to accomplish--Brian DePalma managed to turn Tom Wolf's crotchety (albeit readable) novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities" into a loose, baggy monster of a film (to paraphrase Henry James)that demonstrated no flair for comic rhythm. Had the Coens been in charge of that novel, we'd most likely be praising them as we had for their work in "No Country for Old Men", making note of their sharp eye for damning detail and skewed dialogue, and their effective use of an attentive if disengaged tone.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Say something clear and smart.Lets have a discussion.