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Rod McKuen, Love and War Poet

January 30, 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.





Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.