by Brad Shurmantine

Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
All of these voices
I hear in my mind all these words
And it breaks my heart
It breaks my heart.
–Regina Spektor

In Search of Eros.  That was the name of an LP that played over and over behind the closed door of my bedroom in Kansas City when I was sixteen. It was a Spoken Word album of Rod McKuen’s love poetry read by him without accompaniment in a quiet sincere voice. It was one of a bunch of albums that I stole from Lyons Drugs, where I had my first job (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was also in that batch). I was one of the delivery boys who drove around south Kansas City in a beat-up Toyota Corolla (we beat it up) delivering prescriptions to old people in their homes. We were only paid $1 an hour, which was below minimum wage, so we all thought we were entitled to do a little pilfering—grab a candy bar on the way out of the store, or snatch a handful of albums from the record bin at closing, or a bottle of Paco Rabanne. We were just little thieves and eventually we were caught, but the storeowner was a decent man and merely fired us instead of turning us over to the cops as he could have done.

I would lie in bed and listen to Side 1, then get up and turn the record over. Listen to Side 2 and get up and turn the record over. Again and again.  Night after night.

Rod McKuen was a big thing for a couple of years back then. He was a respected songwriter whose songs were recorded by prominent singers like Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. Here’s what Wikipedia says about his early life:

McKuen was born on April 29, 1933, in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California. He never knew his biological father who had left his mother.  Sexually and physically abused by relatives, raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a violent alcoholic, McKuen ran away from home at the age of 11. He drifted along the West Coast, supporting himself as a ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disc jockey, always sending money home to his mother.

Hard to imagine a more dramatic and colorful origin story—surely the stuff that would engender rich and passionate poetry. McKuen fought his way through, began writing, settled in San Francisco where he met Kerouac and Ginsberg and sang folk songs in local clubs, including some of his own. He got signed by Decca Records, a prominent label at the time, and slowly, steadily built a reputation as a popular composer and arranger. By any measure he was a successful and respected musician.

He was also probably the best-selling American poet of all time, selling over 60 million books. When my daughter was going to school in Chile we visited her and made a point of touring two of Pablo Neruda’s homes; we saw all the shit he owned and collected, and I asked the guide if Neruda had been born into a wealthy family, or had some job on the side, because how could a poet possibly afford all this stuff? Oh no, the guide assured me. Pablo Neruda was immensely popular in Chile and made a fortune writing poetry. He sold millions of copies of every book, right here in Chile. He was a self-made man; he earned everything you see. This blew my mind. So Rod McKuen was the Pablo Neruda of American poetry.

Except, not quite. Pablo Neruda was a great poet. Rod McKuen was not.  But when I was sixteen, I thought Rod McKuen was sublime, and it was he, and particularly In Search of Eros, that put the idea in my mind that I could be a poet, too.  This was like encountering a sale of black velvet paintings at a shopping mall and being so gobsmacked that you run home and apply to art school—like spending your life savings on “Dogs Playing Poker” or a Thomas Kinkade.  It only took me a year or two to disavow McKuen, when people whose judgment I respected would scoff at the name, but when I loved him I really loved him.  

I recently researched McKuen, just to remind myself of who he was, and I was put off by the horrible things that established poets said about him at the time, how really cruel and hateful they were. I mean, why couldn’t they just let the proles have their poet? He never said anything bad about them. I think they just really resented his popularity and financial success, and it’s unfortunately true that in America a poet can only make money writing crappy verse, but that’s no reason to take it out on poor Rod McKuen. The facts of his life tell me that he was a pretty interesting and talented man who deserved his success as much as anyone.

A crucial factor in my life, my entire life, has been this sense that I’m a poet, an artist, despite the fact that I have written little good poetry. OK, none. 

In college, and for a few years after, I adopted a poet persona of sorts, and shyly confessed to others my desire to be one, and during that time I actually worked as a poet, studied the craft, and labored over my creations. But I labored completely alone. I never found a community of writers or even a kindred spirit to sustain that identity, and slowly, slowly the little flame went out. I completely stopped writing. I became, in my mind, a failed poet—still a poet, someone somehow set apart, viewing the world and other people from an aesthetic distance, but it was a view tinged with guilt because it was a view I was not earning.

When I first heard Regina Spektor’s song “Fidelity,” it brought back to me, like a great wallop to the gut, all that sadness and guilt.  I realized how much my nights with Rod McKuen have wound up costing me.

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground

I often wonder what it’s like to simply have emotions, to simply feel things directly and immediately, without simultaneously examining those feelings, compelled to exploit and make use of them. Normal people, and by that I mean people who are not bedeviled by what I imagine to be an artistic sensibility, are like athletes who run and shoot and throw without ever thinking about it. They are swept up in the flow, become the game, and the simple, sweet immediacy of their lives fulfills them, provides their purpose. Everyone knows what happens to athletes who think too much. They get benched.

I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All of these voices

On the AP English exam in my senior year, one of the Free Response questions invited us to respond in whatever way we wished, including the option of writing a poem, to the theme of alienation or estrangement. Considering what I now know about the AP English exam, it seems unlikely, even impossible, that there could have been such a question on that exam, but I’m certain there was, and I took advantage of the opportunity to “publish” my first poem. My girlfriend Sheila was much on my mind at the time, our relationship was hanging by a thread, and I distinctly remember copying down in the answer booklet one of the few poems I had already written, about telephone wires–how our love was held together by telephone wires, thin frail wires, blah blah blah, drooping silver wires, etc.  Very McKuenish. I expected to ace that exam, but I wound up barely passing with a “3.” My writing career was launched!

Heading off to college I had only the vaguest ideas about how I would make a living when I left school. Forest ranger? Since I loved reading books so much, and seemed good at it, I thought I might get a PhD in English and teach at some university, i.e., never leave school. But those jobs were hard to get, and at the same time I entertained those notions I knew I didn’t have the drive or the guts or the luck to make it happen. But I liked to write, and I had all these feelings, so I thought I might become a writer. How that would actually work out I had no idea, but it seemed like it would start with these poems I was writing.

Freshman year I discovered William Carlos Williams in one of my Lit classes and I started writing William Carlos Williams poems, minus the depth and freshness. I learned the university had a literary magazine, The Eads Bridge Review, which was currently in hiatus because no one was interested in running it. I met another young poet, who made me uncomfortable, but together we went to Dr. Al Montesi, the closest thing SLU had to a poet-in-residence, and got his permission to resuscitate the magazine. Dr. Montesi gave us no real support–he really wanted nothing to do with this venture—but he did sign off on our funding request and me and this other poet, whose name I obviously have forgotten, managed to publish two issues of The Eads Bridge Review over the next two years, both of which included a generous sampling of our own verse.

Our efforts to rekindle the literary scene at St. Louis U. were about as successful as dropping matches on wet logs, but there was a little smoke. I made a real effort to get Gary Snyder to read at our campus, but that fell through. Then we landed John Logan as a consolation prize. At the party at Dr. Montesi’s house afterwards we sat around the dining room table drinking wine, talking about poetry and reading poems to each other. I felt exalted, arrived, and gave a very good, heartful reading of Logan’s beautiful poem, “The Picnic.” I was sitting next to him, impressed with this big shambling poet and his stringy hair, until I became aware that his hand was resting on my thigh and gently stroking me.  Then his chin was resting on my shoulder and he murmured, Why don’t you stick around when everyone leaves? This upset me more than it should have, and I was one of the first to go.

There was a breakthrough poem I wrote–a poem that seemed to be mine, that came out smoothly and honestly and evoked a strange, unexpected stew of emotions. I brought it to Al Montesi who read it and was silent for a moment and then said, There might be something here. That was all I wanted to hear; I felt ready for my next steps.

I spent my senior year abroad, in Italy, and I began keeping a serious journal, attempting to adopt the habits and tools of real writers. But as long as I had a roommate and was in school my efforts were half-hearted. When I was finally on my own, with a room of my own, things would change.

When my father died, he left behind a portable Smith Corona typewriter, the only possession of his I considered my personal inheritance. I had my mom ship it to me and I began to work seriously at my verse. Something I read in The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner made a great impression on me: how Ezra Pound would place two spaces between every word when he typed his poems, as a way of isolating each word and holding it up for inspection. Each word had to be right, do work. I had no interest in writing traditional rhyming verse, even though I admired poets like Frost and Wilbur who did so while still sounding modern, conversational, completely relevant. It just wasn’t in me. I wrote free verse and paid great attention to the way I arranged the words and phrases on the page, listened intently to the rhythms I created with spacing. I listened to the sounds of my words as well, worked to create percussion and harmony and flow. I believe I was as sincere and serious and hard-working as any poet could be during my brief apprenticeship.

My problem was that I had no master, and no fellow apprentices. I still believe it was isolation and loneliness more than anything that choked out my creative spirit. A much, much greater problem at the time was that I had nothing to say. I was still basically a kid and knew very little. I had a muck of feelings to explore, but they all had the same tone: loneliness, alienation. Even while writing those poems I knew they had little value, said nothing new. But I still worked hard on making them sound good.

I was reading a lot of Kafka at the time and tried to jolt myself out of my emotional ruts by writing weird little vignettes and stories explicitly modeled on his, but they were fake, a dead end. I was relentlessly honest and even lacerating with myself: there was just no there there.

All this time the question of how I would make a living was much on my mind. I was working for peanuts in a tourist shop in Fiesole, making just enough for food and shelter. If I had been producing work I believed in, that had some value, that would have been enough. I had the temperament and the disposition to be a happy starving artist, but if the art was worthless such a living could not be justified. One evening I went for a walk with my cat up to the ridge where we always walked. I sat for a long time, the cat in my lap, staring down at Florence, thinking things over. Keats, I said, I’m done.

I kept writing when I returned to the states—actually had a few poems published in various little magazines—but I had turned a big corner and knew it. I discovered Aikido and threw myself heart and soul into that art, and was good at it. I became a teacher. Etc. etc.

Still, though, I could never shake it.

I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind all these words

Forty years ago, I read Mary Robison’s story, “Yours,” in The New Yorker. It has stayed with me ever since because it told me the truth about my life as an artist; it explained and excused my indifference to writing anything other than clever emails. In the story, an old man and his young wife, who is dying of cancer, spend their last evening together carving pumpkins for Halloween. He has talent; his carvings are artful. But hers are real jack-o’-lanterns.

“Your jack-o’-lanterns are much better than mine,” Clark said to her.
“Like hell,” Allison said.

Tired, they go to bed, and “she began to die.” Clark calls the ambulance. While he’s on the phone, he gazes out on the porch, at the lit-up pumpkins they carved and this is what he thinks:

He wanted to tell her, from the greater perspective he had, that to own only a little talent, like his, was an awful, plaguing thing; that being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time, and liked yourself too little. He wanted to assure her that she had missed nothing.

When I approached retirement I thought I might try to write again, despite my “little talent.” I’d have the time; I had to fill it some way. But I was uneasy at the prospect and filled with doubt that I could produce anything worthy.

But worthy of what? Around this time we were having dinner in the home of some friends and I noticed a beautiful watercolor on the wall, a portrait of my friends’ backyard. I was told Carol had painted it. I knew Carol—she was an English teacher at the other high school in town, and had retired a few years earlier. I had always liked Carol—she was smart, funny, and agreeable, a teacher who was loved and respected. It surprised me when she retired because she seemed young to me and at the peak of her career.

Her painting did something to me. I studied it with true admiration. She was a real painter, every bit as good a painter as she was an English teacher. The watercolor was luminous with her care and talent; the brushstrokes were adept, the composition thoughtful. The painting was filled with light. The fact that it hung on the wall of a dining room in Napa and not on the wall of the de Young did not lessen its beauty one bit. In fact it belonged on that wall; it invested the room and the house and the lives of my friends with additional grace and meaning. She obviously spent hours painting it and then just gave it to them, and then painted something else. That’s what painters do.

Carol’s painting liberated me. It was OK to write what I write; just try to make it beautiful. It was OK to try to make something one person would like. OK to write something and finish it and move on and write something else. Because that’s what writers do.

So, I wrote a book, a memoir. For my wife and my daughters. The life of a white man, of no account. And I’ve written a bunch of poems I like, and soon I will try to write some stories. Writing has become a way to clarify my life and ease myself down. I’m not a writer. I just write.

Suppose I never, ever saw you
Suppose you never, ever called
Suppose I kept on singing love songs 
just to break my own fall
Break my fall

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