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 the description of their work being accessible as an accolade. Poetry in the 20th century had become increasingly odd and without noticeable rules, a development that marked the work of many a genius poet at the time, but the facts are 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 equally cryptic terms. 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 the medium's quality standards might happen to be on any given day. He made a lot of money, and in making his millions, he inspired young people, like me, 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 as a sensitive mid-teen desiring to express wonderful 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 was clean and lacked 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 the 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. Still, he'd soon enough lard up his line breaks with a defiantly defeatist attitude ---lost again at love,)--and would have us believe that he spent decades turning up his collar and walking the San Francisco waterfront in the rain and fog, looking for a bar to nurse his pain at. Though he influenced me as a writer, I consider his writing everything that's wrong with the idea of expression for its own sake.
From an audience perspective it is a sign of cultural arrogance to think of them as dumb or less than bright because they enjoyed McKuen's writings and his songs. The bald truth of the matter is that academics and the self-assigned elite readership of "quality" poetry (a set of poets that varies, depending on what kind of critical codification you prefer) read poems for the same reasons, to find in words, something that corresponds with their own experience and the inchoate emotions that are the result of them. Many feelings are hard to put into words even for the savviest of tongue and wit, and poets have been the Culture's traditional medium for being the antennae of the race, gathering half-thoughts, conflicting urgencies, the ironic ordering things that don't jibe in how we view the world, the whole play of happy/sad/ambivalent and getting it all in writing; the goal is to speak to people about things that they cannot talk about themselves. That said, though, poetry is also a medium that wants to speak of things inexpressible in unforgettable terms. That is where it becomes an art, as such, which requires more reflection, deeper consideration, better word choice and image creation in the attempt to make a reader feel more than mere happiness. It also requires a higher critical vocabulary in order to parse the poems, which is an irony in itself; the language created to discuss the movement of more challenging stanzas is as abstract, obtuse, as difficult poems themselves.
So, poetry, as a form, does not win in this discussion. McKuen was sincere in his quest to get at those things he needed to clarify for himself, but I am convinced that he became a salesman as much as an artist (in a sense) over time, representing Rod McKuen Inc. Over the decades, I poked my nose into the unending stream of books he produced with stunning regularity and concluded that he had stopped any honest writing years ago and was composing verse he knew his audience wanted. He was writing for the marketplace, whether he was aware of it or not. But while McKuen can be listed as a trader in the mawkish, the trite, the bathos-ridden, one cannot with ease point toward a commonly agreed upon example as to what constitutes a clear and substantial alternative in the quality field. Billy Collins and the wonderful Dorianne Laux come easily to mind, however, both skilled with accessible senses of language and the additional sense of how to write about what's recognizable in one's life and helping a reader through a series of perceptions where their world is more extraordinary than it was before. Their likes are rare, too rare, though, in the field of poets with followings--the notion of quality poets is an idea that is a muddy pond.
While I enjoy a good many "difficult poets," I have to say that mine is the situation shared with academics and the self-appointed readership elite I've already mentioned; I know the critical language, I know the theories, I know the standards of consideration. It's a trap that one cannot see they're falling into which bedevils Modern Art across the board, in writing, visual art, what have you: you cannot "see" (or "get") unless you "know" the theory and the historical forces that have brewed and seduced each other to make that theory possible. Knowing the rap about an art that is, by definition, supposed to deal with hard-to-express perceptions is more important than either the art and, most tragically, the human life is supposed to augment and bring quality to. In this regard, McKuen wins the argument about the value of his work; he was awful as a poet, but the alternative was smug and something of a private club that few in our population found worth the bother to apply for membership in.