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In the winter of 1976, I committed the professional and personal faux pas of giving a poetry reading with Rod McKuen.  It took place at the Veterans Auditorium in downtown San Francisco and was supposed to be a benefit for the San Francisco State University poetry program.  Lewis MacAdams, my friend and fellow resident of Bolinas, the radical seacoast town at the western edge of Marin County, was just then employed as director of the program.  I had wanted a reading in that year’s series, of course, but Lewis and I were poetry competitors as well as friends.  (I should say that poets, generally perceived as ivory tower dreamers and underpaid to the point of extinction, are among the most vainglorious and unforgiving in the matter of readings, appointments, anthologies, and the like, none of it amounting to a hill of beans.)  In the months prior to the McKuen/Saroyan slate being set, my suspicion was that Lewis wasn’t going to include me on his schedule of readers, and this despite all the stuff I’d published recently, including full-page poems in Rolling Stone, New Age, The Village Voice, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Is it any wonder I was copiously engaged at that moment trying to switch into more welcoming genres, from book reviews and magazine articles to a novel and a biography?   Rolling Stone had printed the first of my full page poems several years before, and I had built on a relationship with the magazine, specifically with its editor-in-chief, Jann Wenner, to aid me in discovering a path into the open air of modern America, so to speak, and out of the tiny, vituperative sandbox of American poetry.  In that ill-appointed domain you had the fortunate few sitting on little perches—castles in the sand indeed—and, otherwise, endless lunatics with pails and shovels, erupting water and sand fights, booze, blood, piss and mucous, carrying on 24/7, bitching, yelling, punching each other, crying, marrying their students, bragging, getting knocked unconscious by their younger wives, and soiling themselves.  Did I leave anything out?  This is simply the American literary life, sub-genus Poets.  Gregory Corso, an outlander, said it beautifully I think: Poetry is great; it’s the poets who fuck it up.

One of the ideas I got for Rolling Stone was that I should interview Rod McKuen, at the time the world’s best-selling poet as well as a singer- songwriter recently celebrated for his hit song “Jean” from the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  McKuen seemed to me an interesting subject for a number of reasons, which I ran by Wenner over the phone.  That he was enormously popular and also versatile was a given.  At the same time, his poetry was dismissed—by most of my friends, for instance, so that it constituted a little postural shift for me to sign on as the interviewer, in effect giving McKuen what he obviously needed not in the least, the validation of a younger poet’s attention.  Still, he was strictly from the wrong side of the tracks.  If he’d been to Iowa City, home of the famous University of Iowa Writers Workshop, it was probably for a cocktail lounge one-nighter on a long-ago record tour.  On the heels of my second book of minimal poetry with Random House, I had passed through myself and visited my friends Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo, and spoken to the students in their classes, but had been unceremoniously denied a poetry reading there by George Starbuck, who told me sheepishly that he wasn’t sure he liked minimal poetry.  As much as I could applaud this soul-searching on his part, I thought he might have given me a chance to argue my case.


McKuen’s work was plainspoken, romantic, and of course completely out of the academic loop.  There’s a species I think of these days as “poetry church mice,” perennially going their appointed academic rounds on campuses all across America.  On glancing into McKuen’s books, I felt that while he didn’t personally mesmerize me in the way he did the millions who were his fans, he was just as good or better than dozens of these cozily tenured others.  Here was a guy, after all, who started writing things down when he was a second-bill folk singer with little hope of receiving any literary reception whatsoever.  And several million copies of his books later, he was seemingly a bigger pariah than he had been at the start.  This interested me.  He wrote sincerely out of his own need, which wasn’t the worst reason to pick up a pen.  That he captured the attention of so many people testified to something, I thought, that made the matter larger than adolescent lovelorn jottings, if in fact that is what they were, and perhaps offered a window into the national psyche.

Wenner, a quick study, held the issues of his magazine in mind like a super-computer.  I once had the sensation that he was doing a quick “search engine” review of his universe in front of my eyes as I sat opposite him at a table in his office one afternoon decades before the internet.  It seemed clear that his brain worked a good deal better than mine, at least at this appointed task.

He said okay.  Rod and I did the interview.  Annie Liebovitz came to his Beverly Hills house with me to take photographs, and we spent the night there, I in “the room with the ghost,” Rod told me.  I woke up in the middle of the night, and sure enough, there it was—ectoplasmic but clearly impalpable and harmless, at the foot of the bed.  Annie photographed Rod, and me too.  (Maybe they would run a picture of the two of us on the cover of Rolling Stone?)

Then there were delays, and other glitches which have fallen away with time, and for some reason the interview never appeared.  In the meantime, though, I had an ace in the hole with my friend Lewis MacAdams, the director of the San Francisco Poetry Center.  Would he give me a place in his line-up with Rod McKuen on board?  Do it as a fundraiser?  My own venality rises, if the gentle reader hasn’t already detected it.

Poor Rod, who was then in his early forties, the late beneficiary of a huge American-style success, but in his bones a Western-style lonesome traveler, someone who’d never known his actual father and knocked around from one end of town to the other, from night clubs to the rodeo, picking up bits and pieces everywhere before he self-published Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows and sold thousands of copies out of the back of his car after his singing engagements.


He was, as Annie Liebovitz immediately noticed, extremely savvy in front of the camera, while I was clearly a novice.  (“Aram,” she told me,  “don’t smile.”)  At the same time, Rod had a kind of disarming homegrown ease in conversation that didn’t actually go very far.  Not a devoted reader of contemporary poetry, he was an aficionado of song stylists from Jeri Southern to Frank Sinatra, who had recently recorded an album of his songs.  Having lost his voice during a marathon tour for a minor hit during the fifties, he had parlayed the permanent damage into a pleasing sandpaper vocal signature.  Rolling Stone interested him, of course, because it was an unlikely venue, and a big one, and he availed himself of me and Annie in a spirit of animated, but, one couldn’t help but feel, guarded engagement.

*  *  *

As I envisioned it, the reading would reintroduce Rod with an official imprimatur to the town he had celebrated in his first hit book (Stanyan Street is in the Haight-Ashbury district).  In retrospect, the mistake was to promote the reading instead of simply promoting an appearance by Rod McKuen.  With a miniscule budget, it was hard for San Francisco State to ante up for even a small ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, and so we rather heedlessly relied on the free publicity available through the local radio and television stations, with me along for the ride.  It was wrong to go this route because McKuen’s legion fans weren’t interested in poetry per se, but in Rod— period; that is, in the emotion he brought with him of the soulful wounded lover.  As word circulated about the reading, with my association and San Francisco State’s a part of the package, my guess is that 99 percent of Rod’s fans decided to give it a pass.

With an auditorium that could hold a thousand or more, we had something over 100 people, a large percentage of them poets, including Michael McClure and Edward Dorn, as well as the local press.  Lewis introduced me and then Rod in turn, we each read, and there was a brief question period at the end, but it was clear from the turnout that something had gone wrong.  Julie Smith, the reporter for the Chronicle who went on to write detective novels, wrote a piece for the morning paper titled “Rod’s Lonely Night.”  After the reading I’d talked briefly with her and got the sense that she was going to go after Rod, but then she really wasn’t the right reporter for the assignment.  The story that night was one she didn’t acknowledge, and probably wasn’t aware of: at least two major American poets had come to see and hear Rod, and it would have been interesting to hear the commentary of McClure and Dorn, as well as the young Andrei Codrescu, among others.

Not long afterwards, Rod came to town again for a weeklong singing engagement at the Fairmont Hotel, which also wasn’t well received by the Chronicle.  The day after the opening, with the review in the paper, he was unreachable, which to a youngster like myself was incomprehensible.  Now  I understand perfectly well.  He was exhausted.  A poet-singer-songwriter who had been trashed twice in a town he’d celebrated, he had a show to do that night and was running on empty.  Rod did the show, and after a week of them, went on to someplace else.  He was, of course, a consummate pro.  Wherever he is—I think he still lives in Beverly Hills, though he keeps a lower profile these days—I wish him well, and apologize.

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ARAM SAROYAN is an internationally known poet, novelist, biographer, memoirist and playwright. His poetry has been widely anthologized and appears in many textbooks. Among the collections of his poetry are ARAM SAROYAN and PAGES (both Random House). His largest collection, DAY AND NIGHT:BOLINAS POEMS, was published by Black Sparrow Press in 1999.   Saroyan's prose books include GENESIS ANGELS: THE SAGA OF LEW WELCH AND THE BEAT GENERATION; LAST RITES, a book about the death of his father, the playwright and short story writer William Saroyan; TRIO: PORTRAIT OF AN INTIMATE FRIENDSHIP; THE ROMANTIC, a novel that was a Los Angeles Times Book Review Critics' Choice selection; a memoir, FRIENDS IN THE WORLD: THE EDUCATION OF A WRITER; and the true crime Literary Guild selection RANCHO MIRAGE: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY OF MANNERS, MADNESS AND MURDER. Selected essays, STARTING OUT IN THE SIXTIES, appeared in 2001, and ARTISTS IN TROUBLE: NEW STORIES in early 2002.    The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts poetry awards (one of them for his controversial one-word poem "lighght"). Saroyan is a past president of PEN USA West and was a faculty member of the Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC from 1996 to 2011. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the painter Gailyn Saroyan.

18 responses to “Rod’s Lonely Night”

  1. Dear Aram,

    What a fascinating and poignant story. You tell it wonderfully!

    Thanks for sharing it with me.


  2. You’re a fine storyteller, Aram, but it would have been a more poignant tale told from the pov of the penniless wretches who lived and breathed poetry in those days. McKuen used words carelessy to extort sentiment from that public Mencken said you could “never underestimate.” He should have stuck to his shlock pop songs. I was there and the reading WAS a disaster: your imprimatur made it worse because the poets you mention left quickly afterwards. Nobody wanted to say a word to the press in order to spare you, the real poet. Lewis didn’t come out looking too shiny, either, for sponsoring the debacle. McKuen’s rant in response to a reporter’s question didn’t help either. He cast himself as a (bestselling) martyr and swore, er, like a sailor… if his poetry had come even close to the intensity of his curses he’d have been forgiven. As it is, he was forgotten.

  3. Shelley says:

    I still remember, decades ago, my high school English teacher, a misfit in a small Texas town, mentioning to me offhandedly that some poem of McKuen’s with the line “you treat me trashy, baby” was…the real thing.

  4. Nick Holmes says:

    A wonderful story. An unnecessary apology, I imagine, with McKuen’s likely response to any measure of disappointment “of course”.

  5. Eric says:

    Aram, I enjoyed reading this. Felt like you cheated us a little bit, though, with the way you opened but didn’t elaborate with specifics of poets behaving badly. I was expecting more details about the back-biting, related to both events. (Andrei filled in some of the blanks.) I guess it’s human nature to be jealous of someone who is successful, and human nature for someone who is successful to be disappointed at an uncharacteristically small turnout, especially when a reporter hounds him about it. But you would think poets of all people would have nothing but love and support for each other. Anyway, if anyone knows of other books or articles exploring this thin-skinned world in-depth, please post.

  6. Maxine says:

    Aram, a nice remembrance of things past, how poets treat other poets the sad truths
    about poets and their lives and how they fade away, instead of being celebrated.
    Wanda Coleman was an LA Poet who told it like it was and she gave me hope
    when I was first starting at Women Writers West. I went to her memorial
    at the LA Library this past weekend. It was a wonderful tribute to her.

  7. Maxine says:

    Those times were the days of dissolution and drugs.

  8. Very good story, sir. A memoir to be treasured. And what an excellent picture!

    No real person can deny that Rod McKuen was a poet of some renown. I still read a McKuen poem or two now and then and I am 70. I was not a friend but I was around, back in the day.

    James Kavannaugh was a close friend of mind and I wonder what you might think of his work?

    Walter Griffin, poet, is a friend whose work is quit different and he has yet to achieve the popularity of the other two though that may come.

    My issue is popularity. What drives that exactly? Who is to say that a popular poet is not a real poet? Or writer.

    All best.

  9. I was living in San Francisco at the time and covered the Arts Beat for a small but fine little newspaper called The Tenderloin Times. Mr. McKuen passed away today and I’m sure he will be missed by many. I suppose it would be fair to call him a people’s poet, and really, if you think about him and the reception poetry has received by the American public, it seems he stumbled onto a gem of a secret: they liked their poetry very, very simple. Don’t throw out too many lines that have to be read three times to “get.”Does that make it less poetic, no. The best in most recent times to be a poet was in the 60’s and 70’s. Many serious, literary poets came from those decades. Today, the challenges of becoming established as a poet are many. But at least we can really say, poetry is not dead. Goodbye, Mr. McKuen, and thanks for your legacy, the art you left behind.

  10. who the hell is andrie codrescui ?

  11. I had a friend in junior high school named Mike Ewbank. Mike liked Mad Magazine, Creature Features, folk singers, and comedians. He told jokes endlessly and played the bongos. He wasn’t popular in school because he had terrible acne and red-face. He was an Irish kid, and I loved his company.

    He thought Rod McKuen was terrific. I’d never read his stuff, but wasn’t very impressed by it. I thought Rupert Brooke and E.E. Cummings were pretty cool, but I really knew nothing about poetry in those days.

    Later, when I was teaching English literature in college, the odd student would approach me to tell me how good Rod McKuen was. I tried to be gentle, but I thought McKuen wasn’t what I was supposed to be teaching those kids. His poems seemed unrelievedly sad, and vague, and simplistic. I wanted the kids to respond to vividness, specificity, and strong rhetoric. Alas, some of them actually preferred McKuen’s poetry.

    I’m not going to put down McKuen. There’s an audience for every kind of writing. Rap artists have theirs. Minimalists have theirs. McKuen would never be important to me, but if people want to read his books, that’s fine.

    Now he’s gone. His work seems in retrospect to be characteristic of a whole era of American culture–an era that’s now history. McKuen probably had more in common with Ginsberg and Brautigan, than either of them did with the so-called “official verse culture” that Charles Bernstein talks about.

    We don’t know what posterity is going to make of McKuen’s poetry. Has his collected poems ever been published?

  12. Gerard Malanga says:

    The poet Ted Roethke expressed the naive assumption in his Notebooks of “poets helping to advance consciousness together.” I try to follow his example; but there’s so much negativity out there; so much academic back-scratching and cliquishness, it’s any wonder that a clear voice of truth can get through. The struggle. Rod McKuen goes down in history as the most misunderstood poet in his lifetime. Sad sad sad. The author of this piece is Aram Saroyan, the top-of-the-line prose stylist in my estimation; and he tells it like it is, true to form. McKuen & Saroyan. That was a match made in 7th Heaven.

  13. Anna Cottage says:

    I have just read your article and the responses to it. I am from England, and I saw Rod McKuen at The Royal Albert Hall around 1970. I immediately not only liked his voice but adored his songs and all he read to us. Do you have any idea how lucky you are in America to have had such a prolific writer like Rod McKuen, its obvious from the responses and your article that his work was a joke with you all. The man spoke from his heart his love, his tenderness came through, his honesty – something many of your responses lack. Yes, he came as you quote “from the wrong side of the tracks”, such an awful term have you not yet moved on, what utter snobbery you all appear to have. The man was what he was, a good honest loving man who shared his heart in his work, perhaps if you had decent souls you may understand that. England has its famous poets, and most people if they are honest cannot even understand what the hell some of their poems are about. I just cannot get over the truth of why you, Americans who were so CRUEL to Rod Mckuen did it for no other reason you were, excuse my language, bloody jealous of all the sales he had, all the money he made and the fact to this day World wide he is still read and still adored, what bloody snobs exist in your poetry society, oh yes we have them as well after all we still have the Class System, roll on a democracy. Rod McKuen deserved better he achieved more than any of you, you should be proud of the fact that he was an American, God how I wish he had belonged to us. Rest in Peace Rod, there are still enough of us to stand up for you.

  14. Do you know what album and poem contained the lines “I’ve never seen a unicorn at dawn?” I am working on a project a writing project of my own. ANky help you can give me will be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you so much

  15. Do you know what in which poem and album the line “I’ve never seen a unicorn at dawn” appears?

  16. Milo Martin says:

    I suppose the poetic phenomenon and global success of Rod McKuen will always elude me… albeit he transpired before my time, so did Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot but I still understand and respect their literary prowess, even in the timeless context of the wicked complexities of our saturated world… nice article Aram, always good to read about the culture and history of poetry (especially SF poetry, you know my undergrad alma mater is SFSU) but there is the subtext of you not respecting his work either…am I right? This article smacks of mild disdain, no praise for his work or the impact of this particular reading but that he was only versed in handling himself professionally in photo sessions… and hey, you got 100 people there to listen which is more than most American readings (Europeans are a different story, 250+ without trying)…I do not want to appear impudent or precocious but on an academic /personal taste level, I feel his work is rather vapid and generic, but not stooping to doggerel… we as poets must give him respect for being prolific and madly successful in a world where poets are genrerally not recognized or ahem, paid… obviously his simplified brand of work communicated with millions in a rudimentary way and isn’t that what we are attempting to do? Communicate?! Human and straightforward without forcing listeners to decipher a cryptic code? It worked for him and his readers and that we must acknowledge and regard… and then I read a line like “junkyard of the mind” and I go OK I get it… God bless you Mister McKuen, whatever dragonfly you have now become…

  17. Tom Cantrell says:

    I recently listened to his 1959 spoken word and music album and thought it to be a fascinating take on North Beach hang-outs and manners. He was from Oakland, and was about 26 when that album,”Beatsville” was out. The attitude was that he was too hip to be beat on Rod’s part, and had no trouble asking out at the Co-Existence Bagel shop or Vesuvius which I doubt was braggadocio. There were hints that he was cruising both sides of Broadway St, San Francisco like when he evaluated a female cafe habitue in comparison to a visit to the Turkish baths and picks up the woman. In one poem Rod’s barroom bozos roll a guy at the bus terminal after they have drinks. Rod is accused of being Chicken when he won’t join in the beating. I really enjoed Beatsville having hung out in North Beach in 1977 and gone to some of the bars he described nearly 20 years before. Enjoyed the article, too.

  18. Wes Fish says:

    “Listen to the Warm”

    Waterfalls and butterflies
    Interspersed with mist and moths
    Vibrating rain bows stretching in the sun

    Sitting aside the sing-song creek
    Reflecting on reflections
    From the Bard of Love

    Simple words heartfelt
    Captured an era lost
    To today and yesterday

    Relatable words that comfort
    Emotion approbation
    Heart-Soul soothing

    Calmly meditating
    On my need to
    Understand the Warm.

    14 July 2019

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