Holey Moses! The Spasmodics and Rod McKuen

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November 1, 2022 by libroshombre


Contact Greg Hill, 907-479-4344                                                       November 10, 2022

            Children of the early 50s were exposed to some awful poems in the mid-60s.   We hungered for anything smacking of adulthood and sophistication, and the lyrics of the Merseyside Sound fit the bill.  There were livelier luminaries that were technically part of the Merseyside Sound, but I associate it with “slow song” groups like Chad and Jeremy, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Jonathan King, whose big hit was the mournful “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” that begins “Eyes full of sorrow, never wet/ Hands full of money, all in debt/ Sun coming out in the middle of June/ Everyone’s gone to the moon.”  Named for the River Mersey that flows through Liverpool, England, the Merseyside music was a sub-genre of rock ‘n roll’s “British Invasion” of the 1960s, and, like most music aimed at teen markets, it smacked of the puerile, navel-gazing concerns of late adolescence that’s simply a part of that stage of life.  But it spoke to us, and we loved it.  It’s good to hang onto childhood capacity for curiosity, humor, and hopefulness, but how many lyrics, books, and hairstyles have become cringeworthy as we’ve moved further into adulthood, like, Rod McKuen’s wince-inducing poetry. 

            A Slate.com article, “Rod McKuen Was the Bestselling Poet in American History. What Happened?,” brought McKuen to mind.  I own a used copy of McKuen’s “Listen to the Warm” only to remind myself of how my taste in poetry has evolved since 1967.  “He was a flashpoint in the battle between highbrow and lowbrow, with devotees revering his plain-spoken honesty and Dick Cavett mockingly calling him “the most understood poet in America.”  I prefer “accessible poetry,” like that filling Garrison Keillor’s “Good Poems” anthologies, but there’s accessibility, and then there’s accessibility, and McKuen’s work’s not in any “Good Poems” volume.  Just try out his “Two” in its entirety: “Be gentle with me, new love./ Treat me tenderly/ I need the gentle touch,/ the soft voice,/ the candlelight after nine./ There’ve been so many who didn’t  understand/ so give me all the love I see in your timid eyes/ but give it gently./ Please.”

            Still, McKuen “sold millions of poetry books in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a regular on late-night TV. He released dozens of albums, wrote songs for Sinatra, and was nominated for two Oscars,” and “every year on his birthday, he sold out Carnegie Hall.”  His poems clearly spoke to a lot of people then but left many others cold.  U.S. poet laureate Karl Shapiro wrote: “It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet. His poetry is not even trash,” and a 1969 L.A. Times review said, “One can find better verse on the walls of restrooms.” McKuen responded, “There are a lot of people who take potshots at me because they feel I’m not writing like Keats or Eliot. And yet I’ve been compared to both of them. So, figure that out.”

            That’s precisely why McKuen was a modern extension of the Spasmodic School of poetry, an equally hot poetic property during the Victorian era, from 1830 until falling into oblivion in 1854.  The Spasmodic School “was a loosely affiliated collection of young poets, with shared peculiarities of style and subject matter,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  “Spasmodic poems were usually long, often book-length, and frequently cast in dramatic form, though with a strong emphasis on the protagonist’s ‘reveries’, meditations on his life, purpose, and future ambitions. One of their most important features … was that this protagonist was almost always a dedicated poet himself, sometimes, indeed, the purported author of the work in which he appeared.”  It began in 1830 when Phillip James Baily wrote “Festus,” the Spasmodic poem prototype that inspired a generation of overly earnest, self-important Victorian poets who almost invariably followed the “Festus” outline: “Festus is alienated from his fellow men and convinced of his own superiority; he views himself as an inspired poet, and, importantly for later spasmodic heroes, as above conventional morality and sexual morality in particular. Yet ‘Festus’ is also a deeply moral and religious poem, with settings including heaven and hell and a conclusion in which the hero achieves salvation.”

            The term “spasmodic” came from an essay by Charles Kingsley, “Thoughts on Shelley and Byron,” in which he “associated ‘spasmodic’ poetics with weakness, effeminacy, and misdirected” and said these poets, just like McKuen, “were heavily influenced by Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats.”  Then in 1854 William Aytoun administered the coup d’ grace with a parody in which he critiqued a make-believe spasmodic poem titled “Firmilian.”  The fake review was so popular Aytoun quickly wrote and published the up until then made-up book in which he “demonstrated the extent to which the language and themes of these poets already bordered on the ridiculous, and also showed how easy it was to produce reams of similar verse. The success of Firmilian ensured that the fall of spasmodic poetry was as rapid as its rise.”

            McKuen and the Spasmodics are by no means the worst poets in the English language.  As subjective as poetic tastes are, most who’ve read her agree the all-time worst poet title belongs to Anna McKittrick Ross, a late Victorian poet and novelist who wrote under the penname Amanda McKitterick Ros to obliquely associate herself with a titled family named Ros  in her rural Northern Ireland county.  An Irish school teacher who badgered her train station manager husband into self-publishing her first novel, “Irene Iddesleigh,” Ross was utterly convinced of her own greatness.  “Amanda McKittrick Ros, the Worst Novelist in History … Maybe,” another Slate.com article, said her “novels were so uniquely and thrillingly terrible that, in the early years of the last century, she became an ironic cause célèbre among the cultural luminaries of her time.”  They were all laughing at her, though. Mark Twain called her novel “one of the greatest un-intentionally humorous novels of all time” and crowned her “Queen & Empress of the Hogweash Guild,” and J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, formed Amanda McKittrick Ros societies at Oxford and Cambridge and held “sporadic Ros reading competitions, in which the winner was the member who could read from one of her novels for the longest without breaking into laughter.”   

            Two striking attributes of Ross’ writings were her “aversion to calling a thing by its name. Eyes are ‘globes of glare.’  When their owners are unhappy, these globes are ‘stuffed with sorrow.’ Trousers are not trousers; they are ‘the southern necessary.’ It’s as if, for Ros, circumlocution and literature are essentially synonymous.”  How bad it it?  As Slate summarized it, “This stuff is, in lowish doses, quite entertaining, but if you read enough of it, its absurdity seems to spread outward to the whole of literature, Ros’ writing is not just bad, in other words; its badness is so potent that it seems to undermine the very idea of literature, to expose the whole endeavor of making art out of language as essentially and irredeemably fraudulent—and, even worse, silly.”  But she was far from silly, since “one of the crucial features of her magisterially dreadful work is its total absence of anything even approaching a sense of humor. 

            Ross’ poetry was equally horrid; Consider “On Visiting Westminster Abbey”: “Holy Moses! Have a look!/ Flesh decayed in every nook!/ Some rare bits of brain lie here,/ Mortal loads of beef and beer,/ Some of whom are turned to dust,/ Every one bids lost to lust;/ Royal flesh so tinged with ‘blue’/ Undergoes the same as you./ Famous some were–yet they died;/ Poets–Statesmen–Rogues beside,/ Kings–Queens, all of them do rot,/ What about them? Now–they’re not!”  Ross’ badness was so transcendent, that the Legacy Belfast Public Library maintains a fine collection of her letters and writings.  Because tastes vary, good libraries present all points of view and let readers decide for themselves what’s worthy.  Ross’ poems are free online, and should be experienced.  As McKuen wrote, “It’s nice sometimes to open up the heart a little and let some hurt come in. It proves you’re still alive.”

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