Rod McKuen and 8th Grade English

[I loved Rod McKuen’s poems]

We read Rod McKuen’s poems
in my 8th grade English class,
where Mr. McMullen wore
rumpled wool suits
and carried a fragrant pipe
deep in his suitcoat pocket.
Later I would learn those poems
were disdained by the acclaimed
but nothing moved me like that,
not when I was thirteen
and trafficked only in emotion,
in poetry and in life.

My father’s suits were crisp
and he shined his best shoes
at the kitchen table on Sunday evening
before flying off to sell furnaces
in Fort Wayne or Frontenac.
He tried smoking a pipe
but went back to Camel straights,
which I stole from him regularly
while he looked the other way.

I miss Mr. McMullen and my father,
and the days when simple poems
gave voice to things I couldn’t name
and sometimes made me cry
when no one was watching.

Poet, performer and songwriter Rod McKuen, 1970
Richard E McMullen, teacher and poet
My father, Ralph H Neely, Jr,
on the beach in Grand Haven, MI, early 1960’s

Rod McKuen (1933-2015) was a poet, songwriter and performer. His book ‘Listen to the Warm’ captivated me when I was in junior high school. An obituary described McKuen as “America’s most understood poet,” a back-handed compliment referring to the fact that his poetry was relatively easy for readers to understand, regardless of a person’s education or previous experience reading poetry. Many characterized McKuen’s poetry as literary pablum, and most academic and literary poets and critics despised his work. Despite the slight regard of his critics, McKuen’s books have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. He was also a prolific songwriter. He wrote the song ‘Jean’ from the movie ‘The Prime of Jean Brodie’; the song was recorded by Oliver and held the number one spot on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charter for four weeks in 1969. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award for his work as a composer in the film industry.

Richard McMullen (1926-2006) was the English teacher every kid who wants to be a writer dreams of. My wife remembers parsing Simon and Garfunkel lyrics in his class at a different school a few years before I had him as a teacher. I treasure my copy of his collected poems, ‘Not Only Love’ (Crowfoot Press, 2005).

Ralph H Neely, Jr (1926-1988) was the best father a boy could ask for. He left us too soon and is sorely missed. I posted three poems about him recently and will no doubt continue to write about him for as long as I write poems.

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Joseph Neely, all rights reserved

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