Rod McKuen: War Criminal

Did you know that Rod McKuen was a psychological warfare script writer during the Korean War?

Wait. Let me back up.

In high school I was in a "creative writing" class that was taught by a new-agey once-upon-a-hippie stereotype of a woman who somehow passed as a kind of low-rent cult figure, at least in the minds of the frailest set of sensitive artist youths to sulk their way in. Most days, you'd sit in a circle, read your crap aloud, and wait for the others to read theirs. Then there would be a round of critiques until teacher would cut in with one of her semester-rehearsed life-lesson monologues where she might go on about regrettable groupie adventures or some cherished acid trip epiphany. In course, teacher made sure we knew that she was bisexual, that she was a lapsed Catholic, that her ex husband left bruises, and that she had lost touch with her family (or maybe it was just her father — I can't recall). She extolled the virtues of psychic group encounters, dream interpretation, and hundredth monkey nonsense. After teacher had sized up the room well enough to pick favorites, I remember how she would steer the class discussion in cruel and manipulative ways, prodding tearful confessions from her most captive fans. A year after I graduated, I learned that teacher had had been fucking a school friend of mine. One of her favorites. A few years after that, I heard from another friend that she was dead. Eaten by a tumor.

While I'll grant that teacher may have known a thing or two about writerly craft, she had terrible taste. She was a big fan of those Leo Buscaglia love therapy books and would sometimes read from them in class, presumably for our edification. She had given way too much thought to Judy Blume's Wifey. She made us read Janis Ian lyrics. She insisted that we watch The Breakfast Club … and discuss.

And then there was Rod McKuen, who might still be the best-selling poet in human history. Teacher was, without a trace of irony, a McKuen enthusiast. On certain days when we weren't compelled to sit in the circle reading and critiquing and sharing too much, she would play decade-old spoken-word albums of McKuen reading his free-verse over soft music. I still remember his raspy voice. Still remember the one about the cat.

I made fun of Rod McKuen back then. The jokes came easily enough, and it would be just as easy now to dump his camp reputation on teacher's corpse. But the truth is, I don't know that he's such a bad poet. If he is — or was — a bad poet, the fact remains that millions of sincere people once thought otherwise. Over the years, I've picked up a few McKuen chapbooks at rummage stores and library booksales. They have soft-focus paisley covers with garish 1970s title fonts. They have titles like Listen to the Warm and Lonesome Cities. The poems between the covers fairly ooze with first-draft sentimentality, to be sure, but only a sneering critic would describe McKuen's verse as treacly. Melancholy is more accurate. The language is warm and intimate, unencumbered, distinctive, and peppered with precious free-associative singsong metaphors that go down like milk and honey — even when inspiration is drawn, as it often is, from the shallow well of commonplace sorrow. I'll read one at random and my first thought is usually: yeah, I can see why people were drawn to this. Alienation, loneliness and spiraling self-pity are catnip themes for troubled souls, and McKuen served them up in cozily familiar snapshot narratives that tempted hope, or at least made for good company. Tastemakers of the day scoffed over McKuen's popular appeal, just as critics scoffed at the first Black Sabbath album. But that's so much distant noise. Open the time capsule and open your eyes and it's clear that the world's "most understood poet" was dispensing pre-Prosac. Probably better than placebo, and I wouldn't call it kitsch. I might even be a fan. Teachers really do change lives. 

But did you know that Rod McKuen was a psychological warfare script writer during the Korean War? It's an odd  bit of trivia that comes up often enough in the old dustjacket squibs. I had forgotten until the other day when I picked up a few pocket editions at the local book festival. Now I'm half tempted to send off a FOIA request to see if any declassified texts are available. Maybe collect them for a book.

If you Google "Rod McKuen" and "Psychological Warfare," one of the top results is an eleven-year-old archived page from McKuen's website where, in response to a question posed in a fan letter form someone named "Dixie," the people's poet provides a bit of fascinating context:

Dear Dixie,

As a GI before leaving for Korea I was stationed in Tokyo for awhile where I worked writing propaganda scripts that were translated and beamed behind the bamboo curtain to North Korea..

One of my creations was "Moran" a sort of Korean Tokyo Rose who spoke quietly and played sentimental music. In other words all I did was adapt my old Oakland radio show "Rendezvous with Rod" for a smooth talking and sexy voiced Korean girl to speak from a female point of view. The idea was to make each North Korean soldier think she was speaking only to him. Defection to the South was the plan.

A typical script might begin "Hello, My Midnight Companion, It's S0 romantic and warm in Seoul tonight, I wish you were here to share this autumn night with me." 

I know, it sounds pretty corny, but it worked so well that there were major defections and I was named by Communist Korea (along with "Moran" and others connected with the show) as an official war criminal. For all I know I'm still on the list. Wonder how that will play out when I play concerts in Korea next year?

It's a nice autumn here in California here too, Dixie, but without the famous, colorful fall foliage that Colorado can boast. I had some beautiful autumn leaves sent to me from Wisconsin recently.

Warmly,

Rod

Memento mori              

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