He Was a Cartoon Long Forsaken by the Public Eye
I’M A SLOW LISTENER to spoken audio, thanks to a brain habituated to Twitter and tabbed browsing, but I finally listened all the way through "The Most Famous Poet No One Remembers," the episode of Slate's Decoder Ring podcast where Dan Kois excavated the career of the celebrity poet Rod McKuen. I knew about McKuen, sort of; at least, I knew his name as a self-evident punchline from Doonesbury or the writing of John Waters. Probably other places, too? I could tell that it had been generally understood that Rod McKuen was very famous, and also that it had been generally understood that he was a very bad poet.
What was lost on me, and what Kois brought out, was the extent to which that fame was the result of a period of unstoppable hustle by McKuen, in which he generated not just million-selling books and albums of ploddingly earnest verse, but a startling amount of surplus value. At the beginning of the episode, Kois played a brief snippet from the musical side of McKuen's career, with the poet singing the words "Rock gently / Go slow / Take it easy / Don't you know..."
I had never heard it before, but also I had: the lyrics of McKuen song were absolutely, unmistakably lifted by the singer Andy Kim for the 1974 No. 1 single "Rock Me Gently," nearly word for word, with no credit to McKuen. I'd been hearing Rod McKuen all over the radio when I was a kid, with no idea it was him.
A few minutes later I got an infinitely bigger version of the same shock, when Kois played part of a 1959 record McKuen had made as a would-be novelty hit. "I belong to the Beat Generation," the future cringe-poet sang, as a joke, "I don't let anything trouble my mind." It was (that is, it would become) the tune and cadence of Richard Hell and the Voidoids' 1977 art-punk anthem "Blank Generation": "I belong to the Blank Generation / And I can take it or leave it each time." McKuen didn't get any of the money from that, either, though at least Richard Hell doesn't seem to have hidden where he got it from.
The Andy Kim angle didn't even make it into the episode, replete as it was with considerations of fame and the loss of fame, mass loneliness, the power of merchandising, the perils of archiving, the suffocating power of the closet—and, above all, the barbed question of artistic merit. Rod McKuen embodied what it means to be corny, a concept so simultaneously self-evident and opaque that it's hard to face it head on. The experience of recognizing something as corny feels viscerally obvious, but that feeling depends on the fact that other people don't see it that way.
Corniness, that is, depends on there being a cleavage between other people's responses to a work of culture and one's own response—cleavage in opposing senses of the word: a stark chasm of separation, and a fearful risk of somehow being stuck together. When something is corny, it is unbearable, or untouchable; an encounter with corniness, I think, means that you have been caught between irreconcilable social and aesthetic values. The self shrinks from corniness, even as it sees other people fill themselves with joy. It shrinks because of that joy. You are not the person who could enjoy that.
It feels cruel to enumerate examples: that hit show, that inspirational writer, that shareable YouTuber, that song—ugh, that song. Easier, most of the time, in the current media-distribution environment, to keep your distance, rather than go around spoiling for fights. The process of developing taste, and with it, aversion, is familiar enough that I can pretty easily extrapolate the line you could follow to make "Blank Generation," despite its protective wrapping of irony, go the way of "Beat Generation"—certainly Richard Hell's own lyrics are very downtown and very 1977, and were working very hard to achieve their effect even then and there. There is always a cooler band than the cooler band; any stance can be perceived as a pose, from the right distance and angle. I'm too old to choose to care about that, though I can't really control what else I might care about anyway.
Life is a string of commitments that other people wouldn't have made. When I joined the punk program at the college radio station, everyone was required to pick a name or handle for themselves, to use in the logbook and other places. I picked five underscores in a row, which I told them to pronounce "blank"—as a sort of expression of my habitual compliance-via-noncompliance, but also because I had not that long before found out about Richard Hell.
I know, right?
But defensive reflexes develop for a reason. If you can fake the kind of enthusiasm that corniness asks from you, what else might you fake yourself into? Kois did not pretend to shed his own justified resistance to Rod McKuen—there was not a syllable of poetry in the podcast that resonated artistically or emotionally with me, either—but he talked to someone who had been converted by seeing McKuen perform live, in the 21st century, long after he’d stopped putting in the effort to maintain his bygone levels of fame and fortune. That seems like the most helpful way to start unraveling the problem of corniness: by looking at what the work does mean to someone else, even as it makes you personally want to run away.
Hello! It’s Tom, your parasocially friendly editor here. How’s your week been going? Joe is off the grid on vacation, so I apologize for the quality of the image and for whatever typos I’ve included.
One thing the late Rod McKuen would never have done is pussyfoot around about promoting his newsletter, if he’d had a newsletter, which he definitely would have. Rod McKuen was all about reaching the people, by any available means.
So I’m going to remind you, the readers, that Indignity has now reached and passed the end of its one-year Substack Pro grant, so that it is supported entirely by your interest and/or generosity, and by the interest and/or generosity of the other people who may encounter Indignity because you tell them about it. If you haven’t subscribed to our paid version yet, please do!
Also if you have any thoughts about or examples of corniness (besides this solicitation, which I have already filed away), please send them to email@example.com. I feel as if this edition only peeled the outermost husk from this topic.
READER ENGAGEMENT DEP'T.
Flee Willy 2: Fleeing Doesn't Help
A READER WHO came across our previous coverage of the menacing and terrifying habits of orcas sent along an article published in Yachting World last summer, about a population of orcas off the Iberian coast harassing and damaging yachts. According to the story, the orcas—which hunt tuna almost exclusively—have in recent years begun launching sustained and focused attacks against the rudders of passing ships, overpowering the crew's efforts to steer:
One of the earliest incidents involved a Hallberg-Rassy 36, which was being sailed to southern Spain by a delivery crew from Halcyon Yachts. “Our crew had just set off from A Coruña and were a couple of miles offshore when the crew suddenly felt the wheel being ripped out of their hands,” Peter Green of Halcyon Yachts explained.
The yacht was later taken under tow, but the impacts from the orcas continued, snapping the tow rope. When the yacht was lifted ashore there were clear bite marks on the hull and the rudder was split in two.
According to the website of the Atlantic Orca Working Group, encounters between the orcas and vessels have continued into this year. Their deeply absorbing FAQ warns that the orcas are deliberately and intentionally going after the rudders, and advises ships under attack to drop sail and kill the motor, stop attempting to move or steer, and keep humans out of sight until the orcas lose interest. The orcas can swim as fast as most of the sailing vessels they meet, and trying to get away only provokes them into doing more damage.
"any stance can be perceived as a pose": There are popular musicians - David Bowie and Steely Dan (i.e., Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) jump to mind, but there are many others - who have countered this, um, liability by continually, deliberately, and obviously striking poses. You may or may not like their poses, but they seldom or never pretend to be not pretending. Authenticity, schmauthenticity.
Vaclav Havel said of his plays that they were "theatrical images of the basic modalities of humanity in a state of collapse" and that they "tend to be decadently joking in tone". Decadent joking, also known as snark (or at least a large subset of snark), strikes me as highly appropriate for most art these days. Part of what makes much corniness corny is that it's earnest, painfully earnest, in an environment so stuffed with absurdities that earnestness tends to seem like cluelessness.