When I was a teenager, I had very specific ideas about what constituted poetry, rhyming verses, measured lines, lofty subjects like love and death. Then I read Listen to the Warm by Rod McKuen, and everything changed. I was aware of McKuen’s work as a singer and songwriter, having seen him on television in the 70s, and heard recordings of his on the radio, but I was not as familiar with his published poetry. I ran across the book in the East Point branch of the Fulton County public library, and the name recognition caused me to borrow the book to read. I’m forever glad I did.
McKuen doesn’t enjoy a particularly good reputation among literary critics, who dismiss him as a pop culture poet, but for someone from the unwashed public, reading his work gave me a different perspective on writing. He didn’t seem to follow any rules, his lines were like sparse sentences, broken up at points to give it a poetical structure. He wrote about simple things, like what he did and didn’t do as a child, to more complex emotional issues like losing loved ones, and regret over paths not followed in life, and in doing so, opened for me a world I had never before experienced. The words spoke to me as no other had done before, and it wasn’t long before I was emulating McKuen’s style in my own writing. I graduated from sappy rhyming couplets, to excessively earnest free verse, sprinkled with occasional flashes of brilliance. Out of all the poems I wrote in high school and early college, the main period in which I expressed myself in this manner, I’d guess only twenty or thirty are worthy of publication, but writing them confirmed for me that this was something I wanted to pursue in life.
I once saw an artist being confronted by someone in the media about why a particular work was considered art, and his response was, “Because I’m an artist and I say it’s art.” Writing in general, and poetry in particular, conform to a similar standard. Writers write; it’s as simple as that. What we say may mean nothing to anyone other than ourselves, but the need to put words on paper cannot be denied. For every word I’ve written or published, there are probably thousands of other words of mine which never made it beyond the hand-written, or typed rough draft stages. Still, I felt compelled to write them. I find it much easier to express myself in written form than any other. When email and text messaging came about, I found them to be perfect outlets for communicating, and discovering the Internet and Usenet in the 90s, revived my interest in writing, giving me both a forum, and vehicle for publishing ideas quickly.
It has been a long time since I’ve read Listen to the Warm. I don’t know that I’d have the same reaction to it now that I did when I was younger, but discovering it when I did, caused me to think about writing and rethink what, to me, constituted writing. Reading Listen to the Warm taught me I needed to define for myself what it meant to write. Admittedly, I’ve had other influences in between, and I’ve read other works by McKuen that didn’t have the same impact, but that one book opened my mind in a way it had never been opened before. The rules went right out the window. Listen to the Warm was just what I needed to read at that particular point in my life. I cannot say I wouldn’t be a writer if I had not read it then, but I would not be the writer that I am, for better or worse.