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McKuen, Rod (b. 1933)  
 
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The poems and songs of Rod McKuen express a bittersweet, aching tenderness towards life that has endeared him to millions of fans. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was perhaps the most popular poet in the United States. His songs have been recorded by over 500 artists, and he himself has produced over 200 albums.

Born in a Salvation Army hospital during the Great Depression of the 1930s, driven by brutal abuse to run from his family, and forced to earn his own living at a variety of laborer's jobs from the age of eleven, Rod McKuen could have grown up hard, embittered, and angry. However, without security or education, McKuen managed to uncover in himself a writer's soul and to hone and develop his skills as a poet and a songwriter. Although his work has often been lambasted by critics as cloying and trite, McKuen's poetry is unpretentious and accessible to the average reader, and his songs in particular exhibit a high level of craftsmanship.

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McKuen was born in Oakland, California on April 29, 1933. He grew up not knowing the identity of his father, a condition that haunted him for most of his life and led to his 1977 book, Finding My Father, which opens with the mordant observation, "Having been born a bastard gave me an advantage over all those people who spend their entire lives becoming one. It's nice to have a head start."

At the age of eleven, McKuen left home and his abusive stepfather and struck out on his own. Except for three years in a juvenile reformatory, his youth was spent rambling through the west, working at a wide range of jobs. He worked as a logger, ditch digger, railroad laborer, cowhand, and rodeo rider, among other jobs. Perhaps most importantly, he also began to keep a journal to record his feelings.

McKuen found his way back to the Bay Area in the early 1950s, where he met such beat generation poets as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He began to read his own poetry at clubs like the Jazz Cellar in San Francisco, and self-published his first book of poems, And Autumn Came (1954).

In 1953, he volunteered for the U. S. Army and spent two years in combat in the infantry in Korea. After his discharge, he returned to San Francisco, where he joined the folk music explosion, singing his own songs along with standards at clubs like the Purple Onion. During the late 1950s, he spent time in New York, singing in nightclubs until his voice was damaged, leaving it weak and reedy for the rest of his life.

During the early 1960s, he journeyed to France, where he met songwriters and performers Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour and began writing the free-verse poetry that would make him famous.

McKuen was beginning to develop a following, so when he published his second book of poems, Stanyon Street and Other Sorrows (1966), it sold well, even though it was promoted only through classified ads. His third and fourth books, Listen to the Warm (1967) and Lonesome Cities (1968), became immediate best-sellers, and by the end of 1968 McKuen became the first author in seventy years to have three books at once on the New York Times bestseller list.

These books of poetry, along with the ones that followed almost yearly during the 1970s and 1980s, earned McKuen a devoted following, but also a reputation for sentimentality and obviousness. Although he is one of the most widely read poets of his generation, his poetry has never been taken seriously by literary critics, who dismiss it as banal. Still, the thoughtfulness and sense of wonder in McKuen's poetry account for its popularity. Moreover, it captures the anxieties and aspirations of the youth movement that came into flower in the mid-1960s.

While McKuen's poetry has been greeted with critical disdain, that is not true of his songs. Indeed, he has earned great respect as a songwriter. He has written more than 900 songs and recorded some 200 albums, 63 of which have gone gold or platinum.

McKuen's film scores for Ronald Neames's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and Bill Melendez's A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1970) were nominated for Academy Awards. McKuen won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for the haunting title song, "Jean," from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

In 1969, Frank Sinatra commissioned McKuen to write an entire album of songs for him to record. The result was A Man Alone and Other Songs of Rod McKuen, an album that many consider a superb match of performer and vehicle.

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