Rod McKuen’s Time Machine


Yesterday, poet and songwriter, Rod McKuen, passed away at the age of 81.

For me, music is like a time machine that takes me back faster than almost anything. And, in a flash, Mr. McKuen’s words return me to when I was a girl in the ’70s, hovering in the chasm between “ew, that’s gross” and “oh, how romantic” when it came to love.

My mother used to listen to Rod McKuen constantly, especially when my father, an Air Force pilot, was stationed overseas. While driving, she liked to listen to his poems set to the music of the San Sebastian Strings. I think it might have been her way of escaping the insanity of trying to raise five children, by piling us all in the car around bed time, then driving around until we fell asleep, lullaby by Rod McKuen.

Our car was just like this one, except dark green.

Our car was just like this one, except dark green.

But before drifting off, I would watch my mother’s face, so deep in thought as she listened, and I wondered what in the world she liked about the silly words, the melancholy music so heavy with cello. I’m sure I rolled my eyes at the mushiness of it all. Of course, there were so many things that gave me cause to roll my eyes at that age–like when I couldn’t get one of my four siblings to scoot over to her side of the back seat.

The SeaSilly as I thought Mr. McKuen’s serenades were, as an adult, I came across the very same album my mother used to listen to, and in a whoosh of sentimentality, purchased it. I was tickled to find I’d memorized many of his poems and even remembered them decades later.

At twelve, the “ew” factor often kicked in with excerpts like this one from “The Storm”:

I’d like to crawl behind your eyes sometime and see me the way you do. Or, climb through your mouth and sit on every word that comes up through your throat.

But today, I’ve been there–in relationships where I’ve struggled to figure someone out. I understand and think back to watching my mother’s face, and wonder what thoughts it brought to her mind as my parents’ marriage was falling apart.

When he wrote that he “worried when you laugh too loud,” I remember thinking, “Huh? Why would that worry you?” Now, I understand.

Still, as a young girl who dreamed of one day being a writer, and especially who dreamed of being in love, many of his words gave me shivers, placed me in a state of awe, like this excerpt from “Do You Like the Rain?”

Sail the rain that falls upon the sea tonight. We’ll ride the rain to France and back and see the world through European windows.

In my opinion, The New York Times described Rod McKuen perfectly.

For a generation of Americans at midcentury and afterward, Mr. McKuen’s poetry formed an enduring, solidly constructed bridge between the Beat generation and New Age sensibilities.

Some may have never outgrown the feeling of “ew” over Rod McKuen’s mushy poetry. Maybe I love his poems now because I’ve lived some of his writing. Maybe it’s because his words take me back to my childhood and cast a different light on what I saw happening to our family then.

My first thought is to say I’ll miss him. But, the power of words is that they’re always here with us. My day will be filled with songs of The Sea and all the memories it brings back.

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9 Responses to Rod McKuen’s Time Machine

  1. “But if you stay I’ll give you a day like no day has been or will be again.”​ My favorite of all of his poems set to music. My daughter also loved his work. Thanks for this special tribute. He must have been oh so romantic, as we often wish the men we meet are.




  2. Mustang.Koji says:

    So much of your feelings shine through here, Jan!


  3. erinleary says:

    Hi Jan,
    My sister, Jan, was a poet who drew a lot of her influence from Rod McKuen. Our brother, who is a more structured writer, diminished her work for that reason – too undisciplined, too free. That never stopped her from writing – she went on to win accolades from the Oregon Poetry Association among others.

    When my sister was losing her battle to pancreatic cancer at 54, my brother took it upon himself to publish her poetry. He curated the collection and worked with her to make it everything she ever hoped for. That final loving gesture endures in a much treasured book that has comforted me many times since her death ( ).

    Rod McKuen’s passing brought that memory to mind just now. He was indeed a bridge – in our case, between two very different approaches to the same end.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!


    • Jan Morrill says:

      What a special story, Erin. It gave me chills and a lump in my throat. That was a very special gift from your brother. I’m going to Amazon now to check it out. Thanks so much for sharing your sister, Jan’s, story.


  4. Jan, when I saw about whom you were writing, “Do you know my friend the sea?” in Rod’s voice, came to mind immediately. I loved his poetry and songs and was sad when I heard he’d passed away. Lovely tribute.



  5. Pingback: Inspiration from Rod McKuen(?!) |

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