SP is pleased to present the third essay from the new anthology Poets on Growth: An Anthology of Poetry and Craft, edited by Peter LaBerg and Talin Tahajian, and released by Singapore-based publisher Math Paper Press. (Read the first and second essays.) “Rod McKuen Saves the World” by Angela Voras-Hills is an attractive essay that describes how a girl from a small town found her way into writing poetry, led by living voices.
Rod McKuen Saves the World (Why I Write Poems)
by Angela Voras-Hills
I guess my story begins with Rod McKuen. If you’re not familiar with Rod McKuen, he is like Leonard Cohen, but he is not like Leonard Cohen at all. When I was a teenager, I found a few hardcover Rod McKuen books at my high school library, and I took them. I don’t know why. I wasn’t really the thieving type, and I didn’t know much about poetry. When I got the books home, I took an X-ACTO knife to the poems I didn’t like and collaged every available space with pictures of Claire Danes and random quotes from magazines. On weekends, I’d cram into a booth at the truck stop in my tiny hometown and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee and read the poems to friends.
And that was that. I graduated high school, moved to Germany for a year, and while I often heard the echo of some of the poems throughout my life, I never read them again.
Long story short: I came home from Germany, had a baby, and started college (the baby only relevant to the story in that it’s kind of a big deal and drastically shaped my view of the world and how I handle myself in it). During my second year as an undergrad, I took a wonderful composition course, where we read Lorrie Moore and David Sedaris, and my mind was blown completely. Not only were their stories fantastic, but both writers were/are still alive (and Moore was living in Wisconsin, which was a bit unbelievable).
Don’t get me wrong, I took all of the English classes in high school, and I loved reading, but I honestly did not realize that writers existed as people. If you’d asked me to name a living writer, I would’ve said “Dean Koontz…uh… Stephen King?” (I would not have been positive that King was still alive). And in all of my reading until this composition course, I don’t recall having read anything by a woman ever (though I’m sure I must’ve, right?). So, at around 22, I realized that writers existed, and I decided I would be one.
I started writing fiction by mimicking Moore, and very true to her story “How to Become a Writer,” I wrote a handful of stories in which nothing ever happened. I was obsessed with the subtleties of emotion and thought, which are so hard to convey in a character’s actions. I wasn’t as interested in exploring what people were doing, but why they were doing it. I wanted to know the way people convinced themselves what they were doing with their lives was ok or enough.
After writing quite a few short stories in which nothing happened, I took an Intro to Creative Writing workshop and read Wislawa Szymborska. I went to my professor’s office and said something like, “This doesn’t rhyme, and it doesn’t make me feel like an idiot: is this a poem?” Indeed, he assured me that it was, and then explained a bit about free verse. Until then, other than Rod McKuen, I’d had two other experiences with poetry:
1. In high school we created rhyming poems in the shapes of animals and hourglasses and such, &
2. In a Modern American Lit course, where we read T.S. Eliot, and in which my professor made a comment about how lowbrow Rod McKuen was. Ouch.
So, armed with the knowledge that poets are living people, I started writing poems. My first poem happened like this: I’d been reading a lot of poems. Then, one day, I was walking down the hall of the house I grew up in, and I heard words in my head, and I wrote them down. And it was a poem. I revised it as I wrote it. I spent maybe an hour or two on it, and retrospectively, for a girl who had no idea what poetry was just a bit before, it wasn’t that bad at all.
I brought that poem and a few others to my Intro to Creative Writing workshop, and they went over fairly well, and people said nice things about them, but they hadn’t felt like anything I’d actually done. I didn’t struggle to write them or revise them, and it didn’t take a long time to get those ideas on the page. Writing poems felt as natural as breathing, and who wants to be praised for breathing? And since I didn’t really know the rules of the game I was playing, I felt like a fraud when people said nice things about my poems. So, I continued to write fiction, because I sucked at it and it was difficult, which made me feel legit.
Two years later, I was still writing (mostly not-good) fiction for workshops and poems for fun, when I decided to switch things up and take a poetry workshop. We read Louise Glück’s “The Drowned Children,” and that was the end of it. I was done with fiction. Glück’s poem was the most beautiful, terrifying thing I’d ever read, and I felt awful for wanting to read it again, but I had to. And then we read Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song.” The coexistence of beauty and brutality in these poems were things I’d been struggling to reconcile for so long, and in reading them, I finally understood what a poem should do.
I started coming to poetry with questions. I turned to it like others turn to religion: to understand, but also to accept that there are questions to which I don’t need an answer. To believe in something I cannot explain. To celebrate life in all of its ugliness and splendor. At this point, I need to write through so much of what I think and see in order to fully experience and learn from it. And though writing poetry is no more outwardly difficult than it was when I wrote my first poem, there is now a struggle at the core of each poem I write, and each word is more deliberate (and the very idea of being “legit” makes me blush for my silly little writer-self).
Despite what critics say, I still have a soft spot in my heart for Rod McKuen. Because of him, I learned to call bullshit on “highbrow” and “lowbrow” designations. To participate in life and appreciate art, you need to forget about your ridiculous brows. McKuen sold millions of books of poetry that people actually read, and that is a great thing for all of humanity. Maybe some of his readers went on to read T.S. Eliot, and that is wonderful. And maybe a few of those people eventually moved on to write their own poems. And that’s good for humanity, too.
by Angela Voras-Hills
xxxxxxxxAfter the seasonal fires filled our lungs,
we washed the linens. The neighbor’s cat lingered
xxxxxxxxon our windowsill, looking in. We couldn’t
get rid of him, no matter the poison. By that time,
xxxxxxxxwe’d known for months. The grass
had been singed by the soil, worms
xxxxxxxxlay shriveled in the dirt. We waited
all night near the window for crickets, didn’t hear
xxxxxxxxthe possum digging its way in
through the foundation of our house.
xxxxxxxxIt curled into a ball behind the dryer to die.
Days later, the sidewalk was glistening black,
xxxxxxxxcovered with the crickets’ silent bodies.
You carried me to the car and began
xxxxxxxxdriving. When the urge came
to push, I hesitated, but couldn’t resist
xxxxxxxxthe burning. The moon sat quietly above
the ribs of the earth. Somewhere, tides were rising.
Reprinted by permissions of author, editors, and publisher, the essay “Rod McKuen Saves the World (Why I Write Poems)” first appeared in Poets on Growth: An Anthology of Poetry and Craft, edited by Peter LaBerg and Talin Tahajian (Math Paper Press, 2015). The poem “Unfurling” was first published in Linebreak.
Angela Voras-Hills earned her MFA at UMass-Boston and was a fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Memorious, & Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other journals and anthologies. She has received awards from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Key West Literary Seminar. She currently lives in Madison, WI, where she is co-founder of The Watershed: A Place for Writers.