There is something about seeing dates—i.e., handwritten commemorations scrawled down on page bottoms or inside covers—that fills me with a looming sense of melancholy. Something about time irrevocably passed and how specificity increases the feeling—this moment, for someone, somewhere, mattered, enough to be compelled to register the exact date into the great log book of life.
For six years I ran cultural programming at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, and near the middle of its 250 acres stood a contemporary art piece dedicated to E.E. Cummings, who is buried nearby. Created by Mitch Ryerson, the sculpture is basically a hollowed-out tree trunk that was to be felled due to illness before Mitch asked to use it for his work. Visitors can sit inside the empty Sugar Maple stump—described by Ryerson as both a “shelter and a doorway”—in a mini, bronze-floored hallway replete with a tiny, near-hidden drawer containing a book of poems by Cummings and a journal for people to write their thoughts, which often came in the form of quotes from Cummings’s poetry or original ones by the visitors. Usually, these entries were punctuated by the date on which it was written—and when I wandered the grounds of the cemetery as I often did, I would stop by “Openings” and peruse the accumulating pages of the journal. Seeing how moved people were by the force of Forest Hills, how contemplative they became confronted with the contradictory aura of so much beauty and so much death (over 100,000 people are buried there), and how appreciative it made them all.
One entry I’ll never forget (though I won’t include the real names), despite the simple nature of its content, read like this: “______ & _______ were here, and in love. July 25, 2004.” I can remember crying at the sight of what I assumed were young lovers, young enough to boast of love, to etch it into history, and to believe it will never end—and how by the time I came upon it (four or five years later) that love may have faded or disappeared completely.
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Perhaps this explains the strange effect of dates: it lies in the contrast between the at-the-moment importance of the writing and the savage inducement of apathy that time exerts over us. What used to be absolutely vital can come to seem—not unimportant but somehow unconnected to that which originally gave it meaning and depth and life. Think of ______ & _______ years later. Let’s say that since they wrote that note they’ve broken up. Now for either of them seeing that handwritten date—that evidence of their former exuberant love for one another—won’t conjure the same feelings as they did in 2004; instead, it will be like remembering an echo: they’ll recall the emotions but not at their greatest magnitude.
Besides Forest Hills, the greatest source for notes from the past come from used books. Just recently I bought some books from a thrift store in Columbus, Ohio and on the inside of my paperback copy of One Day by David Nicholls is this note (again, with names omitted): “given to me from _________, _________’s second wife in Tampere, Finland 2015.” Since I purchased this copy in late 2016, that means that One Day (a British edition) traveled 4,300 miles in about a year, which is quite a feat for a little book. Moreover, there are some telling details here: why, for instance, the mention of the “second wife”? The recipient of this gift, it seems, had a relationship with the first wife, knew her in some way, as to justify the enumerative qualifier, and maybe even prefers the first to the second. Why else, after all, would the book end up at the thrift store so quickly if the gift—and thus the giver—meant anything to the recipient?
The answers to all these questions are probably ordinary, but I think this is why the scribbled notes in books are so poignant. Most of us live ordinary lives, but when some piece of evidence of our lives pops into someone else’s, even our banal existences take on a hue of mystery, of wonder. Whatever happened to that couple in love at Forest Hills Cemetery? How did One Day travel from lake-engulfed Tampere to rural Ohio? The answer lies in the extraordinariness of the ordinary.
The most fascinating note I’ve ever found in a secondhand book is in a hardcover copy of Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971—2001, which I bought this past summer at Tin Can Mailman in Arcata, California. I was visiting my sister Sarah, who lives there with her daughter Emma and her partner Donny. When I travel the only attractions I’m ever interested in are the local used bookstores, so besides hanging with my sister and my niece, my memory of my trip to northern California pretty much consists of what I looked at and bought at Tin Can Mailman and the other stores I checked out (which also included Eureka Books, Northtown Books, and Booklegger—fantastic establishments all).
Here is what I found inside Finders Keepers (such an appropriate name, eh?):
For Rod, Happy 70th Birthday, Michael. And on the bottom of the same page is the recipient’s full name, presumably written by himself and thus answering the mystery of Rod’s identity and why I’m not blocking out the names this time:
The book belonged to Oscar- and Pulitzer-Prize-nominated songwriter and Grammy-winning poet Rod McKuen, who sold millions and millions of records and collections of poetry during his lifetime. His songs found their way into the voices of the likes of Dusty Springfield (“Simple Gifts”), Johnny Cash (“Love’s Been Good to Me”), Barbara Streisand (“If You Go Away”), Dolly Parton (“Every Loner Has to Go Alone”), and Frank Sinatra (whose album A Man Alone was solely composed by McKuen).
You might recognize one of McKuen’s poetry collections from your parents’ bookshelves, or from the selections at secondhand shops—at one point his writing was so popular it seems like nearly everyone from the period owned one of his numerous volumes. Here is a representative sample of their covers:
Dude loved beaches. And romantic sentimentality. In fact, McKuen is pretty much exclusively known for his schmaltziness—a fact no critic ever let him forget. Julia Keller, writing for the Chicago Tribune, contrasted the love/hate divide in terms of McKuen’s audience:
Millions have adored McKuen since his heyday in the 1970s, buying his albums and poetry books, quoting him in their wedding ceremonies and at their pets’ funerals, making him, by some accounts, the best-selling poet in modern times.
Millions more have loathed him for an equivalent length of time, finding his work so schmaltzy and smarmy that it makes the pronouncements of Kathie Lee Gifford sound like Susan Sontag.
You love him or you hate him. Or you’ve never heard of him, which is probably the case if you were born in or after, say, 1977.
Keller doesn’t even let McKuen have his massive popularity, instead infusing that first paragraph with oozing condescension (“pets’ funerals,” and “by some accounts,” etc.). This is fairly typical for coverage of McKuen. Indeed, it seems no writer (even me) can write about him without referring to the nickname bestowed on him by Newsweek: “the king of kitsch.”
But something seems wrong here to me. For one, since the 80s it became acceptable to dismiss McKuen’s massive success, much the way any era leaves behind some of its fads and peccadilloes. But McKuen was no Pet Rock—he outlasted the flash-in-the-pan trends and one-hit wonders, pushing his career into the 1980s. Moreover, McKuen’s sales are not to be sneezed at—while Gary Dahl sold about 1.5 million of his Pet Rocks, McKuen has sold 60 millions books. Of poetry, mind you. I don’t care how smarmy a person is, selling that much poetry in America is quite a feat.
It is probably true that nothing McKuen wrote ever pushed the boundaries of poetic form, nor did he analyze contemporary politics or align himself with a particular group (though he was gay rights activist, McKuen never avowed himself as either gay or bisexual, saying choosing one was “too limiting”). McKuen wasn’t radical in his verse, nor was he challenging or esoteric. He was plain, he was earnest, and he was sentimental. Consider his popular poem “The Need,” from his 1967 collection Listen to the Warm:
It’s nice sometimes
to open up the heart a little
and let some hurt come in.
It proves you’re still alive.
If nothing else
it says to you–
clear as a high hill air,
as diving through cold water–
However wretchedly I feel,
I’m not sure
why we cannot shake
the old loves
from our minds.
It must be that
we build on memory
and make them more
than what they were.
And is the manufacture
just a safe device
for closing up the wall?
I do remember.
the only fuzzy circumstance
is sometimes where and how.
Why, I know.
just because we need
to want and to be
when love is here or gone
to lie down in the darkness
and listen to the warm.
Sure, the language is inexact (“sometimes,” “a little,” “fuzzy circumstance,” etc.), the line breaks uninspired, and the metaphors unoriginal (“uncomfortable / as diving in cold water”), but from this one poem you can tell why McKuen was so widely read: he was ordinary. He expressed ordinary feelings about ordinary concepts. He rarely confronted his readers with fresh insights; more often his poetry reaffirmed. Made you believe in the love you once felt or left you hopeful for an uncertain future—you know, the sort of positivity often attributed to Hallmark cards but with McKuen there is a major difference: it worked. Hallmark cards may express cuddly sentiments, but in and of themselves they are usually not particularly effective. Indeed, it is the combination of sentiment and the giver of the card that makes Hallmarks’ cheesiness at all successful. For many people, McKuen does it on his own, sans personal proxy.
In fact for many I think McKuen’s appeal is that he writes about regular feelings in a simple way, because it suggests to people something overlooked in the work of popular poets: it not only shows them that they, too, could write poetry (there isn’t anything inherently difficult-seeming about McKuen’s verse, so it’s easy to mimic) but more importantly it shows them that their ordinary longings and desires can be poetry. The public, by and large, doesn’t seem to understand poetry, but it’s just as true that they also don’t believe that their inner lives are translatable to poetry. They are not, in other words, fit subjects for poesy. McKuen shows us this isn’t true.
In business, there is an inherent contradiction that comes with products that are massively popular. In order to sell something to the masses, the product must be both extraordinary (to merit the sales) and fundamentally ordinary (to appeal to so many types of people). In other words, they must be tuned into ordinary lives in an extraordinary way; they must recognize a banal need and meet the demand with an unexpectedly useful way. This is what Rod McKuen did. He was concentrated ordinariness, a neutron star of common sentiments. He wasn’t new; he was just able to bring in the old-fashioned into a new era.
His 70th birthday—the occasion for the note in Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers—was in 2003. McKuen died in 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. Somehow the book (a gift from Michael, about whom I know nothing) wound up in a few hundred miles north, tucked in among thousands of other books at Tin Can Mailman, unbeknownst to the myriad customers passing it by day after day. They may not have noticed it; they may have thought that poetry wasn’t for them (even though Heaney is a Nobel Prize winner); or they may have just been too busy with their own problems and concerns. But all they had to do was pick it up, separate it from the masses, and open it up, and they would see how hidden inside the ordinary package of a hardcover book is a gem of extraordinary humanity.
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