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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: La beauté et le Beat

by Philip Martin | February 28, 2021 at 2:14 a.m.

"Don't call me a Beat. I was never a Beat poet."

-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

"Autumn Leaves" is one of those songs you probably know whether or not you recognize its name. It's a jazz standard recorded by everyone from Bill Evans to Doris Day to Frank Sinatra to Eric Clapton.

Pianist Roger Williams had a No. 1 hit with an instrumental version of it in 1955. A year later, Nat King Cole sang it over both the opening and closing credits of a Joan Crawford weepie of the same title.

Johnny Mercer wrote the English lyrics for the song, which was originally written by Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma, for the 1946 French film "Les Portes de la nuit" (Gates of Night). Kosma took a poem by the film's screenwriter Jacques Prévert called "Les Feuilles mortes" (which translates literally as "the dead leaves," though "the dry leaves" better conveys the mood of the song).

Mercer's version is tinged with wistfulness, but the original French version is several degrees more somber, with Prévert likening memories and regrets to "fallen leaves" that can be scooped up "by the shovelful": And the north wind takes them into the cold night of oblivion/You see, I have not forgotten the song you used to sing me.

Which makes sense given that "Les Portes de la nuit" is a downer of a movie that suggests a noble working class was sold out by bourgeois quislings during the Nazi occupation of France. Prévert was not looking to write a hit single when he wrote "Les Feuilles mortes"; he was attempting to, as Wallace Stevens had it, "resist the intelligence [of the reader] almost successfully." He was engaging the reader in a kind of struggle--he was trying to write a poem, which is different than a song lyric.

Prévert came to mind last week because Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another writer who relished tussling with intelligent readers, died at the blameless age of 101.

I met Ferlinghetti in my youth through my uncle Philip, a San Francisco antique dealer/interior decorator to the semi-famous. At the time, I didn't get who the old guy with the piercing blues eyes was, and if I had, I doubt I would have been impressed.

He wasn't even the most famous poet my uncle introduced me to; that would have been Rod McKuen.

McKuen was more a friend than a client to my uncle; they went sailing together on the Bay, and every year in the official Rod McKuen calendar sold in bookstores and gift shops, the wedding anniversary of my Uncle Philip and Aunt Jean was noted, as though it were a federal holiday.

I once believed that McKuen wrote his song "Jean" for my aunt and opportunistically repurposed it as the theme song for the film "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." I can't prove it didn't happen.

McKuen is almost universally derided as a pop culture poseur these days, often described as America's worst poet, and probably best remembered for the song he wrote with Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel which, in English, is known as "Seasons in the Sun."

The Terry Jacks version is widely decried as one of the worst pop songs ever. The New York Times described McKuen's work as "facile, tepid and aphoristic" in his obituary. My opinion is warped by my uncle's fondness for him, so I'll recuse myself from his defense.

But I will quote Aram Saroyan who, in 1976, wrote that his "poems were cleanly written, and very personal. Was he any good? ... it was hard to tell, but one thing was certain: He was necessary ... He is the one and only poet who can get them to soften the lights on 'The Mike Douglas Show,' have them tune up the mics to catch his whisper, and proceed to read the nation a genuine, actual, honest-to-God poem. He is in effect our national poet, while Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti speak to and for our counter-culture.

"Let me say right now that I have come to admire McKuen as a poet and a reader of poetry ... It is fashionable, I know, in some literary circles to dismiss his work, but that is snobbery, not taste."

As a 10-year-old, I was more impressed with McKuen than Ferlinghetti. Did Ferlinghetti put out an annual calendar?

Perhaps he did. He put out a lot of stuff. In 1951, Ferlinghetti translated Prévert's 1946 book "Paroles" (Words), a collection patched together from decades of work published in newspapers and scribbled on the backs of envelopes and the paper tablecloths of cafés.

Ferlinghetti had discovered Prévert's work while he was studying at the Sorbonne after the war. He became enamored, not just of the French poet's style and subject matter, his use of black humor and a straightforward vernacular, but of the way his French publisher Les Editions de Minuit, which started as an underground house in response to wartime Nazi censorship, operated.

Prévert--along with T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings--would become one of Ferlinghetti's chief models for his poetry. (He really wasn't a Beat; he just admired and published them.) And Les Editions de Minuit would become the model for the publishing arm of his famous City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

McKuen was also a fan of Prévert, and like Ferlinghetti, he (sort of) translated him. Belgian singer and frequent McKuen collaborator Jacques Brel adapted a Prévert poem into the song "Ne Me Quitte Pas" in 1959. You'll know McKuen's version as "If You Go Away."

Terry Jacks got ahold of that one too.

I don't know what McKuen thought of Ferlinghetti, though he was sometimes antagonistic toward the Beats. (See his 1959 album, the unintentionally hilarious "Beatsville," and his 1970 parody recording "The Beat Generation," the descending chord pattern of which which punk rock band Richard Hell interpolated into "The Blank Generation" a few years later.)

If Ferlinghetti, by all accounts a generous and kind man, ever expressed an opinion of Rod McKuen's work, I can't find it. But San Francisco has never been that big a town, and it is impossible to imagine that two best-selling poets (Ferlinghetti's 1958 book "A Coney Island of the Mind" remains one of the best-selling poetry books of all time) weren't acutely aware of each other.

I've probably been to City Lights Bookstore about 20 times since my uncle first took me there in the '60s. Though I always looked for him, I never saw Ferlinghetti again.

I wish I had. He seemed like a nice man.

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