Kirk wrote his first poem -- about a sailing ship, though he had never seen the ocean -- for an English class assignment as a high school student in upstate New York back when he was still Issur Danielovitch, the child of impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants. He discovered that versifying helped him better understand his thoughts. "Throughout my life I have written poems that express my true feelings," Kirk explains in the book's acknowledgments.
The poems are simple but perceptive reflections set in singsong rhyme and might be called wise doggerel. Here are the opening lines from "Luck" -- They call it 'luck'/It can't be taught/It can't be borrowed/It can't be bought'. Kirk's movie stardom, though discussed in the book, takes a back seat to his roles of son, husband, father, and grandfather.
|Kirk Douglas now (photo/Dan MacMedan/USA TODAY)
In Life Could Be Verse Kirk quickly runs through the highlights of his acting career which began on the New York stage in the late 1930s. There were a few years of struggle and a stint in the Navy during World War II. The big break came in 1945 when producer Hal Wallis (following a tip from young Lauren Bacall, who Kirk had briefly dated when she was a Manhattan teenager named Betty) caught Douglas's performance in the play The Wind is Ninety and lured him to Hollywood.
|Kirk Douglas then. With Barbara Stanwyck in The
Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
The boxing drama Champion (1949) established Kirk as a major star. He went on the make approximately ninety films but his turns as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) and a slave revolt leader in Spartacus (1960) may be the only Kirk Douglas roles that a non-movie buff can name.
|Doris Kappelhoff (left) Issur Danielovitch, and
Betty Joan Perske, in Young Man with a Horn (1950).
|Kirk's autobiography (1988). was
written before he mellowed with age.
Among the most touching of Kirk's poems was written after Anne was injured in a fall in their home and had to be hospitalized. Kirk pleads -- Let me go before my wife/Without her I have no life.
|Kirk Douglas (center) with wife Anne, son Michael,
and daughter in law Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The uxoriousness on display in Life Could Be Verse contrasts sharply with the tone of The Ragman's Son, in which Kirk's candor, some might call it braggadocio, in regard to his busy life as a ladies' man makes it easy to forget he has been married for most of his adult life. Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Ann Sothern, Gene Tierney, and Rita Hayworth, are among the A-listers who seem to have been more than friends with Kirk.
Kirk's first wife, the actress Diana Douglas, to whom he was married from 1943 to 1951, is the mother of his famous son Michael. For the record, Diana Douglas, a working actress in stage and television, penned her own entertaining memoir In the Wings (1999). The acerbic Diana, who refers to Kirk somewhat dismissively as "Doug," writes about her affair with Errol Flynn and the challenges she faced raising her sons while maintaining a busy but relatively modest acting career. With perhaps a tinge of envy, she questions whether the level of stardom held by her ex-husband, her son, and other celebrated people she has known, is really something to be desired.
|Memoir by Kirk's first wife (1999).
Kirk Douglas was once among the most driven and abrasive of Hollywood's top performers. These qualities are very much in evidence in The Ragman's Son but almost entirely absent from Life Could Be Verse. In the quarter century between the autobiography and the book of poems, Kirk survived a helicopter crash, suffered a stroke which left him having to relearn how to speak, and experienced the death of his youngest son, Eric, from a drug overdose. In the poem "Eric," Kirk writes -- Tell me, Eric, what did I do wrong?/What should I have done to make you strong?/Now I sit here and cry/Waiting to be with you when I die.
Other books by Kirk Douglas include My Stroke of Luck (2002), Let's Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning (2007) and two novels: Dance with the Devil (1990) and The Gift (1992). He has also performed a one-man autobiographical stage show, Before I Forget (2009).