“Now, you know of my deep association and confraternity with the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. I could say that when I was a young man, an adolescent, and I hungered for a voice, I studied the English poets and I knew their work well, and I copied their styles, but I could not find a voice. It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. It is not that I copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.
“As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty”.
That quote from a speech Leonard Cohen made when he received the Prince of Asturias literature prize in Spain last year is a measure of the singer’s fastidious and thoughtful approach to art and life. The Spanish award was not the first in recognition of his gifts as a poet; he has received others, including a Canadian Governor General’s Award for his “Selected Poems 1956-68” at the end of the Sixties.
On the New Yorker website, the words of “Going Home”, the opening track on his latest album “Old Ideas”, are located in the poetry section and it was perhaps no coincidence that Cohen’s most recent appearance in Ireland placed him on ground that resonates with Yeatsian associations – under Ben Bulben and in the shadow of “That old Georgian mansion”, as Yeats referred to Lissadell.
It might well have pleased him that Time magazine once described his voice as “like Villon with frostbite” – Francois Villon being one of the greatest of French poet-troubadours. The American Academy of Poets commented that “While it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines.”
Similarly, the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition of his work – putting Cohen in the company of an illustrious list of poet-superstars – makes no distinction between lyrics and poems and in his introduction to that volume, Robert Faggen suggests the singer has eroded the “artificial boundary between poetry and song”.
The late blooms of Cohen’s recent artistic resurgence show definitively that the songs are not auxiliary to his published poems. Of all the singer-songwriters of his era who have also been labelled as poets, Cohen is perhaps the one most at ease with metre and rhyme, having already established his artistic persona and been lauded for the verses he published before emerging as a singer, though not one, as he said in Tower of Song, “born with the gift of a golden voice”.
As well as poetry, he had published two works of fiction, Beautiful Losers ( a novel about a poet ) and The Favourite Game, their impressionistic style influenced perhaps by his reading of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, which was on Cohen’s college course in McGill University in Montreal.
The richness of his language of images, its tone and cadence, revealed an artist whose way with words set him apart. His literary skills were brought to bear on his song lyrics; a gift for the highly visualised, a playfulness with refrains and repetitions.
As Robert Bly once said of last year’s Nobel Laureate, the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, he had a “strange genius for the image”. So too Cohen, especially his use of images in those songs that introduced him to an audience beyond the world of poetry, a in “Suzanne”: There are heroes in the seaweed / There are children in the morning / They are leaning out for love/ They will lean that way forever…
Cohen mapped out his territory with songs that braided the sacred and the profane, poems that celebrate and invoke the female body and erotic love, but also draw heavily on imagery and references from the biblical literature of the both Jewish and Christian traditions. He is profoundly conscious of the cultural and religious inheritance that has been passed on to him as a Jew, and knows too the value of the Zen moment. Never one for songs of innocence, he is always ardent in his songs of experience.
Cohen’s use of the word “lament” in his “Asturias” speech is crucial – lament has been a constant and conspicuous characteristic of his work; lament for Joan of Arc, the Sisters of Mercy, the Nightingale, that “Famous Blue Raincoat” and the “Heart with no Companion”.
It was Lorca, another poet of desire and troubled imagination , who led him “into the racket of poetry” and who has been a seminal influence. Cohen’s version of “Take this Waltz,” transmutes the Spanish poet’s melancholy into a Coheneque melody longing. Lorca is again a source of inspiration for Cohen’s admirable version of ”The Faithless Wife”:
Her petticoat was starched and loud
And crushed between our legs
It thundered like a living cloud
Beset by razor blades
Other poets have featured in his work, signifying a fellowship that has sustained him: He adapted Greek poet C P Cavafy’s “The God Abandon Antony” as the wistful “Alexandra’s Leaving”, a keynote inclusion on Ten New Songs.
The follow up album, “Dear Heather”, opened with a suitably mournful rendition of Byron’s We’ll Go No More a Roving – a foretaste of the autumnal mellowness that would haunt Old Ideas, released at the beginning of this year.
There is both wit ( “and other forms of boredom / advertised as poetry” ) and learning in Cohen’s writing and almost always that melding of the sacred and profane. His poems have stories to tell, his narrator’s voice being one that seemed world-weary even when he was a younger man. His darker moods suggest a writer with the sensibility of the poet maudit . But perhaps Simon Schama is closer to the mark when he describes the songs of this “grocer of despair” as embodying a “mutilated romanticism”.
On the 1992 album, “The Future”, Cohen hit a higher pitch, and lyrically a new stride, with song-poems that looked to world order and issues of justice – “Democracy”, “Anthem” and the title track. Their unsettling focus on moral and social decay, as well as the paranoia of the modern world, brought Cohen into the realm of public statement. Although never a protest singer like many of his contemporaries, he had previously recorded songs that reflected his concerns on: “The Old Revolution” and, particularly, “The Partisan”, which is not a Cohen lyric but a French Resistance song that he frequently features in his shows.:
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through the graves the wind is blowing,
freedom soon will come;
then we’ll come from the shadows.
He knows that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and like Yeats has his own tower but it’s a Tower of Song, one from which he has seen “the nations rise and fall” and how “the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/ And there’s a mighty judgment coming.”
His beloved Lorca once described himself as “a poet from birth, an incurable one”. Cohen too could say same the same about himself. On the other hand, perhaps he should remember that story about Thomas Moore and Byron on the banks of the Thames as a barge-man goes by singing a Moore melody, and the English poet, turning to the Irish bard, declares: “That’s immortality Tom, that’s real immortality”.
The Irish Times Weekend Review, August 18th, 2012