Leonard Cohen Essay - Critical Essays


Leonard Cohen celebrates the personal, historical, and sexual. He sees an interconnectedness in religion, sexual union, and the freeing of the spirit. He writes not only of all those who experience angst as they lose love, grow old, and watch all around them decay, but also of those who seek solace in religion and can emerge for a moment or two from their deep despair and test the waters of joy. His lyrics and poetry are a record of his life; they demonstrate self-mockery, humor, and his sense that nothing has value, and can be deliberately offensive or self-annihilating.

His poems and lyrics both embody a kind of zen poetry of being and contain tension and energy. His poems on aging reflect a personal and deep sense of loneliness and misery. His early works deal with opposites: guilt and sexual freedom, violence and beauty, and love and loss. They follow a conventional meter and form but contain intense messages that create a startling contrast. His later works delve into social and historical issues.

The anachronistic title of Cohen’s third book of poetry, Flowers for Hitler, perhaps gives the reader a sense of Cohen as a poet: Who would pay tribute to a monster like Hitler with a gift of flowers? Is Cohen an unreconstructed Nazi or a neo-Nazi? Certainly not. Why then does the poet even suggest that a mass murderer is worthy of colorful blooms? Similarly alarming visual images appear in the poem “Lovers” (from Let Us Compare Mythologies), which describes death in a concentration camp: “And at the hot ovens they/ Cunningly managed a brief/ Kiss before the soldier came/ To knock out her golden teeth.” Cohen excels at capturing the moment, the horror of the times. He goes on to write: “And in the furnace itself/ As the flames flamed higher,/ he tried to kiss her burning breasts/ As she burned in the fire.” Few images could be more powerful than this. His poetry and lyrics have always dealt with love and loss, with longing for an elusive something.

Stranger Music

In Stranger Music, Cohen included poetry from all his previously published books and added the lyrics from selected songs from many of his albums. Three particularly noteworthy songs admired partly for their lyrics are “Suzanne” (from Songs of Leonard Cohen), “Anthem” (from The Future, 1992), and “Hallelujah” (from Various Positions, 1985).

“Suzanne” and “Anthem”

Parasites of Heaven included the poem “Suzanne Takes You Down,” which became the song “Suzanne,” one of the best known of Cohen’s compositions. Vocalist Judy Collins recorded this song in 1966, becoming the first of many to cover it, and provided a boost to Cohen’s musical career. The Suzanne portrayed in the poem was a friend’s wife, and thus Cohen could not become involved with her. Also, neither he nor the woman wanted to ruin the deep feelings and appreciation they had for each other....

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