Leonard Cohen Essay - Cohen, Leonard

Cohen, Leonard

Cohen, Leonard 1934–

Cohen is a Canadian poet, novelist, songwriter, and singer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

The Favorite Game …, written by a young Montreal poet, Leonard Cohen, is doubly familiar because in addition to describing the position of a young Jew in his native but forever-alien land (French-Canadian Montreal), the author has obviously drawn on the available wealth of sad-young-men literature of the West. Goethe's Werther, Turgenev's "superfluous man," Flaubert's Frédéric Moreau, and all the hordes of lost youths of our own country described by such writers as Anderson, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe have contributed their tradition and their peculiar nostalgic bouquet to The Favorite Game. Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise is most strongly evoked here, because of the journal-style, the poetry fillers, and the emphasis on adolescent love.

But Cohen goes much farther than Fitzgerald or the other American writers in pointing up the painful constrictions of the callow hero's attitudes toward people and places. Where, for example, Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise reveals through his troubled questings the complexities of an era (America from the turn of the century to the end of the first world war), the sociological nuances of a particular social class (the eastern Catholic aristocracy), and the emotional makeup of a sensitive youth learning about women, Cohen's Lawrence Breavman reveals only a set of rudimentary responses, despite the fact that he is a successful poet. He hates his wealthy, sanctimonious uncles, can't stand his nagging, neurotic mother, is attached to his boyhood chum Krantz, and lusts insatiably after every available female….

The Favorite Game, which ends with Breavman wandering aimlessly around Montreal without money, women, or plans for the future, presents Breavman's taking Martin under his wing and defending him against the outside world, as the high point of his career. With the compassion of Philip Roth in Letting Go (1962), an intricate study of parent-children relationships, Cohen has given his itinerant, fatuous and self-alienated young poet a moment of greatness.

Samuel I. Bellman, in Congress Bi-Weekly, December 30, 1963, pp. 12, 17.

[The] pop art which most moves Cohen and provides not the subject so much as the mythology which informs his work is not films and television, but comic books and pop music. Superman and Ray Charles inhabit his imagination…. And he is quite properly, therefore, a successful writer of pop songs …, in addition to being a poet and novelist. As a matter of fact, I find his song lyrics (in "Suzanne," for instance, and especially "The Sisters of Mercy") more valid than his book-poetry, because the former have found contemporary occasions which justify their pathos and sentimentality, whereas the latter seem moved merely by nostalgia for certain lapsed Romantic styles. He works, at any rate, not in the middlebrow arena of Richler, in which pop and avant-garde are felt as complementary threats, but the new post-Modernist world in which the old distinctions between low and high art, mass culture and belles-lettres have lapsed completely—and it is therefore, blessedly impossible to be either alienated or outrageous. Vision replaces satire in that world, which aims at transforming consciousness rather than reforming manners….

Cohen does not make dirty jokes at all, certainly not dirty jokes at the expense of what is advanced or experimental, but tries instead to blur the boundaries between the clean and the dirty, even as he has those between serious art and popular entertainment. Or, perhaps, the former is only a particular case of the latter since it is the end of "porn" as an underground, secretly relished genre which books like Beautiful Losers threaten. For it is to a place before or beyond the realm of the dirty book that we are taken by scenes like the terrible-lyrical one in which Cohen's two male lovers jerk each other off as they speed in an automobile toward what seems a wall of solid stone; or the terrible apocalyptic one, in which a heterosexual pair, exhausted of passion and drained of all their liquids after a bout with an erotic device called the "Danish Vibrator," rouse to find themselves confronted by Hitler naked beneath a military raincoat. Certainly, Cohen has found to render such scenes a language not gross and elegant by turns, but gross and elegant at once, a poetry of obscenity which makes condescension to him or his subjects impossible….

I should hate really to deprive anyone who really wants it of that last vestigial pleasure of class consciousness; but it seems even more unfair to rob young readers especially of the pleasures of Cohen's novel with its special blend of scholarship and paranoia, poetry and vulgarity, its intertwined stories (on one level, it recounts the death by self-torture of a seventeenth-century Indian girl converted to Christianity and pledged to chastity for Christ's sake; on the other, it tells of a polymorphous perverse triangle in twentieth-century Montreal moving through joy toward madness and death), and its final vision of redemption, through the emergence of the New Jew—a saving remnant who, Cohen assures us, does not necessarily have to be Jewish at all, but probably does have to be American. It is a possibility in which I find myself believing, in part, of course because I want to (which is always more than half the battle), but in part because the evidence is there, in the text and texture of Beautiful Losers itself; so that it is not merely prophecy or an idle boast when Cohen writes toward the book's close: "Hey, cried a New Jew, laboring on the lever of the Broken Strength Test. Hey. Somebody's making it!"

Leslie Fiedler, "Some Notes on the Jewish Novel in English or Looking Backward from Exile," in Running Man, July-August, 1969.

It's hard … to view Leonard Cohen's poetry critically; and yet, despite his vitality and lyrical talent, there is no gainsaying the thinness of his work: tiny cries of delight, perhaps, but little to make one turn the pages again—or at least the 125 in his new collection, The Energy of Slaves. If only the truisms and prosaic utterances had been compressed into thirty pages, if only discipline had been imposed and time taken—then something of the originality and spark of his novels (and indeed of his early poetry) might have come through. As it is we have merely the hasty jottings of a cult figure, dashed off—or so it would seem—between gigs and television interviews.

Jeremy Robson, in The Jewish Quarterly, Autumn, 1972, pp. 47-8.

The posturings in Leonard Cohen's verse have been pretty persistent—and consistent—since the days when Suzanne took him down and people decked in rags and feathers were prone to touch each other's bodies with their minds, while Jesus sank beneath their wisdom like a stone. The Energy of Slaves offers a few self-abnegatory notes from time to time, which sound like the echoes of an apology….

The truth is … that Cohen fell into the credibility gap a long time ago, since when he has been hanging on grimly with one hand, while writing furiously with the other. His poems have a randomness which betrays the lack of any sustained vision; they take in love, God, politics, are modest, extravagant, obscene, are forcedly colloquial or adopt impossible archaisms, seeming to care little for craftsman-ship or language and without bothering to do much more than trail a fingertip over the surface of the chosen subject.

They are, in short, the poems of a songwriter who is able to convince a semi-literate public that his talent goes deeper simply because his lyrics possess an apparent concern with deeper issues and avoid the more honest banalities of "moon/June".

The advantages of a guitar backing for Cohen's work are obvious and demonstrable; and in many cases the poems in this book cry out for those advantages as Hans Andersen's king might have cried out for his new suit of clothes…. Prosy, inexpert, uncompelling, the poems get through love, loneliness, war, torture, self-doubt, poignant incidents, worldly wisdom, anger, regret, and so on and so forth, with the rapidity of a pulp-fiction writer thumbing through his file index cards. Teenyboppers of all ages will have the book on their shelves between the Bhagavad Gita and the unopened copy of the Cantos.

"Along the Fingertip Trail," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), January 5, 1973, p. 10.

Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet, novelist and songwriter, was once a romantic of the agreeably restless and seedy kind. This worked out best in his songs, where the right music—and Cohen displayed a gift for moaning melody—deepened the sentiment, lending it emotional plausibility. For the rest his poems were about nothing in particular—they gave the impression of wanting to strike a nerve but of not knowing where it lay. Hitler, "the Dachau generation," the hydrogen bomb—such facts were defused and deactualized simply by being incorporated into Cohen's prevailing medium, a kind of complaining verbal dream. He was reduced to asking a junkie to pray for us: at least a junkie knows what he wants, is singleminded. Cohen was not wrong in assuming that his own distraction and confusion were widespread. But his poetry was not the better for that; it was only part of the trouble.

Now, in his fifth volume, "The Energy of Slaves," he observes: "I don't say I worked it out." Coming from an anarchist, this is meant as assurance….

You have to be already plugged into Universal Compassion to receive the slightest jolt from these poems….

Some of Cohen's earlier poems showed a splashy imaginative energy that, combined with a hard attitude and frequent candor, made them challenging, if not convincing. Now the energy has dwindled—and in the degree that Cohen insists on talking, rather naggingly, about himself. Still, he has always been most effective at his simplest and barest, and at times he is tellingly disrobed of rhetoric here….

Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1973, p. 26.

The Energy of Slaves … is a painful disappointment. The poet of this volume bears little resemblance to the Leonard Cohen who excited and rewarded readers years ago. This new Leonard Cohen no longer possesses confidence in his poetic skills: "I am no longer at my best practising/the craft of verse" (#16) and "I have no talent left/I can't write a poem anymore" (#102). And it comes as no surprise that Cohen is accurate in his perceptions. The cause of his poetic decline is that he has become politicized. Cohen declares war against "all the flabby liars/of the Aquarian Age" (#104); he is "armed and mad" (#93), ready to fight those who suppress personal freedom and love. But Cohen unfortunately sacrifices his strongest weapon in order to wage this holy war: "I hate my music/I long for weapons" (#64). Cohen's music is his best weapon and maybe he will come to realize this.

James Healey, in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1973, p. 185.