During the years between the publication of Leonard Cohen’s previous volume of collected poems and Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, his career as a poet was displaced as Cohen attained renown as a songwriter and singer. Even though Stranger Music, in addition to a large collection of song lyrics, contains selections of rhymed and unrhymed poetry, prose-poem meditations, and brief excerpts from his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, it is unlikely to change the fact that Cohen has become known primarily as a songwriter rather than a “serious” poet.
Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen grew up in the city’s well-to-do Westmount district. In his adult years, he has lived in Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, and on the Greek island of Hydra. He was born to Jewish parents, and he began to study Buddhism seriously in the 1970’s; both religious traditions have strongly influenced his writing. Cohen’s work, his recorded work especially, has gained a reputation for being gloomy and depressing, a reputation with which Cohen is quick to take issue:
“I’m the only guy around who has some jokes in his songs,” he told aSan Francisco Chronicle interviewer in 1993, “and I take the rap as this suicidemeister.” Regardless, an undeniable melancholy runs through Cohen’s work, most notably in the recordings.
The poems and songs in Stranger Music span more than thirty-five years and include works from nine books and nine recordings. Aside from the songs, most of the poems are short; few are longer than a page and a half, and many contain fewer than fifteen lines. There are no complex forms and few experiments. A number of themes and references appear repeatedly- biblical allusions and other references to religion and God; evil and cruelty, sometimes taking the form of Hitler and the Holocaust, sometimes of physical pain and torture; war and soldiers; suffering and love; anger and revenge; and sex-longing, pleasure, jealousy, and sometimes even indifference.
Cohen has had his problems gaining acceptance with the literary establishment. His poetry has been dismissed by some critics as both pretentious and superficial, charges that do carry validity when applied to his weaker efforts. The simplicity of much of Cohen’s poetry is one factor standing in the way of its being embraced by academe. Many of the poems consist of a brief encapsulation and consideration of a thought or an observation of a moment. One searches in vain for complex subtexts; Cohen’s concerns—one might say obsessions- are immediately apparent, and they are concerns that have been explored by poets for centuries. Yet simple does not necessarily mean simplistic, and in his best work Cohen manages to view his subjects from a fresh angle-to make them new. The four-stanza song “Story of Isaac,” for example, from the 1969 album Songs from a Room, begins with nine-year-old Isaac telling of being led up the mountain by Abraham. It then turns in stanza 3 to a condemnation of modern war and the morally bankrupt leaders who are building altars on which to sacrifice children (no war is named, but one may guess that Vietnam is intended). “A scheme is not a vision,” Cohen berates the leaders, who are wielding “blunt and bloody” hatchets instead of the golden axe that had been carried by Abraham. In the final stanza, the lyric turns once again, as the speaker recognizes that wars will never end and admits that he, too, would kill if the need arose. He concludes by asking for mercy and forgiveness for humankind, with all of its violence and vanity.
The people who appear in Cohen’s poetry (frequently the narrator and one or more women) are seldom described with the type of specificity that would bring them to life as individuals. One often seems to be viewing things in silence, as from a distance or through a window. Many of the poems’ events are undoubtedly real, but Cohen self-consciously transforms them into something beyond reality through the deliberate process of writing the poem: People and experiences immediately become mythologized. The title of Cohen’s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), points explicitly to this intent. Though the poems are concerned with the same types of events and issues that confessional poets detail with much anguish, here feelings of pain, joy, and loss apply less to a specific situation than to the human condition, whether in the late twentieth century or the time of Isaiah. Biblical figures, the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust, “Stalin and St. Paul,” Queen Victoria, and the various lovers, friends, enemies, and religious teachers that Cohen addresses, cajoles, and exhorts all seem equally real; they seem to inhabit the same rooms and to sleep in the same beds. Let Us Compare Mythologies establishes the themes of the early books. In “Letter,” the speaker is making love to a woman who he knows has murdered her family. A war is raging, and she has issued orders to kill many; “but blood means nothing to me/it does not disturb your flesh.” Desire blots out everything else—everything but the necessity of not letting her triumph. He concludes by telling her that he knows she will kill him as well, intending to rob her of her victory by telling her that “all this was anticipated.” Variations on this intertwining of sex, betrayal, and revenge recur in many subsequent poems and songs. Involvement with a woman is dangerous. Here the danger is hyperbolic, mortal; elsewhere, it more realistically reflects the very real danger of emotional hurt-hurt which the speaker causes to others nearly as often as he experiences it himself. Cohen is obsessively pulled by desire and lust even as he is keenly aware of the betrayals and jealousies that sexual intimacy can bring.
Cohen’s second book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), sees more humor introduced into the poetry, in the form of brief poems such as “Anne’s Song” and “Gift.” In the gentle love poem “Beneath My Hands,” which begins, “Beneath my hands/ your small breasts/ are the upturned bellies/ of breathing fallen sparrows,” Cohen is trying to convince a woman that she is beautiful. When she denies it, he says, he wants to “summon/the eyes and hidden mouths/of stone and light and...
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