Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2576
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 water” to testify against her. Also from this volume is “You Have the Lovers,” a strange, surreal poem in which a woman’s lovers exist, kept in an unentered room, for many years, until her children have grown and her husband has died. Eventually the woman returns to the room with blackened windows in which she has kept the lovers “for a generation or two”:
The room has become a dense garden,
full of colours, smells, sounds you have never known.
The bed is smooth as a wafer of sunlight,
in the midst of the garden it stands alone.
The lovers, male and female, are described as they intertwine and ritualistically “perform the act of love.” Her fallen clothes growing into vines, the woman joins the lovers, wondering “how many multitudes” lie beside her. “You Have the Lovers” possesses an indecipherable mysteriousness rare in Cohen’s nonballad poems; this sense of mystery is found most often in his recordings, with their haunting, slow music.
Cohen’s third volume, Flowers for Hitler (1964), is his most successful volume from the 1960’s. It continues and expands the themes of the first two books, but both the whimsy and the bleak humor are more developed, and there are some departures in form. It also contains, primarily in the Hitler-themed poems, his strongest meditations on the mysteries and paradoxes of cruelty and evil. Two short poems dealing with this theme appear on facing pages. The first, “The Heirloom,” describes a tiny scene of torture seen “under a glass bell/ such as might protect an expensive clock.” In the second, “All There Is to Know About Adolph Eichmann,” a brief checklist informs readers that all of Eichmann’s features were medium or normal. “What did you expect?” we are asked, “Talons?/ Oversize incisors?/ Green saliva?” A few pages later, “Victoria and Me,” a quite different type of poem, expresses loneliness and dissatisfaction in the form of an address to Queen Victoria. Cohen compares himself to Victorian architecture-“I am dirty as a glass roof in a train station/ I feel like an empty cast-iron exhibition,” he complains to the queen-and then concludes:
let us be two severe giants
(not less lonely for our partnership)
who discolour test tubes in the halls of science
who turn up unwelcome at every World’s Fair
heavy with proverb and correction
confusing the star-dazed tourists
with our incomparable sense of loss
Stranger Music has its greatest weakness in its treatment of Flowers for Hitler. Because a decision was made to include many of Cohen’s song lyrics and to include a large selection of the only intermittently successful poems from The Energy of Slaves (1972) and Death of a Lady’s Man (1978), this book receives short shrift. (Selection is credited to Nancy Bacal, with the assistance of Cohen and Rebecca De Mornay.) Some of Cohen’s either best or best-known poems from this volume are not included; missing are the anthologized “Alexander Trocchi, Public Junkie, Priez pour Nous” and “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward,” as is the wonderful droll humor of “The Bus,” “Finally I Called,” and “Millennium,” with its odd, comical interweaving of apocalyptic fire and a conversation with a dotty grandmother. (The other grievous omission from Stranger Music is the stunning “When I Meet You in the Small Streets,” from Selected Poems, 1956-1968.)
The Energy of Slaves contains a number of very short poems; many are so terse and blunt it is hard to consider them poems at all. Frank Davey has referred to the volume as a collection of “fragments, failed poems, and anti-poems.” In the late 1960’s, when many of these poems were written, Cohen’s career had split into two paths: writer and musician. He was concentrating his more traditional poetic impulses on the carefully metered and rhymed songs that he was recording and performing. The detritus, much of it pointedly angry or ugly, found its way here. Death of a Lady’s Man, published five years later, marked another shift. Cohen had begun studying Buddhism in the 1970’s, and a number of the poems here reflect this new direction in his search for peace and God. Many of the pieces are essentially brief blocks of prose, and some are immediately followed by italicized “commentaries.” The commentaries, frequently both sardonic and cryptic, create further ambiguity as often as they clarify, setting up a dialectic that is both intriguing and confounding. Book of Mercy (1984), the most recent book from which selections are drawn, is a series of meditations on religion in the form of prose poems that reflect Cohen’s study and deep involvement with both Judaism and Buddhism.
The song lyrics, spanning the twenty-five years between 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen and The Future (1992), present a unique problem. Although many of them do stand on their own, the ghost of the music that accompanies them on the recordings hovers behind the printed words. If one is familiar with Cohen’s recordings, with their quiet, slow singing and atmospheric arrangements, one cannot help but hear them while reading, and the most sensible and satisfying reaction is to close the book and go listen to the recordings. Cohen’s melancholy music and untrained singing (“I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” he remarks sardonically in “The Tower of Song”) by no means appeal to everyone; as with much of his poetry, one either feels an emotional connection to the music or finds it pointless, even ludicrous. Overall, the song lyrics are more of a piece than the other poetry, with the chief development over time being an increased deftness at including humor and lighter moments; this is particularly true beginning with Various Positions (1984), in which, for example, he goofily rhymes “hallelujah” with “well, really, what’s it to you?” (carefully pronounced “to ya”).
When Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in 1967, nothing like it had been heard on record. The music droned hypnotically as Cohen sang lyrics that blended religion, sexuality, jealousy, and loneliness. “Suzanne,” with its alternating stanzas describing a “half crazy” woman living near the St. Lawrence River and depicting Jesus as a lifeguard on a “lonely wooden tower,” quickly became his most well known song. (Cohen once reported having heard a group of sailors singing it on the Caspian Sea.) In “Master Song,” a wonderful distillation of feelings of sexual jealousy, the master (master as in religious or philosophical teacher, here a teacher of love and sex) has stolen the singer’s lover. The woman, enthralled by her new master, is slave as well as disciple, and the singer in turn is still her “prisoner,” haunted by images of the woman and the master making love.
One of Cohen’s most moving songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” fromSongs of Love and Hate (1971), depicts a more complex set of relationships. It takes the form of a letter written by the singer (Cohen sings the signature, “Sincerely, L. Cohen,” at the end) to an unnamed friend who has had an affair with Jane, the singer’s lover. The affair did not last, and the friend has moved to a “little house deep in the desert”; Jane is sleeping in the singer’s room as he writes the letter. Cohen is not quite sure how to feel about the man to whom he is writing, calling him both brother and killer, but he fills him in on a few details of his life. At song’s end he also thanks him: “Yes, and thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes. I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” Those few words tell us something about Jane, about the singer, and about the very human tendency to accept one’s assumptions about another person whom one has come to know rather than seeing the possibilities that exist-seeing, for example, that the trouble might be taken from another’s eyes.
The songs from the two most recent albums included here, I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future, repeat Cohen’s central themes as they reexamine them from an older perspective. Memory becomes unreliable in “I Can’t Forget” (he knows he has obsessions but is unsure exactly who and what they are), and in “The Tower of Song” he notes, “I ache in the places where I used to play.” In The Future he offers two predictions, one bleak, in the title song (“I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder”), the other optimistic: In “Democracy,” he holds out a hope (being “stubborn as those garbage bags/that Time cannot decay”) that “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” In “Anthem” he reaffirms the beauty to be found in imperfection and the acceptance of both the “garbage and the flowers” depicted in “Suzanne” more than two decades before:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XC, October 15, 1993, p.412.
Library Journal. CXVIII, November 1, 1993, p.97.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 8, 1993, p.61.
San Francisco Chronicle. December 8, 1993, p. El.
San Francisco Examiner. December 12, 1993, p. E4.
San Jose Mercury News. November 28, 1993, p.6.
Seattle Times. December 8, 1993, p. E4.