‘Like a long-armed candlemaker’: Leonard Cohen’s poetics
Leonard Cohen was akin to Jean Cocteau in that he, too, had started as a poet before becoming known as an artist of many crafts: beside his output as a multi-instrumentalist Cohen was also, of course, a novelist and an illustrator. Although much of his most notorious and defining literature comes from his song lyrics, his life-long practice of page poetry constantly fed into his other work and was in turn informed by it. But while the poem and the song have a clear common origin in his work, Cohen’s poetry tended to move towards autonomy from the song structure; that is, to produce the sort of meaning only poetry can achieve.
Cohen often exploited the formulaic origins of poetry in cross-rhyming quatrains reminiscent of narrative and balladic forms, while pointing at the structure of his recorded songs:
The flowers were roses
and such sweet fragrance gave
that all my friends were lovers
and we danced upon her grave
You tore your shirt
to show me where
you had been hurt
I had to stare
(‘You tore your shirt’)
Another related technique is his use of end-stopped lines (rather than enjambments) to enact the consciousness of song. The pacing of song lyrics (and of Cohen’s in particular) tends to be determined by line units, with a breath or a pause at either end. In Cohen’s page poetry, what this produces is an element of surprise, an inflexion in setting, tone, and mood at the onset of each new line:
So once again
I tried to set my throat on fire
this time in silence
and not thinking of you at all
(‘I could not wait for you’)
His poetry in freer form also strives to ground itself in the oral tradition, in mythological and imprecatory speech. The curse ‘Death to them’ recurs across The Energy of Slaves with the same fervour as the Hebrew Hineni, the Abrahamic ‘I am here’, resounds in ‘You Want it Darker’, the opening track to his last record. The lyrical poem ‘Song’ from his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, quickly develops a heroic tone as the speaker becomes ‘anointed’ general with ‘wind on my breastplate/sun on my belly.’ Here Cohen, like often, channels the ancient Greek tensions between Eros and Thanatos in his love discourse, while playing out intimacy on an epic backdrop:
Whatever cities are brought down
I will always bring you poems
and the fruits of orchards
I pass by.
(‘You All in White’)
And it is this layering of intensities and tones that make the best of Cohen’s poems so textured and open for readerly interaction. His writing is often an attempt to start articulating some kind of cosmic sense out of minute happenings:
we still love beauty
which the lizards express for us
spinnakers of red membrane
blow from their throats
(‘There is nothing here’)
Metaphor and simile (bringing several things together; acts of imaginative interpenetration) were perhaps particularly suited to Cohen’s temperament. In ‘Disguises’, remembering an old factory worker, he recounts: ‘I loved the machine he knew like a wife’s body.’ But in a broader sense his interest in description often works more dramatically than this, by implication rather than representation, by setting up a peripheral detail for the reader to engage with in order to interpret the full event:
I could not wait for you
to find me dead in a rented room
with sunglasses dusty
on the card table
(‘I could not wait for you’)
As a poet who knew the classical tradition and wrote very much about himself as a lover, it isn’t surprising that he tried his hand at ekphrasis, a typically phallogocentric exercise where the writer describes the beloved, usually isolating and itemising bodily features. As his first published, not entirely palatable attempt goes:
Body from Goldwyn. Botticelli had drawn her long limbs.
Rosetti the full mouth.
Ingres had coloured her skin.
Sixteen years later, in 1972, he would take a radically different take on the exercise in ‘Portrait of a Girl’:
She is profoundly worried
that her thighs are too big […]
There is a fine mist caught
on the dark hairs above her mouth […]
There is no information about this person
except in these lines
and let me make it clear
as far as I’m concerned
she has no problem whatsoever
His most successful ekphrastic love poem is, perhaps, the one in which the least description occurs:
With Annie gone
Whose eyes to compare
With the morning sun?
Not that I did compare
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone
Cohen’s form here is entirely relevant to the effectiveness of the poem: with its capitalised letters at the beginning of each line and its terza rima-esque rhyme scheme, the poem reads like a witty mock-exercise thinly camouflaging a song of hurt.
Form, particularly in the sense of visual arrangement across the page, is essential to Cohen’s poetry. Consider another descriptive poem, ‘All there is to know about Adolph Eichmann’, a Nazi officer:
EYES: ……………………………………………………………… Medium
HAIR: ……………………………………………………………… Medium
WEIGHT: ………………………………………………………… Medium
HEIGHT: …………………………………………………………. Medium
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: …………………………None
NUMBER OF FINGERS: …………………………………….Ten
NUMBER OF TOES: …………………………………………. Ten
What did you expect?
The triteness of the form brings out the pathos of the piece: the anti-cathartic realisation that one of the major supervisors of the Holocaust was neither abject nor superhuman, but rather an entirely average and common man. But Cohen goes further in suggesting the unlikely kinship between a poem and a character evaluation sheet. The piece plays on two basic poetic features, repetition and variation: the successive questions about the colonel find single-word answers that work as a close rhyme scheme, most lines delivering ‘Medium’ with the expected sameness.
Of course, Cohen often plays with lineation in subtler ways. From ‘Destiny:’
I want your warm body to disappear
politely and leave me alone in the bath
because I want to consider my destiny
The effect of this segment could not be reproduced in songwriting, creating and disrupting as it does various expectations across line breaks, travelling with the reading eye from eroticism (‘I want your warm body’) to murderous instinct (‘to disappear’) to social ennui (‘leave me alone in the bath’), and finishing on the bathetic image of a thirty year-old thinking of himself grandiosely in the tub.
One of the most striking passages of The Energy of Slaves unfolds similarly, with the tension of a line break and the added breath of and indent, when instead of a ‘prayer’ what Cohen gives us is longing at its barest:
I have often prayed for you like this
Let me have her
But although Cohen himself is very biographically involved in his text, his poetic figure is impossible to pin down completely. As Roland Barthes puts it: ‘the more textured a discourse is, the harder it to locate the source of that discourse.’ Cohen was a largely apostrophic poet, but it is not always easy to discern where the shout came from: in one moment he is addressing God:
I made this song for thee
Lord of the World
who has everything in the world
except this song
(‘I made this song for thee’)
In the next he is taking on fellow male writer Norman Mailer:
don’t ever fuck with me
In ‘The cuckold’s song’ he casts himself variously as first-person narrator, butt of the joke, and narcissist onlooker:
The important thing was to cuckold Leonard Cohen. […)
I repeat: the important thing was to cuckold Leonard Cohen.
I like that line because it’s got my name in it.
A common mood in much of his poetry, however, is that of a consciousness questioning itself about the very act of writing. Unsurprisingly, this occurs in an entirely self-centered way, but one that is ultimately meaningful. In The Book of Longing, he gives the reason why he writes at all in a peripheral way that discloses enough and conceals enough:
You’d sing too
if you found yourself
in a place like this
Throughout poetry collections Cohen maintained this reluctantly Orphic persona, sometimes to the point of total solipsism:
This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
(‘This is the only poem’)
These concerns become more interesting and affecting when acted out in a social framework, when he is genuinely reconsidering the potential of poetry for human communication, and whether speech is ever an improvement on quietness. From ‘Gift’, a poem about trying not to write a poem:
You tell me that silence
is nearer to peace than poems
but if for my gifts
I brought you silence
(for I know silence)
you would say
This is not silence
this is another poem
and you would hand it back to me.
The line between creative success and failure is so tenuous in certain poems that he refuses to be seen for very long in them:
So I see it is not safe at all.
I am not sitting at the old table.
I did not come home. I am not fair and tall.
(‘I think it is safe to tell you where I am’)
For this reason particularly, it is important to see Cohen’s poetry partly as a text of flux: as he once put it, ‘poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.’ He frequently moves away from objects once they have been articulated and exposed: while in ‘Owning everything’ he establishes a kinship between speech, knowledge, and possession, he also observes the transition from the free-moving unknown to the qualified known with usual melancholy:
With your body and your speaking
you have spoken for everything,
robbed me of my strangerhood […]
You worry that I will leave you.
I will not leave you.
Only strangers travel.
I have nowhere to go.
Pierre Antoine Zahnd is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.