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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Thirteen ways of looking at Leonard Cohen

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Of late, most of Leonard Cohen’s output receives breathless celebration. This is a profound shift from his major work during the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when records, which are now easily characterized as folk and pop masterpieces, were greeted with a mix of reverence and incomprehension. (Not to mention the novel, Beautiful Losers, which a major critic dubbed “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.”)

Cohen’s new album is receiving strong reviews; while the editorial page of the Globe and Mail saw fit to toast the release of Old Ideas with an editorial titled “Leonard Cohen, Singer of Singers,” in which he is dubbed “Canada’s gift to the world, at 77.”

For Cohen’s devoted readers, the field is a bit less lively than the music scene, though this season includes the release, from New York-based Alfred A. Knopf, of a collection titled Poems and Songs. Edited by the American academic Robert Faggen, the collection is part of Knopf’s venerable Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. Readers will be right in guessing that no Canadian poet has previously been honoured with a series volume devoted to their work.  John Milton is there, as is Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, Wallace Stevens, Wordsworth and Rimbaud.

One might covet the chance to edit such a volume – brushing shoulders with Leonard and adding a contemporary hitmaker to an illustrious list of canonical figures are not undesirable experiences – but there are risks in this line of editorial work.

In the volume’s foreword, Faggen argues hard for Cohen’s relevance and impact. His ability to erode the “artificial boundary between poem and song” is likened to King David, the French troubadours and “St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul or St. Teresa of Avila.” Faggen links Cohen to his roots in Montreal, and to his native influences, including A.M. Klein and Irving Layton, but the overall goal is to universalize the poetry and song, and characterize it, like the Globe and Mail, as a “gift to the world.” This may be the inevitable outcome of the great success Cohen is experiencing in late career. But it makes it harder to appreciate his rootedness in particular traditions, like the postwar Montreal poetry scene and the late-Beat experimentation of early 1960s New York, where he joined the late stages of the folk revival of Greenwich Village.

The last substantial retrospective collection of Cohen’s work appeared in 1993, under the title Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. There, the approach of mixing Cohen’s poems with his song lyrics received an early tryout. Selections from each book and each record appeared in chronological order, offering the reader a kind of sampler of Cohen’s twin pursuits. In the new Everyman’s edition, the blend of poetry and song lyric is handled more aggressively, so that the uninitiated or simply uninterested need not notice when a song lyric, such as So Long, Marianne, shows up near to One Night I Burned, which is the kind of early poem that led fans to fall for him as a poet rather than a singer-songwriter.

Exactly how a song lyric should behave when it’s printed among poems is an open question, and the Everyman’s collection follows the lead of Stranger Music on certain fronts. If you first encountered the lyrics to songs like Suzanne or So Long, Marianne on printed lyric sheets or in Cohen’s songbooks, you will notice that the anthologized versions will sometimes behave like song lyrics:

Come over to the window, my little darling

I’d like to try to read your palm

I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy

Before I let you take me home

In other cases, the familiar verses are squared off as prose paragraphs, the chorus tacked on in italics. In this way, Famous Blue Raincoat reads like a prose poem or the letter it poses as, with its signature, “L. Cohen”:

It’s four in the morning, the end of December. I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better. New York is cold but I like where I’m living. There’s music on Clinton Street all [through] the evening. I hear that you’re building your little house deep in the desert. You’re living for nothing now. I hope you’re keeping some kind of record. Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair. She said that you gave it to her the night that you planned to go clear. Did you ever go clear?

This transformation of the lyric seems to follow the idea that something should be done to give the works their own status as they are detached from their musical accompaniment.

It’s striking, too, to read some of Cohen’s most forceful work at remove from the volumes in which they originally appeared. This effect is notable in the case of the few pieces taken from Cohen’s magnificent and bitter 1972 collection The Energy of Slaves. There, poem after poem denounced his own poetic choices, and poetry itself, with each piece introduced by the tiny figure of a razor blade. Somehow, the punch of Welcome to These Lines – “There is a war on/ but I’ll try to make you comfortable” – is not felt in quite the same way when it’s freed of its little blade. In the same way, the contrapuntal quality of the 1978 volume Death of a Ladies’ Man is entirely lost. In the original format, Cohen presented a poem on the left-hand page, with its own critique or commentary on the right. In the few such installments included in the new collection, the editor must add the overt designation, “Commentary,” for the reader who is unaware of the poems’ original context.

The poems one receives straightforwardly, which can be read without these sorts of quibbles, are the early lyrics and later works that were either appended as uncollected poems in Stranger Music or included in the 2006 comeback volume Book of Longing.

But the back third of Poems and Songs is clear in its goal of highlighting the song lyrics, with a large gathering from Various Positions, I’m Your Man, and other less exciting albums.

Think of Wallace Steven’s masterwork Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird as you read through the Everyman’s version of Leonard Cohen. Since it is a “pocket” poets volume, you may recline, come spring, beneath a tree with your nylon string guitar. Consider the options. It’s possible you will want to take a look back at who the singer was before he became “Canada’s gift to the world.”

Norman Ravvin’s recent novel is The Joyful Child (Gaspereau Press). He will contribute the chapter on Canadian Jewish writing to the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature.

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