The Sacred and the Sensual: Lyricist as Poet, Leonard Cohen

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Lyricist as Poet is a series where we examine the published poetry of well-known Lyricist and songwriters, particularly those that worked in the 20th century. Here, we choose to focus on how the writer distinguishes poetry from lyrics, rather than on the poetic merits of song lyrics. This piece discusses the poetry of Leonard Cohen.


Leonard Cohen is a unique figure in the array of people that straddle song writing and poetry. Cohen started as a career poet with an international reputation before he began writing songs. He was the darling of the Canadian poetry scene at a young age, while involved with Montreal’s McGill School. He was the poet that was going to bring international acclaim to Canadian poetry. This is, in no small part, due to the tutelage of Irving Layton, Canada’s bad boy of modernism. It is surprising, though, that, after having such a modernist giant as a mentor, Cohen’s poetry remained entrenched in traditional and sentimental stylings. The influence of his idol, Lorca, seems to have won over the influence of his teacher, Layton. Another major influence on Cohen was Beat poetry. While there are no obvious signs of Beatdom in his poetry, Cohen longed to be associated with Allen Ginsberg and Company, both artistically and socially. Despite a few meetings over the years and mutual admiration, this was never accomplished. This failing of modernity, despite having all the desire and credentials, is one that, in the grand scheme of Cohen’s career, worked in his favor.

Starting with his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, Cohen sets out his affinity for tradition. Virtually all the poems make references to Christianity or Judaism, use traditional rhythms, intended rhyme, and they cling steadfastly to the left margin. “Prayer for Messiah” is a poem that conforms to all these parameters. Because of this, the poem reads much more like Dylan Thomas than it does Gregory Corso. In the third and fourth stanza there are 3 lines that do not conform to the left margin, though this seems more like a typesetting compromise than a Charles Olson-esque use of space on the page. There is no indication in his reading (which you can listen to here) that these lines, ending in “a cave”, “love”, and “a cave”, respectively, should have breath-timing any different to the rest of the poem. Despite these failings of the modernism that Cohen hoped to achieve, the poems biggest strengths are Cohen trademarks. “Prayer for Messiah” has a striking visual and near-sensual element, coupled with religious devotion, to a religious figure or otherwise, that is omnipresent in Cohen’ song writing. A stroke of darkness rests in the poem, especially the final line, as it does in much of Cohen’s work. It is a pleasing and well composed poem, but the piece may have reached a larger audience with the support of some acoustic arpeggiations.

In Cohen’s poem, “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward”, found in Flowers for Hitler, he does use an indent at the beginning of some lines hinting at a varied breath time. Those lines are mostly meant as punchlines to the lines previous, and one can assume the indents are meant to supply comedic timing. Though where Cohen reads the poem live, he gives no regard to the indents and only pauses to give time for the audience reaction to die down. If one was to dictate the poem using the breath timing that Cohen uses in the video below, most of the indents would be gone. The use of indents seems like a shy attempt at some Olson-esque projective composition. “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward” is on the very edge of the Olson composition-by-breath-spectrum, almost falling off, while a poem like “Olson’s “Land’s End” sits firmly rooted on the other side (Olson’s poem can be found in The Collected Maximus Poems, P.515, University of California Press).

The most enjoyable aspect of “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward” is its humor. Its humor is well place and topical, with political references specific to Canada and to wider global events of the decade it was written in. It is wry and can be biting, though the sting is dulled by Cohen’s soothing gentlemanly delivery. It is reminiscent of the satire in Allen Ginsberg’s “America”, and is the aspect of the poem that most successfully resembles any modernist attitudes.

When his collection, “Book of Longing”, was published in 2006, modernism had been dead and gone for a couple decades. In its place, postmodernism was thriving. Cohen either knew this or did not care to fit into modernist tropes anymore. This collection, though, exemplifies some of his most modernist minded work. As well as some of his least. In his age, after a full career as a songwriter, he discovered a new brevity and playfulness that lends to faux-imagist pieces, like “Laughter in The Pantheon”; hybrid personism/confessional pieces, like “During the Day”; and pieces that approach beatdom in spirit, if not in composition, like “First of All”. On other pages, He reverts to reverence and tradition so intensely, that his childhood rabbi reads some of the poems in “Book of Longing” during Worship. This spirituality almost certainly comes from the fact that he was writing many of these pieces while living as a monk on Mount Baldy, above Claremont, California. See “My Life in Robes” or “His Master’s Voice” in the beginning pages of the collection. It is less a Ginsbergian Mysticism than a traditional, Biblical reverence. Intended rhyme is still a big feature here, as is the devotion of the poems to the left margin, though there are some examples of spatial, Olsonian composition within these works. Not a lot, but some. It is “Book of Longing” that presents Leonard Cohen as he is. He is using all his traits that made him a far more successful songwriter than poet.

The poem “Love Itself”, on page 54 of the collection, is written in a singsong rhythm, where each couplet’s cadence comes to a nice conclusion. It has the feel of a lyric, both in the poetic and the musical sense, and each stanza is neatly made up of 4 lines. Its form looks like the antithesis of The Beat’s Spontaneous composition and completely removed for the Black Mountain School’s Projective Verse. Love, a favourite topic of poets, including Cohen, throughout history, seems to be the subject, but it is just a leading tone into the actual subject: the speaker’s relationship with God, here called “the Nameless”. It is in the treatment of this space between the divine and earthly that Cohen builds his identity as a poet and songwriter. This poem does the same.

The “Rays of Love” in the opening stanza of the poem bring the divine into the mundane and illuminates the dust in the speaker’s room. This is the dust “Out of which the Nameless makes | A Name for one like [the speaker]”. Assuming the speaker is Cohen, as it often is in his work, it can be gathered the “one like [him]” would be Adam, the first man, who came from dust and would return to dust. The speaker then mingles with this dust and with the biblical history of creation and becomes one with “the Nameless”, eliminating all striation between divine and earthly existence; similar to the goal Cohen as trying to achieve while living as a monk. This yearning to be one with God, is one that is noticeably absent from the modernist canon, as many poets working in that style embraced eastern religions, if any at all, like Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen.

 The chorus-like refrain that appears twice in the poem adds more of the song-like quality to the piece that lends itself well to Cohen’s song writing style.  It works so well that Cohen did record these words in a song of the same name. interestingly, He plays around with the rhythm more in the song than he does in the poem. In an interview with PBS Cohen says that a poem “doesn’t have a driving tempo” to obey, whereas a song does. The roles, as far as the tempo of the words spoken/sang, are reversed in the two versions of this piece. If one was to score the way Cohen sang the word in the song, they would not be the same as they are in the published poem. In fact, the first stanza would look something like this, if using the Olson/Creeley technique of mapping breath on a page:

The light

               Came through the window


Straight from the

Sun above


And so, inside my

Little room

               There plunged the rays

Of love.


In “Book of Longing” Cohen displays his earnest gentlemanliness, his love of tradition, and his devotion to the sacred and the sensual. It fully explains his everyday wear of a full suit and hat, the way his lyrics fit so well into standard song structures, and the way those lyrics have connected with millions of people around the world. A song like “Suzanne” could have easily been published as a poem, but it is infinitely more effective as a song, where the sensuality of Suzanne can be enhanced with the musical arrangement and Cohen’s voice. The story is carried on the circular rhythm of the guitar and allows the listener to travel along with Cohen and Suzanne much more effectively than lines on a page. His magnum opus, “Hallelujah”, benefits from the same type of thing. You can hear the painful devotion in his voice. Pain that is restrained by a gentleman’s desire not to debase himself in front of that which he loves and the devotion of a man that has dedicated himself to the holy; earthly and otherworldly. the spiritual power of the choir behind him only adds to the atmosphere of both a song and man who is dedicated to finding the truth within it all, whether it be pain or love, death or light. This atmosphere could only be conjured in the air. The page alone is not a sufficient vessel for what Cohen wants to put forward, especially in the style that he writes. He cannot rely simply on “language as music”, as Ezra Pound said, and instead must introduce actual music to conjure what his poetry cannot.  And though the qualities of his music and most of his poetry do not lend themselves to modernist success, they do cultivate an atmosphere Where Cohen, in his obscure glory, was able to thrive as a songwriter.

Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA in English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.

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