THE BOOKS THAT GOT AWAY: LEONARD COHEN’S VIEW OF THE POET’S ROLE
Professor & Jewish Studies Graduate Program Director, Department of Religions and Cultures, Concordia University
In a 1964 lecture at the Montreal Jewish Public Library, Leonard Cohen considered the various responsibilities a poet might take in his community. The talk’s date precedes Cohen’s transformation into a songwriter and performer, and in the context of the Jewish Public Library, Cohen reflects on a local poetic tradition, comparing himself with the older, but no longer active Montreal Jewish poet, A.M. Klein. Klein, he feels, played a dual role – that of prophet and priest, with a heavy accent on the latter. The status of priest, according to Cohen, is the less admirable choice for the poet. A priestly voice confirms traditional verities and provides communal comfort, as Klein did, in celebratory verse written for philanthropic dinners. “Klein is the last Jewish writer,” Cohen told his audience, “whom the rabbis and business-men will love.” This is a harsh critique, though as prophecy it proved accurate. In a different vein, hinting at Klein’s withdrawal from public life in the mid-fifties, Cohen adds: “His silence marks the beginning of a massive literary assault on this community.” We might wonder how this was received in the library hall. Rumours associated with Klein’s mental collapse were common, but this idea – that Klein’s silence might be read as a rebuke – was not spoken.
The prophet, in the traditional sense, is no source of comfort. He is the scourge of complacent leaders; a scorner of conventional comforts; at odds with the communal status quo; and his words are a lever by which to unsettle the mundane everyday in order to present something radical and truer to the core tradition. The biblical prophets provide a doubled text – a denunciation of ill social winds married to a poetic magnification of the divine.
A prophetic strain runs through certain periods and modes in Cohen’s work. In his poetry, it is most evident in two little-read collections published in the 1970s: The Energy of Slaves (1972) and Death of a Lady’s Man (1978). In these books one finds none of Cohen’s early, loving embrace of Jewish folkloric imagery, and certainly nothing for the “rabbis and business-men.” The poems are harsh, even despairing. Their stance toward the reader is confrontational; the poet asserts his own failure; the outcome of which is isolation, bitterness, even the prospect of creative silence.
The reader approaches such work as if in a hazardous zone. The Energy of Slaves begins: “Welcome to these lines. There is a war on.” The poems that follow are short, bare of artifice, often untitled. In place of absent titles Cohen has asked his printer to place a tiny razor blade. This icon – the razor’s edge – might be seen as a grim counterpart to the icon of Cohen’s later work, a pair of intertwined hearts that make up a Star of David. In The Energy of Slaves the poems have an assumed recipient – an estranged lover or a friend – but they take aim at us, at the general milieu, which in its early seventies guise was represented by what Cohen calls the “flabby liars / of the Aquarian Age.”
Death of a Lady’s Man offers even greater readerly challenges, which might include an explicit language warning not usually needed for Cohen’s poetry. “Death to this book,” we read early in the collection, “fuck this book and fuck this marriage. Fuck the twenty-six letters of my cowardice.” Here one of the book’s main burdens, its insistence on personal and artistic defeat, is linked to the idea that creativity has no place in the shadow of personal collapse. This aspect of Death of a Lady’s Man is Kafkaesque. Famously, in his posthumous note to Max Brod, Kafka requested artistic annihilation: “Everything I leave behind me,” he wrote, “in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters . . . sketches, and so on,” should be burned. The Energy of Slaves and Death of a Lady’s Man are documents of artistic self-denial, which exist in spite of the author’s exhaustion. Still, alongside this tone of self-critique in Death of a Lady’s Man is a recourse to prayer and to mystical magnification of the divine. Having pronounced his book’s death, Cohen turns to language reminiscent of prophetic exhortation: “Without the Name the wind is a babble, the flowers are a jargon of longing. Without the Name I am a funeral in the garden . . . . Without the Name sealed in my heart I am ashamed” (63). Elsewhere in the book this potential for uplift is prophetically complete: “I saw the dove come down, the dove with the green twig, the childish dove out of the storm and flood. It came toward me in the style of the Holy Spirit . . .” (116).
In the early nineties Cohen’s lyrics exhibited a related penchant for prophetic utterance, although in the context of song he softens the punch with wit, however dark. “I’ve seen the future, brother,” he sings on his 1992 record The Future, “it is murder.” The record’s title song even reflects the singer’s mistrust of a priestly role, even when it’s thrust upon him by would-be protégés, whom he conjures as “all the lousy little poets coming round, trying to sound like Charlie Manson.”
Much of what I’ve pointed to in Cohen’s poetry and song goes unmentioned in his reception in recent years. This is especially true in the context of his popular triumph as songwriter and performer. When he mounted a comeback tour in 2008 – his first in over a decade – all things Kafkaesque had fallen away in favour of warm and adoring welcome between the singer and his devotees. Rabbis and business-men joined the adoring crowds, some of whom reportedly wept with communal joy as concerts stretched into a third ecstatic hour. Recent biographical portraits of Cohen celebrate this outcome as a creative and personal triumph. In A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, the American writer Liel Leibovitz offers this impression of Cohen’s late career: “The hero, presumed dead, emerges for one more astonishing act of musical resurrection, having finally learned to master his powers.”
By focusing on this late period of adoration by his fans we risk neglecting part of Cohen’s oeuvre, which bears a peculiar but impressive ethical critique, while challenging its audience with the idea that failure, even silence can be seen as a worthy form of literary rebuke.