Blurring the Lines Between Poetry and Music: the Art of Leonard Cohen

Blurring the Lines Between Poetry and Music: the Art of Leonard Cohen
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Persistently poetic: Leonard Cohen.
Introspective self-searching: the lyricism of Leonard Cohen.

A recent critical discussion at King’s Place in London centred on the continuing legacy of Leonard Cohen. What I most emphatically drew out of the debate was the very thin veil that has always existed for him between the craft of songwriting and that of poetry. Arguably, Cohen has mastered both skills with a finesse and sophistication that few other artists who profess to be poets can in fact emulate. I am thinking of such luminaries as Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, both of whom certainly write their songs with a mind for the poetic effect they will have on the listener.

How different, if at all, is the art of songwriting compared to that of crafting poetry? I would be inclined to argue that the answer is in the question: poetry is often far more carefully and meticulously crafted. Lyric writing, it can be claimed, is a very different game entirely: artists such as Dylan often composed lyrics in a much more free-flowing, free-associative way. Parallels are often drawn between Cohen and Dylan. However, although Dylan’s music certainly has had a profound impact on generations, his lyrics do not always stand up on the page as strongly as many of Cohen’s.

Cohen was a poet before he was a songwriter; on a more technical level, his lyrics are often well-balanced and his scansion finely honed. There is nothing throwaway in Cohen’s lyrics; instead – and this is what makes Cohen so unique and such a gargantuan writer – every single word appears considered. Nothing is out of place, and everything seems to fit together just so. You can imagine that he pores over every word to fashion the maximum emotional impact he can for the listener. Hallelujah is just one of many songs that he spent years working on, filling notebook upon notebook with different verses, and to this day there is no one definitive version of it.

It is nigh impossible to pin down precisely what Cohen writes about in any particular song.  Many of his songs are not complicated in terms of the way they are composed. However, there is something about the way in which he selects every word which grants his every phrase with such profuse meaning. This is why his songs are so very open to interpretation, and another way in which he blurs the distinction between poetry and songwriting. The two disciplines, it would appear, have always been very much intertwined and inextricably linked for Cohen.

A great number of his finest pieces of music are undeniably infused with a constant searching and investigation of the self. This is what enables so many of his songs to stand the test of time. Bird on a Wire is a particularly introspective song, riddled with metaphor: “like a bird on a wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried, in my way, to be free”.  His introspection coupled with a seeming wish to be seen as the prophet of his time is something that Cohen shares with many of the poets of the Romantic era. His writing mirrors Keats’ longing for truth and beauty (“beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”) whilst also often resounding with the apocalyptic prophesies that were characteristic to Blake’s lyricism (“and was Jerusalem builded here/among these dark Satanic Mills?”).

The album that perhaps best exemplifies Cohen’s Blakean “apocalyptic prophesies” is The Future. I believe this to be one of his most powerful albums as an incisive political commentary.  Its dystopian outlook was influenced in no small part by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the seeming introduction of ‘democracy’ to Eastern Europe, which Cohen was far more wary about than many of his contemporaries. Cohen could see that the triumph of American-style capitalism was not something necessarily to be desired. He could not applaud the onset of American hegemony. As he said so eloquently in the title track The Future, “there’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western code/your private life will suddenly explode” and, even more darkly: “the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul … I’ve seen the future brother – It is murder”. In the case of Democracy, I think it stands up much better as a spoken word piece than a song (it exists as both). Cohen wryly and darkly contends that “democracy is coming to the USA.”

A warning knell: "Love's the only engine of survival"
A warning knell: “Love’s the only engine of survival”

The Future is, all in all, a warning knell against embracing wholeheartedly the onset of American globalisation. Perhaps the key message Cohen wished to convey as socio-political prophet was most particularly felt in the lyric: ‘I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/I’ve heard their stories heard them all”. Crucially, however, he added, “love’s the only engine of survival.”  Although he harboured grave concerns for the worldwide climate at that time, he did not lose sight of a possible redemption.

He retains his power as the prophet of the modern age, whilst still engaging the solitary listener with the intimate and personal feel of his music. The powerful, sonorous authority of his voice is something that has not been, and simply never can be, replicated by any other poet-songwriter. Perhaps Cohen’s songs are best described as poetry put to music.  After all, many of his poems eventually became songs.

Now in his seventies, Cohen shows no sign of letting up. In 2005 he filed a lawsuit against Kelley Lynch, his former manager and lover, who stole more than $5m (£2.8m) from a fund set up for his retirement. Cohen told Macleans, a magazine in Canada: “What can I do? I had to go to work. I have no money left.” Luckily his creative impulses have proved to be as strong as ever. Last year’s album Old Ideas stood up to some of his most exceptional older albums. An especially stand-out track was Crazy to Love You. There is no reason why his forthcoming album, set to be released later this year, should do anything but entrench his legacy as a true master of language and the poetic form.

Ana Malinovic

Ana Malinovic

Ana graduated from Warwick University with a BA in English and American Literature in 2010. Her dissertation was centred on dystopian elements in the fiction of Kafka. She enjoys uncovering innovative works of fiction by a diverse range of authors. She also spends much of her time roaming around London's arts and culture scene overexcitedly. Check out her blog

Ana graduated from Warwick University with a BA in English and American Literature in 2010. Her dissertation was centred on dystopian elements in the fiction of Kafka. She enjoys uncovering innovative works of fiction by a diverse range of authors. She also spends much of her time roaming around London's arts and culture scene overexcitedly. Check out her blog

One comment

  1. Lydia says:

    this is so well writen with knowlege and emphatical understanding.beautifuly laid sentences and awarenes of political and human message in poetry of L Cohen. And conclusion that we all know deep down in our hearts – that there is only Love!

    bravo od tate isto!

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