A golden voice, a golden touch
Leonard Cohen, who returns to perform in Dublin next month, suffuses his music with a poetic voice that he has distilled through Lorca and Byron, writes GERARD SMYTH
‘NOW, YOU know of my deep association and confraternity with the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I could say that when I was a young man, an adolescent, and I hungered for a voice, I studied the English poets and I knew their work well, and I copied their styles, but I could not find a voice. It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. It is not that I copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.
“As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.”
That quote from a speech made by Leonard Cohen when he received the Prince of Asturias literature prize in Spain last year is a measure of the singer’s fastidious and thoughtful approach to art and life. The Spanish award was not the first in recognition of his gifts as a poet; he has received others, and was awarded a Canadian Governor General’s Award for his Selected Poems 1956-68 in 1968.
The words of Going Home, the opening track on his latest album Old Ideas, are located in the poetry section of the New Yorker website. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Cohen’s most recent appearance in Ireland placed him on ground that resonates with Yeatsian associations; his last concert here took place under Ben Bulben and in the shadow of “that old Georgian mansion”, as Yeats referred to Lissadell.
It might well have pleased him that Time magazine once described his voice as “like Villon with frostbite”, François Villon being one of the greatest French poet-troubadours. The American Academy of Poets commented that “While it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines.” Similarly, the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition of his work, putting Cohen in the company of an illustrious list of poet-superstars, makes no distinction between lyrics and poems, and in his introduction to that volume, Robert Faggen suggests the singer has eroded the “artificial boundary between poetry and song”.
The late blooms of Cohen’s recent artistic resurgence show definitively that the songs are not auxiliary to his published poems. Of all the singer-songwriters of his era who have also been labelled as poets, Cohen is perhaps the one most at ease with metre and rhyme, having already established his artistic persona and been lauded for the verses he published before emerging as a singer, though not one, as he said in Tower of Song, “born with the gift of a golden voice”. As well as poetry, he had published two works of fiction: Beautiful Losers, a novel about a poet; and The Favourite Game. Their impressionistic style was perhaps influenced by his reading of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was on Cohen’s syllabus at McGill University in Montreal.
The richness of his language of images, its tone and cadence, revealed an artist whose way with words set him apart. His literary skills were brought to bear on his song lyrics; a gift for the highly visualised, a playfulness with refrains and repetitions.
Robert Bly once said of the Swedish poet and Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, he has a “strange genius for the image”. So too Cohen, especially his use of images in those songs that introduced Cohen to an audience beyond the world of poetry, as in Suzanne: “There are heroes in the seaweed/ There are children in the morning/ They are leaning out for love/ They will lean that way forever.”