Rave on, Doctor J...
The other day, I was flipping through my collections trying to find some decent musical and poetic nocturnes, and for the life of me I was stymied to find anything appropriate that wasn't written by Mark Strand. Strand's nocturnes, though, are those of the surrealist; Cohen's are those of the darkened lover and the longing cynic, with his prophetic postures in recent years (those of "The Future" and "Democracy" and "Everybody Knows") being part of the latter category. Cohen at his best writes with a clarity and a resonance that most poets should envy if they don't already. Consider these lines, from "Heart With No Companion":
Now I greet you from the other sideAt one level, it's cookie-cutter poetry, but at another, it's genuinely brilliant, especially if one dares to stew on the idea of a love that can be both "vast" and shattered"-- and which can still "reach." And yet, it's one of my favourite musical prefaces, expressing a sentiment we all think we understand but probably don't. The song goes on to be a kind of testament for the longing:
Of sorrow and despair,
With a love so vast and so shattered,
It will reach you everywhere.
And I sing this for the captainIt sounds better than it reads, but it still reads quite well, too, methinks. These are Cohen's beautiful losers, the people that most need a song, the people for whom few bother to sing. This, though, is the language of Pure Poetry, Frostian in simplicity, almost beyond analysis. The problem with Cohen is that one probably shouldn't read him when one is too young, and certainly if one's aspiring to be a poet: he sets a nasty precedent, and poetry that attempts to imitate his, or that has too much of an influence from Cohen, tends to become unreadable. I say this as someone who used to write the most abominable stuff, the lot of it embarrassingly close to pastiche or to immature aping. Certain writers are best read rather than imitated-- Shakespeare, Graham Greene, Tennyson, Joyce, Strand, Eliot, Dylan Thomas; their impressions are too specific and their shadows too large. They're likely to dominate young minds in all the wrong ways. It reminds me of all the young writers that get a hold of Kerouac and think they're suddenly able to be great writers. Er, no. Sorry. Cohen's clarity, to say nothing of his appeals to sensuality and philosophy, can colonize one's style. But there's a strange comfort in being able to return to Cohen years later when one knows one's style is no longer in danger of being Iraqified. And when one is no longer as stupidly naïve, poetically, intellectually, and romantically.
Whose ship has not been built,
For the mother in confusion,
Her cradle still unfilled,
For the heart with no companion,
For the soul without a king,
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything.
With all that said, I'm thinking a lot about "Joan of Arc," which does such a lovely job of reinterpreting the famous martyrdom. There's a plaintive tragicality to the song, and there's a poignancy to Cohen's version that Shaw, for all his efforts, couldn't capture. Lately as I think of matters of the heart I think of Cohen's song, of the almost inevitable destructiveness of relationships, but the beauty intrinsic to such consortions. I don't want to say too much about the song, except that's beautiful, and quite haunting. And, for me, listening to it again today, I was reminded of Cohen's phrase that somehow sums up so much of my own instinct, the attraction to "the glory in her eye." Ah, that's what it's always about, what it's always been about, the glory in a young woman's eye. No wonder I lose so many books and albums. And I guess in this warmth, I'm wondering what ever became of my copy of The Duchess of Malfi....
Joan of ArcBy the way, here is a rather amusing article on Cohen's career. Worth a read.
Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
as she came riding through the dark;
no moon to keep her armour bright,
no man to get her through this very smoky night.
She said, "I'm tired of the war,
I want the kind of work I had before,
a wedding dress or something white
to wear upon my swollen appetite."
Well, I'm glad to hear you talk this way,
you know I've watched you riding every day
and something in me yearns to win
such a cold and lonesome heroine.
"And who are you?" she sternly spoke
to the one beneath the smoke.
"Why, I'm fire," he replied,
"And I love your solitude, I love your pride."
"Then fire, make your body cold,
I'm going to give you mine to hold,"
saying this she climbed inside
to be his one, to be his only bride.
And deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and high above the wedding guests
he hung the ashes of her wedding dress.
It was deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and then she clearly understood
if he was fire, oh then she must be wood.
I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?