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2nd ANNUAL 30/30/30 :: DAY 7 :: JOEL ALLEGRETTI ON LEONARD COHEN

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The famous doctor held up Grandma’s stomach.
Cancer! Cancer! he cried out.

“I Wanted to Be a Doctor”

*

The pain-monger came home
from a hard day’s torture.

“The Failure of a Secular Life”

*

For you
I will be an apostate jew
and tell the Spanish priest
of the blood vow
in the Talmud
and where the bones
of the child are hid

“The Genius”

The author of these stanzas is perhaps the only poet capable of filling Madison Square Garden. As his followers know well, Leonard Cohen was an admired poet and novelist in his native Canada before he decided to swap the typewriter for a nylon-string guitar.
Cohen, in fact, recorded first as a poet. He is one of the titular Six Montreal Poets who present their work on a 1957 LP issued by Folkways, home of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (an act of prescience by Moses Asch, the label’s founder?). Cohen reads eight poems from his first volume, Let Us Compare Mythologies, which was reissued in a 50th anniversary facsimile edition in 2007.
Cohen published four collections of poetry and a pair of novels prior to the 1967 release of Songs of Leonard Cohen, his first album. In both poems and prose the reader encounters the themes, obsessions and decorative language that appear in the songs. Cohen synthesizes the tropes and cadences of Romantic poetry and Jewish liturgy.
Indeed, many of Leonard Cohen’s poems are “Leonard Cohen poems.” For example, here’s the entirety of “For Anne” from The Spice-Box of Earth (1961):

With Annie gone,
Whose eyes to compare
With the morning sun?

Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone.

The following is a poem I’ve loved ever since I first read it as a college student and which I occasionally include in my readings,
“Prayer for Messiah,” from Let Us Compare Mythologies:

His blood on my arm is warm as a bird
his heart in my hand is heavy as lead
his eyes through my eyes shine brighter than love
O send out the raven ahead of the dove

His life in my mouth is less than a man
His death on my breast is harder than stone
His eyes through my eyes shine brighter than love
O send out the raven ahead of the dove

O send out the raven ahead of the dove
O sing from your chains where you’re chained in a cave
your eyes through my eyes shine brighter than love
your blood in my ballad collapses the grave

O sing from your chains where you’re chained in a cave
your eyes through my eyes shine brighter than love
your heart in my hand is heavy as lead
your blood on my arm is warm as a bird

O break from your branches a green branch of love
after the raven has died for the dove

On the other hand, as the lines I quoted at the outset show, Cohen in his early books didn’t restrict his poetic expression to the musings of a roué or the plaints of a pilgrim seeking a state of grace. Take, for further example, the following poem from his 1964 collection, the provocatively titled Flowers for Hitler:

All There Is to Know about Adolf Eichmann

eyes: ……………………….…… Medium
hair: ……………………….……… Medium
weight: ……………………….….. Medium
height: …………………………… Medium
distinguishing features: …………… None
number of fingers: …………….….. None
number of toes: …………………… None
intelligence: …………………… ..Medium

What did you expect?

Talons?

Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?

Madness?

 
Like many of, if not virtually all, his U.S. admirers, I came to Cohen’s poetry via his songs. I remember hearing “Take This Longing” on New York FM radio in 1974, when I was a student at New York University and Cohen had just released the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. I knew of him as the man who wrote “Suzanne” and vaguely knew he also wrote poetry, but that was the extent of it. I found his languorous vocal on “Take This Longing” hypnotic, but it was the lyrics that attracted me, a devotee of the written word; they seemed legitimately poetic (“You’re faithful to the better man / I’m afraid that he left”). My original ambition was to be a writer; in high school, I took up the guitar and began writing songs—with an emphasis on the lyrics, of course, a result of both my early literary ambitions and infatuation with Bob Dylan.
I bought New Skin for the Old Ceremony and was drawn to the similarly dark, cynical tone of the other songs (e.g., “Is this what you wanted / to live in a house that is haunted / by the ghost of you and me?” and “Your vision is right, my vision is wrong / I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song”—could a contemporary songwriter without literary inclinations have come up with “smudging the air with my song”?). After picking up Songs of Leonard Cohen, I saw Selected Poems: 1956 – 1968 in a Greenwich Village bookstore. I later purchased it, and Leonard Cohen shortly became my second-favorite poet, with Poe holding the top spot. Later books, like The Energy of Slaves, Death of a Lady’s Man (not to be confused with his album Death of a Ladies’ Man) and Book of Mercy, came to occupy space on my shelves.
I wrote a poem called “The Lord of Songs” in 1991; it appears in my first collection, The Plague Psalms (The Poet’s Press, 2000). I wouldn’t have written the poem if I weren’t a Cohen fan. To be more specific, I wouldn’t have written it if he hadn’t written “Hallelujah.” The final verse of his song contains the line “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song.” I borrowed the phrase, added an “s” to “song” and used it as the prompt for my poem. (At the time I wrote the poem, “Hallelujah” was years away from its current status as a standard. It was an obscure song on an obscure album that Columbia declined to release in the United States; my copy was pressed in Holland.)

THE LORD OF SONGS

For Leonard Cohen

Where is the Lord of Songs,
Whose breath ripples the membrane of the drum,
Whose fingers are the pegs of a cedar lute,
Who issues his ballads
on the backs of thrushes?

Where is the King of Psalms,
Who danced in the sandalwood arbor
and tossed his rhymes into the rosewater night,
Who taught the harp makers
the architecture of strings
and plucked the silence
from the tongues of mutes?

And where is the Father of Canticles,
Whose heart is a scripture,
Who filled his scrolls with words of praise,
Who forgave the defiant ear that would not listen
to the words of praise,
Who built the towers
where his name was preserved?

Lord of Songs,
King of Psalms,
Father of Canticles,
It has taken days to write these lines.
It is late now.
Will you accept my effort?
I wait for you to lay your blessing
on the crescents of my eyelids.

Joel Allegretti is the author of four collections of poetry: Europa/​Nippon/​New York: Poems/​Not-Poems (Poets Wear Prada, 2012); Thrum (Poets Wear Prada, 2010); Father Silicon (The Poet’s Press, 2006), selected by The Kansas City Star as one of 100 Noteworthy Books of 2006, a list that included novels by Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon; The Plague Psalms (The Poet’s Press, 2000).
In addition to Exit Strata PRINT! Vol.2, Allegretti’s poems have appeared in Smartish Pace, PANK, The New York Quarterly, Maintenant: A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing & Art, MARGIE, Fulcrum and many other national journals, as well as in The Best American Poetry blog and journals published in Canada, the United Kingdom and India. Allegretti’s fiction has appeared in Think Journal, The Adroit Journal, autolycus: rogue literary journal and Petrichor Machine, among other periodicals. His Aqua: A Play in One Repeated Act was a semifinalist in the 2010 KNOCK International Play Contest.
 
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2nd Annual 30/30/30 Poetry Month Series:

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DAY 8 :: MONTANA RAY ON ALICE NOTLEY 

 

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