Reviewed by Rob Spence
For a while in the mid sixties to the early seventies, the singer-songwriter reigned supreme in popular music. Dylan, of course, was the pioneer, followed by James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and the rest of the hipperati of Laurel Canyon and beyond. Riding on the first wave, Leonard Cohen, recruited to Columbia Records by Dylan’s producer John Hammond in New York in 1966, was noticeably different. For a start he was older, a positively ancient 33 in a world where youth was everything. Moreover, he was primarily a poet, having already published three well received volumes before he released his first record. And his musical skills were minimal, his voice a low tenor with little range. Nevertheless, Songs From A Room established him immediately as a significant figure in folk/rock world, and launched a career that was to last nearly five decades. The distinction between song lyric and poem blurs in Cohen’s work, and so this final, posthumous volume presents both with equal status.
The book had a complex gestation. As the editors, Canadian academics Robert Faggen and Alexandra Pleshoyano reveal in their introduction, the task was to give coherence to a vast collection of material, some of which had been accumulating for fifty years. The book comprises three sections: in the first, sixty-three previously unpublished poems, which Cohen considered finished, are presented; in the second, the poems which would become the lyrics to his final four albums; and in the third, a distillation of three thousand pages of notes, going back to his earliest days, offering a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. The structure was apparently approved by Cohen, who worked on the material with the editors until close to his death in 2016. The volume is replete with illustrations by Cohen, often cartoon-like self-portraits, and the whole is immaculately produced by Carcanet.
For any Cohen fan, and indeed for anyone with an interest in contemporary poetry and culture, this volume offers much to savour. First, the “new” poems cover familiar topics: as his son Adam says in his foreword, “There are many themes and words that repeat throughout my father’s work; frozen, broken, naked, fire and flame.” The poems explore the familiar Cohen landscape of desire, anguish, belief, mystery, in often gnomic terms, but equally his ability to write in a humorously demotic style is sometimes represented too. His demolition of the ludicrous Kanye West is a case in point. Cohen’s achievements tower over the egregious rapper’s, and he is not afraid to assert his superiority: “I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is/when he shoves your ass off the stage/I am the real Kanye West”. Such comic squibs are of interest, but only transiently. For most readers, I think, the major appeal of this volume will be in the first section, which offers polished, final versions of poetic work from, in the main, his final years. It’s difficult to read the poems outside the context of the poet’s imminent demise, which lends them even more pathos. These poems, often shot through with religious imagery, are serious examinations of an intensely personal sort, which nevertheless manage to have a wider resonance.
The lyric section will be fascinating for the fan, who will pore over the slight differences between the published “poem” version found here, and the recorded version. We are told that Cohen composed all his songs as poems first, and they certainly stand as poems in this collection. The final section, culled from the notebooks, is less satisfactory: fragments and unfinished pieces, sometimes rather rambling and incoherent. Whilst it is fascinating to see work in progress, it’s hard to judge the quality of these items in their state of incompletion.
Probably Cohen’s most significant late-period song, “You Want It Darker”, is reproduced here, and it might serve as a touchstone for the overall mood, a kind of resignation at the end of life:
“If you are the dealer / I’m out of the game / If you are the healer / it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory / Then mine must be the shame / You want it darker / we kill the flame.”
This book maintains the flame a little longer.
Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk You can find him on Twitter @spencro
Leonard Cohen, The Flame (Carcanet, 2018). 978-1786893130, 275pp., hardback.
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