Book of Longing, by Leonard Cohen
Reviewed by Todd Swift
As an Anglo-Montrealer, born in the 1960s, it was impossible, even if one had wanted, to avoid Cohen, especially as my mother has always adored both his songs and his poems (my father was more agnostic on the subject). The fateful teenage-sublime, wherein poetry careers are often conceived, in my case came to me in the form of Leonard Cohen and Ezra Pound. The Spice-Box of Earth, borrowed from my tiny high school library, sealed the deal. During my 20s and early 30s, when I ran a few reading series on The Main, Cohen’s playground, I met and befriended a few who knew him well, in body and in mind. Some of my early poetry is informed by his tone, his tropes, and arguably, his persona. Later, much later, I honeymooned on Hydra, in a villa within earshot of his, where he wrote so much of his major work. This summer, returning to Greece and the island of Hydra once again, I was able to read Book of Longing, minutes from the beach in Kamini, mentioned, for instance, in the poem on page 80.
In short, I feel a proximity to Cohen, one never compromised by any actual personal dealings. As Anglo-Quebec’s third greatest 20th century poet (after Klein and Layton) he’s in my blood – and may I add to place third after those figures is a great honour that Cohen would appreciate. Indeed, I believe Cohen is about as significant for Anglo-Quebec, if not Canadian, poetry, as Seamus Heaney is for the poetry of Northern Ireland (and the comparison is worth teasing out for what it says about the choices both men have made with their time, intelligence, passions and talents). As an aside, I often wonder why Canada has never merited a Nobel Prize for literature. Cohen should win it, though Bob Dylan is more likely to be the lyricist they’d opt for first, also deservedly.
I want to put Cohen’s mass Canadian appeal in global, and literary, perspective, before directly considering his Book of Longing, a major collection published exactly fifty years after his first poetry book from 1956, Let Us Compare Mythologies – an extraordinary arc of work in any creative artist’s career. There is a need to have perspective, because some of Cohen’s allies do him a loving disservice, when they dramatically overstate his literary impact. Let me digress to say I am no Cohen revisionist; I know he is a legend and an icon. I know that Kurt Cobain testified to this in his song “Pennyroyal Tea” when he yearned for “Leonard Cohen afterworld” so he could sigh eternally. However, when important musicians like Rufus Wainwright claim that Cohen is “the world’s greatest living poet” they render his actual, impressive, and credible, literary achievement faintly suspect, if only because it is a claim hard to maintain, given that other serious poets, such as Heaney, Hill, Ashbery, Motion, Murray, Mahon, Muldoon, Bernstein, or P.K. Page, have some claim to that title, too.
One recent indicator of how little Cohen is respected as a poet in England is that the Times Literary Supplement recently reviewed Book of Longing under the heading of “Music” – which I have never seen them do, before, for a book of poems (the usual and deserved heading is, naturally, “Poetry”). No doubt, some of this is down to a very British sense of irony. But the truth is, Cohen is widely seen as a songwriter first, a writer second in countries other than Canada – countries which, for one reason or another – have failed to recognize that he was an award-winning, serious poet, and New York Times best-selling novelist, as well as a recording artist, when he became infamous for his gloomy, beautiful tunes. What does not compute, say, for my literary English friends and foes, is that Canada has produced a writer of the wit and style of a Roth, who also happens to be a popular musical genius. That “also” is the crux of the Cohen issue, I think. His reception hinges on whether or not it is allowed to stand.
I care deeply about this issue, because I care deeply about the Canadian poetry canon and its reception abroad. As Marjorie Perloff has somewhere written, I think correctly, the true poetic canon (Eliot’s Tradition) is established more or less by a poet’s fellow poets, not readers and critics – that is, over time, it is the poets whose poems are taken up, loved to pieces, and then paid delicate homage to in intertextual echoes that play back as lover’s kiss or talk – it is those poets whose poems last.
Cohen is already canonical for Quebec and for Canada, but the world? As a singer, of course. As a poet, the jury is still out. Partly this is the fault of Cohen himself. If he had wanted to present himself as a serious, established literary figure, a poet worthy of the sort of in-depth exegesis accorded to Heaney or Ashbery, he would not have published the big, baggy offer that is this collection. It is likely, given his past actions and comments, that Cohen enjoys confounding those who want him to be serious, and merely canonical. He has certainly always despised the “lousy little poets” trying to be like Manson.
The currently appropriate way to present a collection of poems is to edit them down, so that, in fact, the reader has maybe 40 or 60 of the best to read. What is less common is to present over 200 pages of poems, notes, scribbles, doodles, and drawings, which come across a little like the diary of a rock star (like Cobain, say, or Lennon). The difference between serious poet and rock star returns us to the “also” of above. For, as we Cohen patriots know, he is both, albeit of the folk-singer variety. But a poetry collection tends to buckle under the weight of trying to represent both sides of such a unique, complex artist – for the reason that, the audience for a rock star’s book requires very different things than the audience for even a major poet.
Readers want rock stars to let it all hang out, to be narcissistic, and to reveal much about their sexual and narcotic desires (in this case, Cohen writes a great deal about his three main opiates, G-D, cigarettes, and oral sex; one thinks of his “give me crack and anal sex” line here). Book of Longing is such a book. The drawings are funny, charming, and often very humane and moving (especially those of Layton, to whom the book is dedicated).
But this reader expects poetry collections to be pared down to what is best, even exemplary, in the poet. I long for a sense that the poet has a handle on his or her sullen craft, and is ably steering it home. I want to read the ten or twelve poems that the poet (or editor) thinks, or knows, are lightning in a bottle. Book of Longing is a very good poetry book; and then there are the other 150 pages. Since we have more than is required, not less, I wish to turn to the good news, which is the revelation that Cohen can still write very well, after all these years.
There are around fifteen excellent poems here, ones which rank among his best, which any future anthologist or editor will need to consider when putting together the definitive Cohen Selected – poems such as: “The Party Was Over Then Too”; “Takanawa Prince Hotel Bar” (with its exquisite ending – “the girlishness of your own / dark girlish religion”); “Early Questions” (an example of his prose poetry at its finest); “Love Itself” (a formalist’s dream, which channels Dickinson); “Boogie Street”; “The Cigarette Issue” (one of the very best in the book); “Unbecoming”; “Too Old”; “The Tradition”; “Go Little Book” and several more.
There are maybe another ten that are either good or at least insightful, and a clutch more that, because of their honesty relating to the poet’s modesty before G-D and the act of writing also deserve a place. And such a revised collection exists already within the larger, sprawling whole, for those who wish to find it there. The most moving, and perhaps most canonically significant, is the poem written for Irving Layton, “Irving And Me At The Hospital”, which is, for several reasons, one of the most important lyric poems written by a Canadian in the last fifty years. The last stanza reads as follows:
His boxer’s hands were shaking
He struggled with his pipe
Which I helped him light
This exemplifies the best in Cohen: the apparent simplicity, the use of half-rhyme, and metre, the evident lyric ease; and his way with allusion and connotation. The third line, in its stark sign of the passing of the nicotine torch from one major Montreal voice, to another, is profound. It gives Layton the laurels of majesty his feisty pugilism could not win himself, with the gift of Cohen’s graceful casual style.
And style is, finally, Cohen’s gift to Canadian poetry. His cosmopolitan verve, his candour, his wit, his dandyism, his fetishes for words and objects, women and places, his sheer bravado, are romantic and modern, as if Byron and Baudelaire could have been one man – a man of action, and a man of letters (and the opiates of leisure). No other poet comes close, though lord knows I (and many others) have tried. And, being an English-language writer from a French province, Cohen knew the French traditions of song, and decadent poetry, and was able to bring them in to Canadian poetry with singular panache.
Recently, respected Faber poet Hugo Williams was compared to Cavafy, by, I believe, Don Paterson. That may be so. But Cohen is much more immediately like Cavafy, in the sense of his deep connections to Greece, classicism, formalism, languid sexuality, and calm effortlessness of presentation; the difference is that Cavafy’s oeuvre is small, and Cohen’s is becoming large.
Cohen has always been a master of posing for a persona, playing with the sensuous lips behind the curved golden grin of the mask. He remains so – as deeply, troublingly enigmatic, erotic, compelling, charming, and humorous – as when he began. Cohen, if we were only less shy to be what we desire to become, instead of what we fear we are, would be our true national poet – not Purdy, Acorn or whoever else. He is certainly our most loved, our Imperial Tobacconist.