There has long been a short story mulling in my head about the ghosts of Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler meeting by the St. Lawrence to fight over which is the greatest Montreal-born writer.
Their dukes drop when Leonard Cohen strolls by in the flesh humming a few bars of Suzanne.
Writerly rankings are a mug’s game, of course. But in the trifecta – blessed trinity? – of beautiful losings that began with Richler’s death in 2001, followed by Bellow in 2005 and Cohen last week, the third man had by far the deepest cultural – and arguably literary – effect.
Cohen is spoken of as a musician – and often ironically as a singer – who was a highly-ranked poet before he entered the ring of popular song. In junior high school I walked home reading Flowers for Hitler out loud to a friend – in a neighbourhood where just saying the word “poetry” risked a beat down from local adolescent thugs. For me, the risk was not merely worth it. It was essential.
Cohen, however, didn’t simply drop poetry for song. He joined, and gave monumental force to, the recovery of song as both an ancient and entirely modern form of poetry. He did not just write song lyrics. He wrote lyric poetry that was smuggled into our consciousness as songs on records, on the radio, and on the gamut of ever-changing aural technologies between the mid-1960s and November 10, 2016.
In the immediate aftermath of the news of his death, the event that I remembered vividly was a near head-on collision in which I was almost killed while listening to Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate on – wait for it – an 8-track tape player in my car.
He did not, obviously, cause the recovery of poetry for North American culture single-handedly. Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize for Literature, much as it was questioned and even scorned by self-styled literary purists, indicates the quality of the company Cohen kept in re-converting poetry to its primal purpose.
What is poetry’s purpose? The great British poet Philip Larkin argued in an essay that poetry must adhere to the “pleasure principle” if it is to be usefully survive.
“(P)oetry is emotional in nature and theatrical in operation, a skilled re-creation of emotion in other people, and, conversely, a bad poem is one that never succeeds in doing this. All modes of critical derogation are no more than different ways of saying this, whatever literary, philosophical or moral terminology they employ, and it would not be necessary to point out anything so obvious if present-day poetry did not suggest that it had been forgotten,” Larkin wrote in 1957.
“We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try…. If (poetry) is to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on. And I use ‘enjoy’ in the commonest of senses, the sense in which we leave a radio on or off,” Larkin concluded.
In the following decade, Dylan, Cohen and lyric poets like them made Larkin’s definition of “leaving a radio on or off” almost literal, and certainly literary. They began writing songs that were, for the most part, poems set to music, or music added to poems. It was not just the spoken verse with added saxophone styling of the Beatniks from an earlier era. It was a true fusion of what had been two forms of doing into one principle of pleasure.
The objective was not to eradicate text-based poetry, or even force its transformation. Rather it was to make an ancient form into a novelty for a new generation of listeners who might become readers – but need not if they didn’t wish to turn the radio off. They were doing for poetry what the prose writers such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote were doing by melding novelistic techniques into newspaper features and magazine writing. They were doing for the pleasure principle in poetry what classically trained painters such as Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edward Steichen, to name a few, did for visual art by becoming photographers.
During the 20th century, poetry, like novel writing, like painting, became an articulation of theory rather than the evocation of experiential pleasure. As Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye argued in The Great Code, poetry inherently belongs to the “first phase of language” that is metaphorical, not theoretical or abstract.
“It is contemporary with a stage of society in which the main source of culturally inherited knowledge is the poet, as Homer was for Greek culture…. Poetry, then, keeps alive the metaphorical use of language and its habits of thinking in the identity relations suggested by ‘this is that’ structure of metaphor,” Frye writes.
The process, he says, allows for an immense freedom through the release of metaphorical language from magic into poetry.
“Magic demands prescribed formulas that cannot be varied by a syllable, whereas novelty and uniqueness are essential to poetry. Poetry does not lose its magical power… but merely transfers it from an action on nature to an action on the reader or hearer,” Frye says.
Much as we might think of ourselves as 21st century sophisticates who long ago dispensed with magic, we need only tune in briefly to the day’s political reporting to see what a delusion that is. As we witnessed in the recent U.S. presidential campaign, but also as we can glean even from coverage of a small town municipal council, virtually all political language arises from and promotes magical thinking. It is not just that the claims made are so often derisively illusory, but also that they require belief in action that will change nature itself. Poetry, then, is the bulwark against, and sanctuary from, such misbegotten sorcery. By its actions on the reader or hearer, it debunks, or least insulates us from, the fraudulence of political phlogiston.
No poet, not even one with Leonard Cohen’s lyrical gifts, can exorcise all the ghosts of political fights gone by. But through the pleasure of his poetry Cohen could – and continues to be able to through technological posterity – move us to time and place where:
“Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.
And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind….”