By Judith Fitzgerald
TODAY'S POET (April 6):
He is fierce and beautiful, elegant and enigmatic, but above all else, he is Canada's legendary Leonard Cohen, world-class wordsmith, iconoclastic tunesmith, Zen master Jikan. And, just now, beg pardon, he's hanging a rat. What's up with that?
At first glance, some may consider "The Moon," from the first best-selling collection of Canadian poetry to top the charts, 2006's Book of Longing, a pissant little trifle of accidental prosody and casual tone.
After all, it rather prosaically states the obvious concerning the moon and micturation. "The moon" appears four times in a lyric containing 50 words total, many of which are articles, pronouns and passive verbs. What's left? "Outside," "great uncomplicated thing," "leak," "looked," "longer," "poor lover."
Right? Well, not quite. Wild enjambments bring the reader up short. This sly guy who "went to take a leak" and peek at the moon, "just now?" He's inside. It's "outside." (Outside of what or whom?) Now that he's returned, he reports with ironic gravitas, that he's "a poor lover of the moon."
Meaning that after a lifetime of singing its praises, from 1956's Let Us Compare Mythologies (where the moon is "dangling wet like a half-plucked eye") to 1992's The Future (where listeners to "Closing Time" discover "the moon is swimming naked"), the moon no longer holds sway? Or that he's so smitten by its charms that he's a goner?
More likely, you must remember this: A piss is still a piss and the moon is just the moon and just now, "the great uncomplicated thing" doesn't give a rat's ass for the pisser and his puny problems. The post-romantic pointedly misses the mark with the juxtaposition of the immortal moon and the representative man watering the lilies by its light, effecting rough justice in relation to the central crisis of the poem -- eternity set against a piddling human span.
Traditionally passive, the moon symbolises the exalted feminine, the beloved, as well as the reflective synthesis balancing night and day, ebb and flow, dark and light, the moon and "me." It illuminates landscapes within and "outside" the narrator's frame of reference. Inviting comparison with Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the Zen monk who revitalised haiku, Cohen elects to translate hai (amusement) and ku (sentence) literally -- emphasising the associative while permitting differentiation without exclusion.
Here, too, he reveals a poetic aesthetic founded upon principles of Imagism: Common speech, precise language, arresting diction and compressed imagery combine with novel approaches to form and content to elucidate the drama of quotidian existence. In lieu of metrical embellishment, sibilant consonants ("is outside," "I see . . . that's it") surround the liquid and calculous "uncomplicated," "leak" and "looked," seamlessly reinforcing the poem's pissifaction.
And, if Cohen's moon poses a thematic puzzler, you might look to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Morituri Salutamus: Poem for the 50th Anniversary of the Class of 1825 in Bowdoin College" (1875): "Whatever poet, orator, or sage / May say of it, old age is still old age. / It is the waning, not the crescent moon . . ."
When nature calls, Cohen answers, making a virtue of necessity. What's apparent here is the artist's self-possession, the magic of the maestro at his most understated or over-exposed. Not since The Village Voice interviewed him in a paper-thinned New York hotel room in 1967 has Cohen so publicly signed his name in the snow: "You can't help hearing [the beautiful creep] in the toilet," notes the scribe, "he pisses in quick panting spurts."
Artwork caption: "The Moon," both image and poem, © 2000-2009 Leonard Cohen. All Rights Reserved. Used by written permission from the author and artist with ol' thanks, Boss .
Debate on Leonard Cohen's poetry (and novels), both published and unpublished. Song lyrics may also be discussed here.
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As always, Judith's analyses are literary, elucidative, and a pleasure to read. She brings so much to the page .
Thanks for posting this, Jarkko.
Thanks for posting this, Jarkko.
"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
~ Oscar Wilde
~ Oscar Wilde
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