PoetryReviews.ca Review by Stephen Morrissey

Everything about Leonard's 2006 book of poetry and Anjani's album
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PoetryReviews.ca Review by Stephen Morrissey

Postby tomsakic » Tue Jun 06, 2006 5:02 pm

http://poetryreviews.ca/2006/05/29/book ... ard-cohen/

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen
Review by Stephen Morrissey

Title: Book of Longing
Author: Leonard Cohen
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Year: 2006
Pages: 232

Leonard Cohen has excelled at all of his creative endeavours, as a poet, a novelist, and as a songwriter. Whether he is compared to his singer-songwriter contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, or compared to Margaret Atwood—the only Canadian literary contemporary equal to Cohen in terms of fame—he is among the most creative and accomplished writers Canada has produced.

Cohen’s Book of Longing is made up of poems written over the last thirty years and includes on almost every page original drawings that he made of himself and other subjects. Book of Longing is not a major book in Leonard Cohen’s body of work. Some of the poems are very good, but it is mostly a collection of odds and ends: it includes poems written in the 1970s; some newer poems; song lyrics from one of Cohen’s CDs; some poems that might have been better discarded than included in this book; and some prose poems that didn’t fit into his previous books.

One reason this collection isn’t one of Cohen’s best efforts is that the poems communicate a psyche that is relentlessly self-preoccupied and self-absorbed; I don’t know whether this is because these poems are not his best work, or because they are an accurate representation of Cohen’s psyche. However, I suspect that some of these poems would have been removed had there been more work to choose from. For example, in “Titles”, Cohen writes,

I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for a while
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
even though
I could barely carry a tune
For many years
I was known as a Monk
I shaved my head and wore robes
and got up very early
I hated everyone
and no one found me out
My reputation
as a Ladies’ Man was a joke
It caused me to laugh bitterly
through the ten thousand nights
I spent alone
From a third-storey window
above the Parc du Portugal
I’ve watched the snow
come down all day
As usual
there’s no one here
There never is
the inner conversation
is cancelled
by the white noise of winter…

A poem will almost always reveal something of the psyche of the author, as Cohen’s is evident in this book. The problem with Book of Longing is that the psyche in the poems quickly becomes tedious because anyone’s psyche – even Leonard Cohen’s – without crisis or a sense of urgency to discover something beyond itself, or some greater understanding, is not interesting. As a result, we get poems like “The Remote” in which Cohen writes,

I often think about you
when I’m lying alone in
my room with my mouth
open and the remote
lost somewhere in the bed

The unfortunate side to Cohen’s self-preoccupation is that issues that call for depth are trivialized and deflated by his juxtaposing something trite with something important. This produces a charming self-deprecating humour, which is disarming on the surface, but which can also slip over the edge into smugness.

Some of the poems included in the book are song lyrics that were recorded on his album Ten New Songs (2001): “Alexandra Leaving,” “Love Itself,” “Here It Is,” “By The Rivers Dark,” “Boogie Street,” and “You Have Loved Enough”; one of the best of these songs is “A Thousand Kisses Deep”:

The ponies run the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep.

Cohen’s best song lyrics have a depth and complexity not found in many of these poems. Cohen’s songs are well known for creating an atmosphere that moves the audience; this is something at which Cohen excels. Most song lyrics rarely achieve the sophistication of lyrical poetry; instead, they require music to carry the emotional content of the words and by themselves are rarely interesting to read. Cohen’s song lyrics have the rare quality of being able to stand alone as poems, and this attests to Cohen’s talent as a writer.

Overall, there are some good poems in Book of Longing, but it is not a great book of poems. The book’s importance lies in Cohen’s authorship; it is an addition to his impressive body of work, which is extensive and shows a life-long dedication to poetry and writing.

Stephen Morrissey has published seven books of poetry, as well as chapbooks. In 2004, Les Editions Triptyque published La bete mystique, a translation of Morrissey’s The Mystic Beast. His new collection of poems, Girouard Avenue, is forthcoming. Visit the poet at http://www.stephenmorrissey.ca.
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Postby Young dr. Freud » Wed Jun 07, 2006 4:02 pm

Agree with most of this article. His songs are amazing but a lot of LC's poetry makes me cringe. When I read something like "The Sweetest Little Song" I think, "where is his editor...where is the friend who can say, "didn't I see something like that in "The Matchmaker"."

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Joe Way
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Postby Joe Way » Thu Jun 08, 2006 10:35 pm

This is quite interesting. I wasn't familiar with Stephen Morrissey. He also studied poetry with Louis Dudek. He is younger than Leonard but shares some similarities-he was born in Montreal and his father died when he was six. His poems are very personal much like Leonard's work.

He certainly is qualified to express an opinion about BoL. One of his earlier poems, 1950, bears some similarities to concerns that Leonard expressed poetically at a young age. Here is a link to it: http://www.stephenmorrissey.ca/poems/1950.html

It is interesting that his major criticism seems to be that BoL is not serious enough. It made me recall some stories about Yeats and how he grew into the role of poet. By the time he was Leonard's age, he was the epitome of what one would picture as a "poet." It seems to me that this is exactly what Leonard seems to be rebelling against. In his poem, Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats wrote:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
In an earlier version of A Thousand Kisses Deep, Cohen writes:
I'm good at love; I'm good at hate.
It's in between I'm weak.
Been working out, but it's too late,
It's been late for years.
Don't look at me, I'm sick, I'm fat
I'm swollen and I leak
It's tragic but it gets a laugh
A thousand kisses deep.
Yeats is a great poet, but it seems to me that Leonard's soul is clapping its hands and singing quite well in this work.

An argument can be made that the roles- poet, singer,monk, ladies man-all rejected by Leonard are causing a conflict of desire within him. Certainly, it is always advisable to commit to something as fully as possible. But what if there is a different role that he envisions and is in the process of communicating to us through these late works. All of them seem to be conflations of styles-words and drawings, jazz and poetry, light and dark. I think that perhaps it is too early to judge that this is not a "great book of poetry." Styles come and go. It may be after a couple of generations pass that a young man walks into a used bookstore and picks up a copy of BoL, has an epiphany and convinces the scholars that a great poet has been rediscovered.

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Joe Way
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Postby Joe Way » Fri Jun 09, 2006 4:55 am

Well here, I've gone and done it-posted a verse that Leonard has revised out of BoL.

Here is the correct verse:
I'm good at love I'm good at hate
It's in between I freeze
Been working out but it's too late
It's been too late for years
But you look fine you really do
The pride of Boogie Street
Somebody must have died for you
A thousand kisses deep
I've also just watched a clip where Leonard talks about the early years with the kindness of Layton, Dudek, Frank Scott and the intense competition to be "good writers, good poets" where every word was analyzed. I'm sure that he still welcomes intense scrutiny, but I suspect that he would be prepared to defend the lines describing his mouth open and the remote lost on the bed.

As someone interested in these things, I'm lost-I would advise Tom Sakic to pitch it all and become the Cohen scholar of the next generation.

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Postby lizzytysh » Fri Jun 09, 2006 3:39 pm

As someone interested in these things, I'm lost-I would advise Tom Sakic to pitch it all and become the Cohen scholar of the next generation.

8) ~ It would seem he's on his way, too, aside from all his other endeavours.

~ Lizzy

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