Input needed on the poem "When I Have Not Rage"

Debate on Leonard Cohen's poetry (and novels), both published and unpublished. Song lyrics may also be discussed here.
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Input needed on the poem "When I Have Not Rage"

Post by Silvana » Tue Jun 24, 2003 6:10 pm

Hi everyone!
I have to analyze the poem "When I Have Not Rage" by Leonard Cohen for a modern Canadian literature course that I'm currently taking. If any of you are familiar with it and would like to share your opinions of it with me, I would find that most enjoyable and helpful.
Thank you!

When I Have Not Rage

When I have not rage or sorrow, and you depart from me, then I am most afraid. When the belly is full, and the mind has its sayings, then I fear for my soul; I rush to you as a child at night breaks into its parents' room. Do not forget me in my satisfaction. When the heart grins at itself, the world is destroyed. And I am found alone with the husks and the shells. Then the dangerous moment comes: I am too great to ask for help. I have other hopes. I legislate from the fortress of my disappointments, with a set jaw. Overthrow this even terror with a sweet rememrance: when I was with you, when my sould delighted you, when I was what you wanted. My heart sings of your longing for me, and my thoughts climb down to marvel at your mercy. I do not fear as you gather up my days. Your name is the sweetness of time, and you carry me close into the night, speaking consolations, drawing down lights from the sky, saying, See how the night has no terror for one who remembers the Name.

This is just how it is written - in paragraph form.
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Post by witty_owl » Tue Jun 24, 2003 6:27 pm

Silvana, I have never seen the poem before this moment. Here are my first impressions.

Leonard is well aquainted with disappointments and loss. Therefore he feels at home with that- comfortable. Hence he legislates from the fortress----. This is his corner stone. Satisfaction and delight however alarms him and he is afraid of becoming smug or at ease. Being sated alarms him and this could be interpreted as a threat to the soul. Being complacent is a dangerous place to be but he wistfully would like to be there? As to the object of the poem. To whom or what is this addressed? That is up to individual speculation. The name is a capital N.

Cheers Witty Owl.
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Post by jurica » Thu Jun 26, 2003 10:56 am

i don't know how familiar you are with leonard's work in general, but he often confuses objects of his affection in his songs. a woman in first line can easily become a god in another. or his mother. or his father...
i think this is the case here.

in the poem he fears hollowness of existence without affection. at the beginning, i think, he addresses a god (whoever this god is?); he rushes to him like a child to parents, he asks him not to forget him in his satisfaction... as religious people often tend to abandon god when they are well, and remember him only when they need help. he, on the other hand, begs that he doesn't abandon him even when he is well.

'And I am found alone with the husks and the shells.' - i think husks and shells are hollow people with nothing inside their bodies (no god or soul?)

later he asks for longing to stay upon him. i think he changes the object of his affection now, althought it needn't to be so. i think he is not addressing anybody in particular here... he just needs someone to care for him so he can care back.

the end (having capital n in mind) should be a 'praised be lord' sort of chant. but even here i'm not sure he addresses the god, because he could be just using this sort of expression to emphasize his longings, or simply using the expression he is familiar with, and expects other readers to be also.

hope i helped at least a little.

you should now post your own ideas, so we can all understand the poem better.
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Post by tom.d.stiller » Thu Jun 26, 2003 3:23 pm

Silvana -

Welcome to the forum. May you enjoy your stay here, may you find all the help you need, and may you stay with us, when this your scholarly task is accomplished.

"When I Have Not Rage" is, to my mind, a poem in prose that clearly shows how well acquainted Leonard is with the mystics of all times and religions. Like them he uses metaphors taken from (profane, even physical) Love between humans to describe the intimacy of a relationship between the mystic's self and the God.

As one example from medieval Jewish Philosophy I give the following quotation
Maimonides (1135 - 1204) wrote:"When man loves God with a love that is fitting, he automatically carries out all of the precepts in love. . . . It is as if he were love-sick, unable to get the woman he loves out of his mind, pining for her constantly when he sits or stands, when he eats and drinks. Even more than this is the love of God in the hearts of those who love Him and yearn constantly for Him. . . ." (bold italics by me)
What you, Jurica, described as "confusing objects of affection" in fact is a natural part of a mystical tradition in which Leonard is deeply rooted. The "Name" (upper case n!), of course, is unmentionable...

Read in this context the poem in prose is a mystical prayer to God. As an additional information: Leonard once answered, when asked about his relationship to God, by quoting "If I forget thee..." from Psalm 137. (Please help me: I believe this questionnaire has been reprinted in one of the early songbooks, but I can't access them presently...)

The passage from the Bible reads in full:
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
There are, of course, more allusions to the Bible, especially to the psalms. "See how the night has no terror for one who remembers the Name." e.g. clearly refers to the 91st Psalm ("You will not fear the terror of night"). I'm sure more references can easily be found, but since I have work to do, I can't confirm anymore right now. Maybe later, maybe someone else...

Silvana, I hope the information others and I could give you, will help you to some degree with your present task. And I agree with Jurica: "you should now post your own ideas, so we can all understand the poem better."


PS: On another level, of course, the whole religious image can be interpreted as a "superimage" for the existential situation of Humankind in general, as can the whole corpus of religion. But this, though worth giving one thought or the other to, definitely leads too far away from the purpose of the present analysis...
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Post by jurica » Thu Jun 26, 2003 5:43 pm

very, very nice, tom. i'm more than impressed!
not only did you help to clear this object-shift for me, but you also helped me understand 'love sick' by bob dylan better. this quotation, together with another:

"stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love"

The Song of Solomon, 2:8

,which was put by someone else on a bob dylan site, helps so much to understand emotions behind the song.

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Post by margaret » Fri Jun 27, 2003 12:00 am

Leonard's prose poem is actually from his collection called "Book of Mercy", number 31 of 50 composed/published in his 50th year . The book is a collection of modern psalms or prayers and meditations written with great humility and devotion.

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Post by Silvana » Fri Jul 04, 2003 10:13 pm

Hey everyone!
Thank you so very much for all the great insight and interpretations of Cohen's writing! Margaret, you are right, "When I Have Not Rage" is part of the Book of Mercy and I did not find that out until after I posted my request for help. I had no idea that I had chosen such a hard writer's work for my paper until my interview with my professor last week. I have read the Book of Mercy to get acquainted with the rest of the material within it and I still find that this section still evokes a great emotional response within me. My task now, as clarified by my professor, is to explain why it is that I find this section to be so powerful. I have to do this by comparing it to the rest of the book and by understanding the elements of literature being used within this section. I have noticed the use of personification, metaphores and have recognized this to be an apostrophe. My professor suggested that I consult a book titled: "A Glossary of Literary Terms" in my attempts at completing this project. I have to admit that I am rather lost and very much intimidated by this task. I find if overwhelming and I am in need of as much help as I can get since I really wish to do well in it. You have all been terrific with all you interpretations and I once again require further assistance from those of you who have the time and patience to guide me in some useful direction.
Hope all is well with all and I once again thank you for the replies!!! :D
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Post by lizzytysh » Fri Jul 04, 2003 11:35 pm

WoW ~ you're so right, Silvana. A tough task ahead of you. I hope you have a while for its completion. I don't have "A Glossary of Literary Terms," but I do have "A Dictionary of Literary Terms." If mine can be of help in your project, PM me and I will type out for you what is said here about any particular term you might need.
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Post by Byron » Sat Jul 05, 2003 1:44 am

I'm quoting from 'Various Positions A Life of Leonard Cohen' by Ira B. Nadel. ISBN 0 7475 2189 1. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 1996.
As he approached 50, Cohen felt he needed to re-evaluate his direction once more. He was at last ready to "get down to a Jew's business." The spiritual quest came in part from an inability to do anything else. "I was silenced in all areas. I couldn't move.....It was the only way I could penetrate through my predicament." What he discovered was "the courage to write down my prayers. To apply to the source of mercy....I found that the act of writing was the proper form for my prayer." His efforts resulted in a book of psalms first titled 'The Name' then 'The Shield' and finally 'Book of Mercy'. Asked to describe it, Cohen cryptically claimed the book is either "inspired or it isn't; rings true or it doesn't. I think it does....I'm happy for being able to write it because the writing of it, in some ways, was the answer to the prayer." But Cohen was hesitant to have the material published ; he felt it was risky because it was so unlike his last book, 'Death of A Lady's Man.'
"It came from an intense desire to speak in that way," he said of the odd form, "And you don't speak in that way unless you feel truly concerned, unless you feel truly desperate and you feel urgency in your life....I also wanted to affirm the traditions I had inherited." The 50 psalms mark Cohen's age. They deal with longing and self-abnegation.
Critics were unsure what to make of the book, a position similar to Cohen's: "It's a tricky thing to publish a book like this. I really don't know what section of the bookstore it should be in....It's not a quarrel, it's not an argument, it's not theology; it's just an asking." Some wondered how the poet who appeared to possess such venom in 'Death of A Lady's Man' could now possess such spiritual love. Others felt it added another dimension to Cohen's work. In July 1985, he won the Canadien Authors Association Literature Prize for lyrical poetry for the book, receiving five thousand dollars, although the recognition didn't affect his anxiety: "Everyone is in some kind of fix. Writing is my trade, and I treat my fix that way. When I'm feeling good about my work, I call it my vocation; when I'm feeling ordinary about it, I call it my trade."
'Book of Mercy' was mystical, spiritual, and indulgent, displaying none of the lyricism of his early work or the anger of his later. The focus of his longing was no longer a woman, but a desire to find spiritual fulfillment. Prayer he acknowledged, was not in. "We're such a hip age. Nobody wants to affirm those realities. It doesn't go with the sunglasses," he explained to one critic.
The reawakening of his Judaism in the eighties took another form as he transposed Hebrew prayer into his songs. "Who by Fire" is based on the Hebrew melody for the prayer "Mi Bamayim, Mi Ba Esh" sung at the Musaf or noontide service on Yom Kippur.........
'Various Positions' was the musical counterpoint to 'Book of Mercy'.
I hope this helps all who have come to this thread.
Byron 'sends his regards.'
"Bipolar is a roller-coaster ride without a seat belt. One day you're flying with the fireworks; for the next month you're being scraped off the trolley" I said that.
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