Songs of Innocence and Experience
“Beware what comes out of Montreal.”
Leonard Cohen has spent much of his half-century career as a poet/singer/songwriter inhabiting the dark places of human experience. He was always the outsider who rarely got the girl, and when he did, it was always emotionally fatal. Less concerned with being political or sensational the way his American peers at the time were, Cohen reveled in equal parts religious symbolism and bohemian dislocation. When he finally turned to the political, it was in the shadows of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, writing some of his most blistering social commentary. In his song The Future, Cohen croons: “I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder”. To say that his Weltschaung was gloomy would be an understatement, considering that the New York Times once ranked his alienation factor as “somewhere between Schopenhauer and Bob Dylan”.
Cohen has spent so much time creating the gilded misery that is the hallmark of his career that his new collection Book of Longing arrives like a death-bed conversion 20 years in the making. In his first publication of original material since 1984’s Book of Mercy, Cohen presents poems, short prose sketches, and drawings to give the reader a window into this newfound contentedness. It makes for an attractive package, one that reads less like a man trying to find his place in the world and more like one who is one with the cosmos.
The years that Cohen has spent meditating and studying Zen have worn the rough edges from his verse. Not stylistically speaking, but in exploring the poet’s relationship to the self, eros, and death. In letting go of such deeply entrenched fatalism, Cohen has been liberated to find the joy in experience, the enlightenment in failure and the humor in the unknown.
The eponymously titled poem that opens the book uses a simple meter and acts almost as a primer for what is to come”
I followed the course
From chaos to art
Desire the horse
Depression the cart
This initially comes across as an artist looking back, but this is soon followed by:
My page too white
My ink too thin
The day wouldn’t write
What the night penciled in
Here are the trademarks of Cohen’s oeuvre: desire, depression, and absence. But there is an ambiguous optimism in this stanza. Is it possible that the day wouldn’t write what the night penciled in because of the illuminating perspective that daylight provides? It’s easy to go the other way, that the scrutiny of daylight destroys the creativity of the evening, but rest of the book bears out the previous, positive interpretation.
To be sure, there are moments of doubt and failure in Book of Longing, but these moments are not as self-destructive for Cohen as they have been in the past. There are poems where Cohen finds himself remembering what he should have done with his lover, or finding her but then limping away, however, the overall tone of these poems and miscellanea is one of acceptance and gratitude. One of his many self-portraits in this book contains the caption “...grateful of course, ever since the background dissolved”.
There are also occasional reconciliations with his more melancholic past within Book of Longing. Almost 40 years ago, in the lyrics of Sisters of Mercy, Cohen wrote “When you’re not feeling holy—your loneliness tells you you’ve sinned”. Flash ahead to the present, where Cohen states, in the poem Kitchen Table:
The same useless thoughts arise
but no one claims them—
Loneliness seizes the frame
and shakes away hope
but no one is hopeless
no one is lonely
Cohen dedicated Book of Longing to his longtime friend and mentor Irving Layton, who recently passed away, and there is a sense that Cohen is preparing himself for what comes after this life is finished. In Robert Appears Again, the author address a dead friend while buzzing on 20 year old speed he found in his pocket, wrapping up his Parisian séance by stating: “Your disembodied status entitles you to a lot of privileges, but you might have excused yourself before disappearing again for who knows how long.” Would a reader be mistaken in thinking that Book of Longing is Cohen’s poetic excuse before disappearing? As far as I know, Cohen isn’t dying of anything other than the slow death of the existentialist, but there are portions of Book of Longing that read with the calmness of somebody who’s reached Kubler-Ross’ last stage of dying, acceptance. It’s as if Cohen is composing a Canadian Book of the Dead.
More often, however, Cohen comes across as a lovesick monk who has finally succeeded in annihilating his ego. He’s not afraid to poke a little fun at himself, or allow himself to be befuddled by some Zen wisdom. In Book of Longing, Cohen shows that he’s still capable of the same observations as before, but with the maturity of experience. Cohen shows that he can appreciate the beauty of the flame without allowing it to burn him.