A moment comes back to me, unbidden and far too often, that probably speaks for many such moments in many too many lives. A fifteen year-old classmate is lecturing a few of us, and a bewildered Classics teacher, in a little room in Berkshire, in 1972, on the timeless literary brilliance of Pink Floyd’s recent record “Atom Heart Mother.” I, of course, have no time for such pretensions; when it comes to my turn to speak on some powerful work of deathless poetry, I turn my exegetical eye to the unplumbed subtleties of Cat Stevens’s “Tea for the Tillerman.” Drunk on formative readings of Bob Dylan by Christopher Ricks and the like, young minds blown apart by the mytho-poeic riffs of Greil Marcus and other early professors of rock, we knew that the only poetry that counted was the kind going round and round on our turntables (and in our heads).
Yet even as we were trying to work out whether Yes’s “Tales from Topographic Oceans” really belonged in the tradition of Tolkien or LeGuin–and what did the road and the sky signify, exactly, in the eschatology of Jackson Browne ?–the people who were giving us such fodder for teenage speculation were growing older and, in a few cases at least, wiser. No American memoir I have read in recent years is as at ease with its presentation (or anti-presentation) of self, so casually novel in structure and diction, as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume 1. And having heard, perhaps, that Dylan’s name has been mentioned in the context of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and certainly the Pulitzer Prize in America, one Canadian broadcaster last year began talking up Leonard Cohen for the Nobel, too; the growling Zen monk and laureate of unrequited yearning had, after all, won Canada’s equivalent to the Pulitzer, the Governor-General’s Award, almost forty years ago.
As it happens, Cohen has just this summer released his first book of new writing in more than twenty years, Book of Longing, whose very title announces its interest in both Rumi and Rilke. At the same time, with typical craft, he’s released a new record, “Blue Alert,” in which his dark threnodies are given silver light and sweetness by being sung by his much younger companion, Anjani. A published writer now for fifty years, he is in effect advancing once again his idea that songs are just a form of poetry made flesh: some poems in Book of Longing have appeared as songs already in their entirety, some in part or with slightly different words, and one song on “Blue Alert” is a rendition of a poem he published forty-five years ago. Playing with the notion of what it is to be a rock star, a 71 year-old singer-songwriter who is choosing not to sing the songs he writes, turning to the monastery where he recently lived for five years to generate verses and sketches of naked eroticism, Cohen, a longtime mischief-maker, might be asking us why songs should be excluded from the canon when the same words, appearing on the page, are treated with literary seriousness.
It’s a good question, if only because the lines between the forms are blurring and it’s becoming frequently apparent that some of the most eloquent (and certainly the most public) writers of the day are, in fact, the ones with that dismissive tag “song” attached to them. Bono, the lead singer of U2, writes essays for Time magazine, and in the pieces he has written for Henry Luce’s little red book, on Aung San Suu Kyi and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, he throws down propositions like challenges, and with a reckless, open-hearted intelligence that puts every other newsmagazine-writer to shame. And Bruce Springsteen, when inducting Bono and the other members of U2 into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year, summoned up the same unembarrassed intensity: “A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible fire that fuelled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire. You want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out.” When was the last time you heard another writer introduce a colleague like that ?
Perhaps it is that very unembarrassedness–the freedom from self-consciousness–that allows those who are thrown into the category of singer to address the essential themes with such head-on sincerity. Norman Mailer took on (and gave body to) demons and angels in the air in his essays of the 1960s and a few novelists today, like Cormac McCarthy, evince no shyness in writing about God and Eternity and all the other stuff with capital letters. But for most, such ideas are infra dig, or somehow too difficult to try to put into words. The same writers who think nothing of writing of masturbation, sanitary napkins or their midlife crises take a breath, and usually walk away, before addressing the religious or romantic ideas that Shakespeare or Donne would have taken on daily. Gospel singers, meanwhile, court the heavens shamelessly, and the most eloquent among them bring the metaphysical tradition up to date with a beat that burns.
In one poem that appears in his Book of Longing, Cohen writes, quite typically, about, it seems, his return from the monastery to his civilian life:
‘by the rivers dark I panicked on I belonged at last to Babylon.”
It may not be an immortal verse, but it does cleverly bring down the cadences of the King James Bible to describe a movement in the other direction, away from the mountaintop and into the traffic. It has fun with its rhymes, the way Cohen did when throwing “what’s it to you ?” against “Hallelujah” in perhaps his most accomplished later song. It charts the progress from one world to the other with the song-like device of four verses that begin “by the rivers dark,” and ends with “Babylon,” though each time by way of something else. And it freights that “at last” with a curious resonance, since in the theology of most believers one’s final destination is some kind of Eternity, and not the world. As in all his songs (since he recorded this one, too), there is a concentration in the lines that suggests someone who has collected himself, for long years, in silence and the dark.
Dylan plays games with mystery, you could say, where Cohen tries to annotate its features, like the Judaeo-Zen theologian he often appears to be. Dylan pushes song towards the literacy of poetry, while Cohen, beginning as a poet, moves in the opposite direction again (the “Stranger Music” rubric under which he has published his work seeming to bring together Albert Camus and Merle Haggard, with a nod to the writer he most resembles in recent years, Thomas Merton). Dylan, in other words, takes us off on long, vivid journeys into the unexplored parts of the subconscious; Cohen exercises great conscious control to push all his songs into a tight quatrain. Between them they show how surrender is made more poignant by irony, and vice versa.
The classic argument against songs is, of course, that they are meant to be seen, not heard, and cannot be compared with poems, which lack the ornamentation–as well as the distraction–of musical accompaniment. Yet the classic answer has always been that although not all songs are poems, much poetry consists of song. The history of literature sashays from Cademon’s lyrics through Shakespeare’s songs to the antic ditties that Thomas Pynchon throws into every novel. Cole Porter and Noel Coward will not and should not be placed in the company of Auden or Stevens; but they belong in every anthology of light verse, as surely as Patti Smith appears in the new Oxford History of American Poetry, and Joni Mitchell sits near Sylvia Plath in Camille Paglia’s recent book of explications de textes.