Leonard Cohen: The ladies’ man, his “lawless heart” and the emotion which “has found words”
I have always loved poetry despite its lack of widespread appeal compounded by the likes of Martin Amis who proclaimed it dead several years ago due to lacklustre sales at a particularly turbulent time in the publishing trade. Perhaps the best retort to counteract Amis’ claim would be that of Robert Graves who, when questioned about the subject, some 40 years ago, surmised it with the following: “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.”
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate I was actually given the Book of Longing, having once made a gift of it myself. Funny, how these little ironies have the potential to evolve into portents of unforeseen and even momentous significance; but the less about that the better. The Book of Longing is Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poetry since the Book of Mercy written two decades ago. Already somewhat familiar with the material I couldn’t wait to reacquaint myself with the beguiling bundle which entails lyrics, neoteric sonnets, discursive monologues and breviloquent verses accompanied by Cohen’s own charcoal drawings. The collection boasts 150 works written during Cohen’s 12 year sabbatical spent as a Buddhist monk on Mount Baldy thus many of the little Zen squibs document this period of his life – sometimes light-heartedly, sometimes profoundly but always with a rubrical hook: “The road is too long/the sky is too vast/the wandering heart/is homeless at last.”
And while these poems offer an interesting glimpse into Cohen’s life as a monk, the only poems for me are those of actual longing which read like existential odes to love, desire and loneliness suggesting that despite his pursuit of inner harmony and cosmic tranquillity, the once infamous ladies’ man hasn’t quite mastered how to transcend his “lawless heart” and mortal carnality. In many of these poems Cohen finds himself recollecting his romantic feats, but more often defeats, thus the overall tone is frequently one of rueful melancholy. Some of Cohen’s best works of this nature are the ballads of simple quatrains that evoke the atmospheric expediency and balance of the poet’s desire and self-deprecation: “What can I do/with this love of mine/with this hairy knob/with this poison wine/Who shall I take/to the edge of despair/with my knee on her heart/ and my lips on her hair.”
There’s little doubt that Cohen is at his best when he writes about the inevitable yet nevertheless excruciating culmination of love, charted in poems like Alexandra Leaving, Love Itself, You Have Loved Enough and my personal favourite A Thousand Kisses Deep. He wryly records his melodic lamentations without self pity but with a sense of foresight as he announces: “I know you had to lie to me/I know you had to cheat/To pose all hot and high behind/The veils of sheer deceit/Our perfect porn aristocrat/ So elegant and cheap/I’m old but I’m still in to that/A thousand kisses deep.” He also reflects on the women who have been “exceptionally kind” to “his old age” and those who haven’t, and intersperses dolour with jaunty rhymes such as “need your hand/to pull me out/need your juices/on my snout.” Amid all the poignant apophthegms and bittersweet reflections, the poems strike a surprisingly ludic chord while Cohen explores his relationship with the self, and the kinship between eros and death.
In doing so, his work appears less fatalistic than it had previously been yet Cohen manages to exert the same emotional astuteness as before, with the added ripeness of experience. The Book of Longing has the personal feel of a poet’s journal while the disparity between the spiritual undertakings and the physical urges, between the hunger of youth and the satiety of old age, gives it much of its variety and appeal. It may not be my favourite of Cohen’s collections but it is one that paints a highly personal portrait of the poet and his remarkable artistic vision. And yet by Cohen’s own admission his poetry may only “refer” to “everything that is beautiful and dignified” while being neither, however, I would argue that the poetry’s not in the beauty but in the emotion which “has found words”. And that it definitely has.