In Search of the Light: The Themes of Leonard Cohen’s Poetry
The Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen passed on November 7, 2016. I have read and listened to him since my youth. He gave me many moments of joy, insight, glimpses of beauty, and countless moments of humming. I could always relate to the sentiment of longing found in his words. His poetry conveyed a sense of openness and vulnerability as if he were talking to me. In the early years, it was about rejection and love; later, it became about long-standing depression and a journey of faith (both his Jewish heritage and Buddhist practice). In the sunset years, it evolved around facing mortality with beauty. And all along, I can hear his deep, battle-grizzled vocals. He lived humbly, which made him an oracle, just like in the photo I took last year in Montreal, where his fresco rules downtown with his enigmatic smile.
He was awarded many nicknames; each deserves a paragraph or a book of interpretation. Some of my favorites are Poet of Existential Despair, Ladies Man, Troubadour of Love, The Man in a Suit, Jeremiah Of Tin Pan Alley, Poetic Playboy, Restless Pilgrim, and Coolest White Man on The Planet.
Cohen’s most famous song is “Hallelujah,” covered hundreds of times; my favorite is that of Jeff Buckley. The poem is about King David’s anguish as he contemplates the beauty of the forbidden Bathsheba.
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord,
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Another of Cohen’s well-known songs is “Who by Fire,” which is an adaptation of a Jewish central High Holiday prayer, “Unetaneh Tokef,” which means “We shall ascribe holiness to this day.” In my spiritual community, Nashuva, the lead guitarist of our band, weaves a beautiful riff of this poem into the prayer. It describes the various ways people will live, die, succeed, and suffer over the coming year.
And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry, merry month of May,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
Cohen explores death in its many forms, perhaps as part of his personal spiritual journey. Instead of the fear of dying, Cohen writes an intimate contemplation around the concept of death. In various spiritual traditions, including the Muslim Sufis and the Tibetan Buddhists, preparing for death is a first-rate spiritual practice that raises one’s consciousness to higher levels.
Perhaps the greatest verse in Cohen’s career is “Anthem,” one of folk music’s most comforting ever.
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in,
Cohen reminds us that no matter how bleak and depressing the world may seem at any given moment, there is always room for light; there is still a silver lining.
A lesser-known but powerful poem is “All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann.” In the aftermath of Eichmann’s trial, many wondered whether the Nazis were human beings like us. Leonard Cohen reflects on our need to mark evil and identify it with external signs.
NUMBER OF FINGERS………Ten
NUMBER OF TOES…………Ten
What did you expect?
For me this poem flows much better in Hebrew, so here it is:
סימנים מיוחדים… אין
מספר האצבעות… עשר
רמת משכל… בינונית
שיניים תוחנות בגודל ענק?
לאונרד כהן, “כל מה שיש לדעת על אדולף אייכמן”, תרגום: צביה גינור, מתוך: פרחים להיטלר
May his soul rest in peace.