National Poetry Month, day 14 AND Something for Thursday: Leonard Cohen

The great Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen demonstrates quite ably the blurring of the lines between song lyrics and poetry. Are lyrics poetry? I’d argue that they are, but they are often slightly limited by their intended use in service to a particular musical form or melody.

Cohen’s lyrics and poems, though, are something else. First, there’s the density of Cohen’s wordplay, his references, and the fact that his songs are often long repetitions of the same melodic material where the focus really, truly is on the words. Second, there was the nature of Cohen’s performances themselves, in which his deep gravelly drawl made his singing of his own songs seem more like poetry readings with rhythm.

Here is a poem of Cohen’s, followed by Cohen himself performing it as a song. Poetry and song exist in the same artspace.

“First We Take Manhattan”, by Leonard Cohen

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
I’d really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those
Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I
just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the
discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
I don’t like your fashion business mister
And I don’t like these drugs that keep you thin
I don’t like what happened to my sister
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
I’d really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those
And I thank you for those items that you sent me
The monkey and the plywood violin
I practiced every night, now I’m ready
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
Remember me? I used to live for music
Remember me? I brought your groceries in
Well it’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Here’s the performance:

 

I have Cohen on the mind today because someone on Twitter asked readers to name their favorite cover song, but they could not name several specific famous covers, two of which are the most familiar covers of “Hallelujah” (likely Cohen’s most famous song), by Rufus Wainwright and by Jeff Buckley, respectively. So I noted my personal favorite cover of that very same song, a cover that deserves a lot more attention.

Here is k.d. lang, and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

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2 Responses to National Poetry Month, day 14 AND Something for Thursday: Leonard Cohen

  1. Roger says:

    I’ve written a blog post – which I’ve bounced a couple of times because I fear it may be misconstrued – in which I note that there are songs I’ve tired of. One of them s Hallelujah because some years ago, bloody everyone seemed to think they had to sing it. Maybe we need a 20-year morratorium on new recordings of it. But k.d. lang’s version IS my favorite.

  2. Anne says:

    k.d. lang can sing it as often as she likes. Everyone else has to stop for a few years.

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