Originally compiled: February 1, 1997
Last revised: February 1, 1997
"Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan : Poetry and the Popular Song." by Frank Davey, in Alphabet No. 17, December 1969
The close relationship between poetry and music scarcely needs to be argued. Both are aural modes which employ rhythm, rime, and pitch as major devices; to these the one adds linguistic meaning, connotation, and various traditional figures, and the other can add, at least in theory, all of these plus harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration techniques. In English the two are closely bound historically. Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry seems certainly to have been read or chanted to a harpist's accompaniment; the verb used in Beowulf for such a performance, the Finn episode, is singan, to sing, and the noun gyd, song. A major source of the lyric tradition in English poetry is the songs of the troubadours.[Frank Davey, in Alphabet No. 17, December 1969]
The distance between the gleomannes gyd in Beowulf or "Sumer is Icumen In" and the songs of Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan may seem great, but is one of time rather than aesthetics. The Iyric poem as a literary work and the Iyrics of a popular song are both still essentially the same thing: poetry. Whether the title of the work be "Gerontion," "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog," or "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," our criteria for evaluating the work must remain the same.
The most important prerequisite for both a significant poem and significant lyrics in a popular song is that the writer be faithful to his own personal vision or to the vision of the poem he is writing. All the skill and craft generally believed necessary for writing poetry are indeed necessary because these are the only means by which a poet can preserve the integrity of this vision in the poem. Whether writing for the hit parade or the little magazine, a poet must not, either because of lack of skill or worship of a false muse - popularity, wealth, or critical acclaim - go outside of his own or his own poem's vision - on pain of writing only the derivative or the trivial. Historically, the writers and singers of the lyrics of popular songs have seemed often to be incapable of personal vision, and to have confused both originality and morality with a servile compliance to popular taste. Tiny Tim and Mrs. Miller have both been remarkable chiefly as unconscious caricatures of this naivety.
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen represent two highly contrasting directions from which the attempt to restore significance and integrity of vision to the popular song can be made. Bob Dylan is the child runaway who became a professional songwriter by deliberate hard work, and whose emergence as a poet of some talent seems to have been accidental, almost as if he had unconsciously realized that good songs have to contain reasonably good lyric poetry. Leonard Cohen is a university-educated formalistic poet who has moved in an opposite direction with his recent discovery that a good lyric poem could equally be a good song. Dylan brings to poetry a spontaneity of rhythm and a resourcefulness in imagery that had long been qualities of American folk music, as in that of Huddie Ledbetter or of Dylan's own idol, Woodie Guthrie. Cohen takes to the poem as popular song a scholarly precision of language and an obsession for extemal form.
As lyricists these men stand far above the Carl Lee Perkinses, Richard Whitings, Irving Berlins, and George Gershwins of the past. A close look at either reveals a writer with individual experiences, ideas, imagery, and vocabulary, a writer who projects his own self and its circumstances rather than fabricating a persona from the offal of our culture. In Bob Dylan's work it is the original imagery and the intensely personal vision that is immediately obvious.I saw a new born baby with wild wolves all around it,While there is a definite rhythmical naivety in this passage, it is nearly lost in the richness of its images. Dylan's stance here is the stance of the visionary, of the prophet. His images are ones out of our own society, but seen by his own eyes and not in any way as this society might wish them to be seen.
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a roomful of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall.
There are many elements of interest in Bob Dylan's vision: his awareness of both the miseries and virtues of the down-trodden, his sense of the viciousness of the present United States society, his hatred of war, his personal need for independence from a materialistic culture's ties, and his feeling of the imminence of the apocalypse. In fact, Dylan's vision is essentially apocalyptic; again and again he tells of an evil world which is soon to be both punished and replaced tomorrow, perhaps, when the ship comes in.
The world of Bob Dylan is a world where the unemployed Hollis Brown, his wife and their five children are allowed by their fellow countrymen to starve in a filthy cabin and "the dirty driven rain" ("The Ballad of Hollis Brown"), where civil rights workers are murdered ("Oxford Town"), where prisoners are abused by sadistic guards ("The Walls of Red Wing"). It is a world of embittered immigrants ("I Pity the Poor Tmmigrant"), of exploited tenants ("Dear Landlord"), of frivolous and materialistic women ("Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"). It is a world where white Americans systematically destroy entire tribes of Indians, where each warring nation and faction imagines smugly that God is on its side ("With God on Our Side"), where the "masters of war" hide in their mansions "as young people's blood/flows out of their bodies /and is buried in the mud" ("Masters of War"). The United States, to Dylan, is the country that enjoys watching boxer kill boxer ("Who Killed Davey Moore"), the country where a judge can coerce a young girl to intercourse on the false promise that he will save her father from hanging ("Seven Curses"), the country where poor whites are taught by the rich to hate negroes ("Only a Pawn in their Game"), and the country where mine and factory are opened and closed with little thought to the welfare of the worker ("North Country Blues"). To the young, in Dylan's eyes, the United States is an absurd, surrealistic place:Ah get born, keep warm("Subterranean Homesick Blues")
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
get dressed, get blessed
try to be a success
Please her, please, him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift,
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid, they keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle, don't wear sandals
Try to avoid scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum.
Dylan himself wants neither to chew gum nor please anyone. He is against not only the kind of possessiveness and dominance of human beings that the United States practices through its foreign policy, its racial discrimination, its boxing syndicates, and its abuse of workers, but also (at least until the recent album Nashville Sky- line) against the possessiveness and dominance encouraged by romantic love. In 'Don't Think Twice it's All Right" the speaker deserts a woman because she required too much of him; "I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul." In "It Ain't Me Babe" the speaker has encountered a girl who wants "someone to close his eyes for" her, "someone to close his heart. Someone who will die for" her, "and more." Again, such demands, even though sanctioned by our culture, seem unreasonable to him. Dylan expresses his own ideas on the ideal relationship between people in his song "All I Really Want to Do." These ideas do not apply merely to the relationship between man and woman, but in the light of his other songs can be generalized to include the relationship between worker and employer, citizen and policeman, student and professor.I ain't lookin, to compete with you,Dylan seeks the destruction of what is to him an inhumanly competitive, exploitive, classifying, and confining society. Because his vision is apocalyptic, however, he does not foresee revolution occurring other than spontaneously, without apparent cause, as if by divine act. That our contemporary society, its institutions, and its values should not only be criticized and rejected but also escaped seems to be his major piece of advice to us all. But man's own means of escape are limited: one can murder one's starving wife and chil- dren and commit suicide oneself, like Hollis Brown, so that "some- where in the distance/There's seven new people born" ("Ballad of Hollis Brown"), or one can follow "Mr. Tambourine Man" and through marijuana, LSD, or hard narcotics come "to dance beneath the diamond sky" ("Mr. Tambourine Man"). For change that will affect everyone something larger must occur. A song such as "The Times They Are A-Changin' " contains only a hint of the coming apocalypse.
Beat or cheat or mistreat you,
Simplify you, classify you,
Deny, defy, or crucify you.
All I really want to do
Is Baby, be friends with you.
The line is drawnAnd yet it is clearly the Christian apocalypse, with its conventional raising of the meek and toppling of the mighty, that Dylan is suggesting. Songs such as "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" or "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" present the surrealistic rush and confusion of a judgement day already at hand. The last scene of Bergman's The Seventh Seal sends men everywhere scurrying for a pennyworth of salvation, "The Saints are coming through,/And It's all over now, Baby Blue." In "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" the blessed saint himself comes down to earth to offer man life after destruction. In four other songs Dylan's vision of the all-arighting apocalypse is directly expressed. In "Chimes of Freedom" Dylan pictures an exhilarating scene:
The curse is cast
The slow one now will
Later be fast.
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.
Thru the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hailIn "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" he reports:
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clanging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only the bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind,
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An' the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
Struck by sounds before the sun,In "The Gates of Eden" Dylan develops a clear dichotomy between what is possible on earth and what is possible in eternity.
I knew the night had gone,
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn.
The ocean wild like an organ played
The seaweed's wove its strands,
The crashin waves like cymbals clashed
Against the rocks and sands.
I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws,
The cryin' rain like a trumpet sang
And asked for no applause.
Meaningless noise, ownership, kingship, time, metaphysics, lawcourts, science, the dream of an earthly paradise - all, Dylan tells us, can exist only outside the gates of Eden.
With a time rusted compass bladeAnd some day, after the hard rain has fallen, perhaps - Dylan leaves the entire physical circumstances of our society's cataclysmic destruction intentionally vague-after the hard radioactive rain following an atomic war, when indeed all is over for baby blue and everyone else, these gates of Eden will open, and the hour will have come, "the hour when the ship comes in."
Aladdin and his lamp
Sits with Utopian hermit monks
Sidesaddle on the Golden Calf
And on their promises of paradise
You will not hear a laugh
All except inside The Gates of Eden.
O the time will come("When the Ship Comes In")
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin'
Like the stillness in the wind
When the hurricane begins
The hour when the ship comes in.
O the sea will split
And the ship will hit
And the shoreline sands will be shaking
Then the tide will sound
and the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.
The corpus of Leonard Cohen's songs is nowhere as large as that of Bob Dylan's. The total published number to this date is twenty songs - a number superficially disproportionate to the notice they have received in the various magazines of the record trade. When we examine these songs, we find that unlike Dylan's they are for the most part love songs. But once again we find that they are raised to considerable significance and poetic integrity by the unique and intelligent vision which informs them.
Cohen, however, gives little thought to any impending apocalypse. His songs present a threatening, devouring world and men desperate to delay their doom. All of his songs contain some implicit social criticism, although only two, "The Old Revolution" and "Stories of the Street," have an overt social commentary. The most nearly political of his songs is "Stories of the Street," which begins:The stories of the street are mineCohen's vision here is of a society in imminent collapse because of the greed and lust of its members.
The Spanish voices laugh
The cadillacs go creeping down
Through the night and the poison gas
I lean from my window sill
In this old hotel I chose.
Yes, one hand on my suicide
And one hand on the rose.
I know you've heard it's over nowLike Dylan, Cohen would escape a world unfeelingly ordered by highway and blueprint, but this escape for him must be in the here and now. And, if he cannot feel at home in his earthly refuge-here a communalistic existence with other inhabitants of the natural world-then he will have to accept, even though innocent, the fate of his corrupt society.
And war must surely come,
The cities they are broke in half
And the middle men are gone.
But let me ask you one more time
O children of the dust,
All these hunters who are shrieking now
Do they speak for us?
And where do all these highways go
Now that we are free?
Why are the armies marching still
That were coming home to me?
O lady with your legs so fine
O stranger at your wheel
You are locked into your suffering
And your pleasures are the seal.
The age of lust is giving birth
And both the parents ask the nurse
On both sides of the glass
Now the infant with his cord
Is hauled in like a kite
And one eye filled with blueprints
One eye filled with night.
O come with me my little oneMan often lives in Cohen's world like Isaac upon his father's altar. There is only one place for a man to be-where he is-and, if here corruption and death are inevitable, man must accept these as parts of his humanity.
And we will find that farm
And grow us grass and apples there
And keep the animals warm
And if by chance I wake at night
And I ask you who I am
O take me to the slaughter house
I will wait there with the lamb.
In his love songs Cohen is, like Dylan, consistently concerned with values rather than with the incessant "I want you, I need you, I love you" theme of the average popular songwriter. Cohen seems to have come to a realization that has so far escaped most of the writers for the popular hit parade: that to get the girl into bed is quite easy, but to get her there without endangering one's own integrity, or without drawing oneself into the "poison gas" world, is a bit more difficult. In "The Stranger Song" Cohen presents the cowardly lover, the lover who is afraid to continue on his quest but wishes to exchange his freedom for security, the lover "who is just some Joseph looking for a manger," who "wants to trade the game he plays for shelter." Cohen terms himself, the quester who still seeks significance, a "stranger;" he terms the other man, who watches "for the card/that is so high and wild/he'll never need to deal another," the "dealer." The "dealer," the bridegroom who wishes the toil and agony of courtship over, makes an inadequate lover, Cohen tells us.I know that kind of manIn "Winter Lady" and "Sisters of Mercy" Cohen presents the female counterpart to the "stranger." This counterpart also has her freedom, has not sold out to the easy life of guaranteed possession offered by marriage. Aloof, independent, choosy, this "travelling lady" gives an affection which Cohen feels should be far more to a man than a paper contract. In "Sisters of Mercy" this woman waits to refresh the questing stranger, ministering to his tiredness without plotting for his being.
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who's reaching for the sky just to surrender.
O the sisters of mercyThere is apparently no jealousy or possessiveness in his relationship with these sisters; he can genuinely wish that they will be able to aid other questing strangers like himself.
They are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me when I thought
That I just can't go on.
When I left they were sleepingThere is merely a community of love where any may help any in his or her quest for life's fulfillment.
I hope you run into them soon.
Don't turn on the lights,
You can read their address by the moon;
And you won't make me jealous
If I hear that they've sweetened your night
We weren't lovers like that
And besides it would still be all right
Casual love between man and woman is, in Cohen's songs, a desirable escape from the ordeal of existence. Domestic love is merely part of the ordeal. In "So Long, Marianne" this contradiction which Cohen sees between domesticity and personal freedom is explored at length. He thought himself "some kind of gypsy boy," he tells Marianne, before he let her take him home. Now, he says, "You make me forget so very much/I forget to pray for the angel/ And then the angels forget to pray for us." Here the woman desperately attempts to bind him: "your fine spider web/Is fastening my ankle to a stone." She heretically clings to him as if he were a substitute for the divine, holding him, he says, "like I was a crucifix/ As we went kneeling through the dark." In this song Cohen wavers, tempted by sentimentality as he remembers their love "deep in the green lilac park" but is fortuitously set free by her own possessive- ness, this time for another man.O you are really such a pretty one"One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" is Cohen's ironic story of a possessive lover, both sadistic in his attempting to dominate the woman, and masochistic in his yearning to be in turn dominated by her. The song begins:
I see youive gone and changed your name again
And just when I climbed this whole mountainside
To wash my eyelids in the rain.
I lit a thin green candleThe lover seeks the advice of a doctor who proves as frail as he, locking "himself in a library shelf" with the details of their honey- moon. He then visits a saint who teaches "that the duty of lovers is to tarnish the golden rule," but the saint too proves frail. Reports the lover,
To make you jealous of me,
Then I took the dust of a long sleepless night
I put it in your little shoe.
And then I confess'd that I tortured the dress
That you wore for the world to look through.
And just when I was sureNevertheless, our poor lover cannot learn by these sordid, possessive, lascivious, and self-destroying examples and remains as blindly masochistic as ever, as the last stanza demonstrates.
That his teachings were pure
He drowned himself in the pool,
His body is gone, but back here on the lawn
His spirit continues to drool.
An Eskimo showed me a movieThe thing that all lovers must learn in Cohen's songs is how to say goodbye, not because parting is good for its own sake but because ties seem to Cohen to keep people from fulfilling their eesential manhood or womanhood. Change is imperative for fulfillment in Cohen's precarious world, and ties inhibit change, as is indicated by the song "That's No Way to Say Goodbye."
He'd recently taken of you
The poor man could hardly stop shivering,
His lips and his fingers were blue.
I suppose that he froze
When the wind took your clothes
And I guess he just never got warm
But you stand there so nice
In your blizzard of ice
O please let me come into the storm.
I'm not looking for anotherCohen's most energetic condemnation of possessiveness in love is found in "Master Song," a song about the poet's old sweetheart, who is perhaps a personification of poetry herself, who has now come under the control of an autocratic master. This new master is associated throughout the song with images of violence and oppression: he is a man "who had just come back from the war," who has given the woman "a German shepherd to walk / With a collar of Ieather and nails," who flies an aeroplane "without any hands," who "killed the lights in a lonely lane" and made love to the woman in the guise of "an ape with angel glands" to "the music of rubber bands." And in turn the woman keeps the poet himself prisoner, not ever bringing herself to him, not even bringing to him a sacramental surrogate of "wine and bread." This song is one of intense disappointment and frustration, and is filled with images of sterility and despair.
As I wander in my time,
Walk me to the corner
Our steps will always rhyme,
You know my love goes with you
As your love stays with me,
It's just the way it changes
Like the shoreline and the sea.
However, love does remain in the songs of Leonard Cohen the major remedy to the callous possessiveness of our society. Cohen's song "Suzanne" seems on one level to be another escape-through-drugs song such as Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man" or the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." But, as in this latter song, the escape is ambivalently both female and hallucinogenic, and the speaker's entry into the escape is clearly an entry into a love experience, so that the song tells us simultaneously both that to turn on is to love and that love is a turn-on. Even on first meeting the exotic Suzanne, Cohen tells us, you will knowThat you've always been her loverAs your experience with Suzanne deepens, he continues, you will want not only to travel blind with her but also to walk upon the water with the dead Jesus. By the end of the poem Suzanne has raised all the various contradictory realities of this world - "the garbage and the flowers" - to beauty, and has even through love brought ourselves to perfection - "for she's touched your perfect body with her mind." A further noteworthy aspect of Suzanne is that she can be approached or abandoned at will - "you can spend the night beside her"; both as an hallucinogenic and as a woman she acts only as a "sister of mercy" and never as the grasping spouse.
And you want to travel with her
And you want to trave! blind
And you think maybe you'll trust her
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.
The Cohen song where love serves most obviously as a panacea for society's demand that one control, discipline, and enslave one's environment and fellow man is the difficult and unpublished song, "Love Tries to Call You by Your Name." Cohen's basic assumption in this song is that in surrender to the materialism and generalism of society one also surrenders one's personal identity. Only love, as the title states, "tries to call you by your name." The song opens with the speaker slowly losing himself in something much larger and less real than he himself is.I thought it would never happenFrom the wholeness and integrity of the ocean to the fragmentary realities of the drops of rain, from the monolithic existence of the snowman to the destructive rain which fragments that snowman, from the birthmark which, when positively interpreted symbolises one's unique being, to the birthmark pejoratively interpreted which now represents a stain or blemish on the norm of general humanity, the speaker finds himself pulled, while the "beast" of his individuality grows tamer and love weakly calls on him to return.
To all the people that I became
My body lost in these legends
And the beast so very tame
But here, right here
Between the birthmark and the stain
Between the ocean and the rain
Between the snowman and the rain
Once again and again
Love tries to call you by your name.
Succeeding verses amplify Cohen's image of the man who is drawn into self-annihilation and away from self-realization, a man much like the "dealer" of "The Stranger Song." Such a man claws at "the halls of fame," lives for "the age" rather than "the hour," for "the plain" rather than "the sundial," and prefers the banality of the commonplace to the demanding particularity of genuine love.I leave the lady meditating on the very loveHe abandons real lovers, real heroes, to follow society's broad high- way to mediocrity, vulgarity, self-indulgence, and anonymity. Especially here in this song it is self-indulgence which betrays the individual away from the difficulties of one's own fulfillment and into the easy chains of conformity.
Which I do not wish to claim
I journey down these hundred steps
The street is still the same.
Where are you Judy, where are you AnnThe world that Cohen perceives in his songs is consistently materialistic, sordid, and corrupting. Saints become lechers, lovers become masochists, Cadillacs spread poison gas. Love can become "some dust in an old man's cuff" ("Master Song"). Priests can trample the grass of the shrines which they sene ("Priests"). God himself says to man:
Where are all the paths all your heroes came
Wondering out loud as the bandage pulls away
Was I only limping or
Was I really lame;
O here, come over here
Between the windmill and the grain
Between the traitor and her pain
Between the sundial and the plain
Between the newsreel and your tiny pain
Between the snowmen and the rain
Once again and again
Love tries to call you by your name.
Sometimes I need you naked("You Know Who I Am")
Sometimes I need you wild
I need you to carry my children in
I need you to kill a child.
Cohen shows man in this world clinging to whatever solace the moment offers. The cowardly grasp one thing forever; the bolder move from narcotic to narcotic, from woman to woman. And in "The Old Revolution" Cohen shows everyone surrendering to this "furnace" that is life.You who are broken by powerCohen's is indeed a black world, illumined only by random loves, the mystery of Suzanne, and the harsh light of the existential furnace. Cohen has elsewhere been termed a "black romantic"-one who accepts the evil and sordidness of this world and seeks revelation through immersion in these. Such an interpretation of his work is certainly supported by his songs. Dylan can be similarly interpreted, particularly in view of his materialism's self-destruction, in such songs as "A Hard Rain," as a gateway to Eden. Neither is an activist; neither believes that utopia can be achieved through human action. And both are thoroughly disinterested in purveying the old and simplistic romantic lies whch so many of today's pop artists Donovan, the Bee Gees, the Fifth Dimension, the Association consistently peddle. Both instead try to do the poet's job present the world as the world appears in the words and images which their separate visions demand.
You who are absent all day
You who are kings for the sake of your children's story
The hand of your beggar is burdened down with money
The hand of your lover is clay
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture
You whom I cannot betray.
Peter Stone Brown
Then there's the story Cohen tells about talking writing with Dylan and
Dylan asks Cohen how long it took him to write "Hallelujah" (I'm
remembering here, but I think it was that song) and Cohen said a year, then
asked Dylan how long it took to write "I & I" and he said 15 minutes.
Leonard Cohen quoted in Telegraph 41, p. 30 . . .
"He said, 'I like this song you wrote called Hallelujah.' In fact, he started doing it in concert. He said, 'How long did that take you to write?' And I said, 'Oh, the best part of two years.' He said, 'Two years?' Kinda shocked. And then we started talking about a song of his called I And I from Infidels. I said, 'How long did you take to write that.' He said, 'Ohh, 15 minutes.' I almost fell off my chair. Bob just laughed."