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Leonard Cohen on Fame, Poetry and Dying

Fascinating views from a 2006 interview with the late singer/songwriter


(Editors Note: In June 2006, our partners at PBS Newhour talked to Leonard Cohen, who died yesterday at age 82, about his decades-long career as a singer, songwriter and poet.  Read excerpts of the transcript from Jeffrey Brown’s interview with Cohen below.)

Maybe Leonard Cohen can’t sing like an angel, and maybe he’s ambivalent about the title “poet,” but for decades a legion of fans has memorized his words and other musicians have loved to perform his songs.

A poem is a very private experience, and it doesn't have a driving tempo.

— Leonard Cohen

In poetry, novels, and, most of all, a host of recordings, Cohen has been the romantic and seeker, solitary, at times reclusive, once youthful, now aging, able to express complex ideas and emotions with language, even in a three-minute rhyming song.

And his 71st year is proving to be a special one. In February, Cohen, who was born in Montreal, was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

A new documentary on him has just been released, featuring a performance with rock superstars, U2.

And now, Cohen has published Book of Longing, his first new collection of poetry in 20 years. I spoke with Leonard Cohen recently at Arena Stage Theater in Washington.

A Conversation With a “Fake” Poet

Did you start out seeing yourself as a poet or aspiring to be a poet? I never thought of myself as a poet, to tell you the truth. I always thought that poetry is the verdict that others give to a certain kind of writing. So to call yourself a poet is a kind of dangerous description. It’s for others; it’s for others to use.

But what were you doing when you started out? How did you see yourself? You know, you scribble away for one reason or another. You’re touched by something that you read. You want to number yourself among these illustrious spirits for one advantage or another, some social, some spiritual.

It’s just ambition that tricks you into the enterprise, and then you discover whether you have any actual aptitude for it or not. I always thought of myself as a competent, minor poet. I know who I’m up against.

You know who you’re up against? Yes, you’re up against Dante, and Shakespeare, Isaiah, King David, Homer, you know. So I’ve always thought that I, you know, do my job OK.

There’s a poem in this new book on this subject. You want to read that for us? It is a very short one, but I think it speaks to the point. It’s called Thousands.

Out of the thousands who are known or who want to be known as poets, maybe one or two are genuine and the rest are fakes, hanging around the sacred precincts, trying to look like the real thing. Needless to say, I am one of the fakes, and this is my story.

“I am one of the fakes, and this is my story.” That’s right.

The Rhythm of Poetry

What’s the difference for you between writing a poem and a song? A poem has a certain — a different time. For instance, a poem is a very private experience, and it doesn’t have a driving tempo. In other words, you know, you can go back and forward; you can comeback; you can linger. You know, it’s a completely different time reference.

Whereas a song, you know, you’ve got a tempo. You know,you’ve got something that is moving swiftly. You can’t stop it, you know? And it’s designed to move swiftly from, you know, mouth to mouth, heart to heart, where a poem really speaks to something that has no time and that is — it’s a completely different perception.

It’s interesting, because poetry often we hear poetry is about music, in a sense, as well. Poetry makes its own music, sometimes it’s said. Oh, I’m not saying it’s not musical; it’s just a different tempo. And it’s a tempo that migrates, depending on what the mood of the reader is.

I noticed there are some poems in this book that also you’ve recorded as songs. That’s true. Sometimes, you know, a lyric can survive on the page. You know, sometimes it can’t, but sometimes it can. And I’ve tried to choose the ones that can survive on the page.

One of the things I’ve always noted in your work is the mix of the sensuous and the spiritual, I guess the body and the soul. Is that a fair description of what you’re doing? Yes, but, you know, we’ve got both, so it’s not like…

We do have both. Yes. We do have these feelings that, you know, run from coarse to elevated and refined. Everybody’s got them, you know? And then we’re stuck with this body, you know that — I mean, we’re all dying of this incurable disease called age.

This sense of aging is in this book. Yes, definitely.

Does that signify you are, in fact, feeling that? Oh, of course, sure. Of course you feel it, you know. My friend, Irving Layton, our greatest Canadian poet, he said, “The inescapable lousiness of growing old.”

“The inescapable lousiness of growing old”? That’s right. That’s right.

Writing on Oneself

Is most of your writing, in fact, autobiographical? Is that fair? Yes, that’s fair. That’s fair. But, you know, autobiographical takes in a lot. You know, it also includes the imagination. You know, your imagination also has a history. It also, you know, is born, grows old, suffers decay and old age, and dies. You know, so the imagination is part of the whole autobiography.

There’s a poem called Mission which expresses some of this … That’s right.

… life yearning, I guess. Sure.

Would you read that for us? Oh, thank you for asking me. I’d love to. I think I remember that poem.

Mission

I’ve worked at my work. I’ve slept at my sleep. I’ve died at my death, and now I can leave. Leave what is needed, and leave what is full. Need in the spirit and need in the whole.

Beloved, I’m yours, as I have always been, from marrow to pore, from longing to skin. Now that my mission has come to its end, I pray I’m forgiven the life that I’ve led. The body I chased, it chased me as well. My longing’s a place, my dying’s a sail.

 

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