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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Reader's Digest #141- Leonard Cohen: Book of Longing (FINISHED)


According to Wikipedia (man, I get a lot of mileage out of that site, don't I?), an epigram is "a short poem with a clever twist at the end or a concise and witty statement. They are among the best examples of the power of poetry to compress insight and wit."

Cohen has epigrams scattered throughout this collection. My wife and I were discussing how blunt and straightforward many of Cohen's poems are. Robert Frost poems are often highly praised for the debates they fuel. What was "Mending Wall" really about? People have analyzed the hell out of that one, haven't they? Cohen, on the other hand, throws his philosophy down on the table for everyone to see. Both approaches have their merit, but in the poetry world, Cohen's is a little more refreshing. Not to say forthrightness isn't common- teenagers have been notorious for this type of poem. But it is rare to be done well.

Cohen does it extremely well. "The Lovesick Monk" is a great example. It's the frustration of a man (himself, presumably) and his decision to become a monk (especially the celibacy part). It ends with the lines "The only thing I don't need/ is a comb" Again, his message is loud and clear. But that's not to say it isn't a witty or great poem. Tracing back to the first line, "I shaved my head" there's a definite preoccupation with hair. Hair of course, has been a very traditional symbol for freedom in the world of poetry and so voila, the poem begins to have teeth (comb- teeth, get it? oh nevermind). Anyway, my point is that a poem's directness or indirectness (slanted or straight-up) should not be the only measure of its quality.

3 comments:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

You know, I don't often feel a need to read poetry (sorry, I'm lazy), but I really do want to read some Leonard Cohen poems. Would you recommend this one as a starter?

John Mutford said...

Probably. My initial reaction is to recommend AL Purdy's "Rooms For Rent"- but don't I recall that you didn't like that one?

Anyway, yes. It is a good place to start. You most likely won't enjoy all of it, but then if you ever find that poetry book, let me know! By the way, some of these poems are found as songs on "Dear Heather" if you have it- the music adds a new perspective.

Dr J said...

Hi John,

Never did thank you before for your kind words on my notes on Seamus Heaney's 'Act Of Union,' what must now seem a million posts ago. (My comments on old posts only get read if I go hunting in the archives.) So, belatedly, thanks. :-)

In other matters, I have to say I was very, very disappointed with Cohen's book. I love Cohen-- did my Master's thesis on him, after all-- but I think your note on teenagers and Kleenex not at all inapporpriate for a book so onanistic and self-involved. (D.H. Lawrence would add pointless, I'm sure.) I was pretty profoundly disappointed, esp. considering The Book of Longing was over 25 years in the making.

Also, some years I ago I had the pleasure and good-fortune to be able to sit and have a beer with Al Purdy after a reading in Hamilton. A fine poet and a delightful man.

Anyway, keep up the good work. Nice to see someone working through contemporary CanLit so conscientiously. I fear I gave up on doing so years ago.

Cheers and best,
Dr J