Book of Longing, by Leonard Cohen

Naked truths from the bard of Mount Baldy

John Walsh
Friday 27 October 2006 00:00 BST

Leonard Cohen has always been at the centre of the debate about whether song lyrics can ever be considered poetry. His best work ("It's coming like the tidal flood beneath the lunar sway,/ Imperious, mysterious, in amorous array,/ Democracy is coming to the USA") has a verbal rhythm that owes nothing to the musical backing - and since the old groaner's voice seldom extended beyond four notes, it hardly counts as singing. Cohen was a published poet in Montreal long before he picked up a guitar in 1967. So can we go back to thinking of him as a Real Poet?

Book of Longing is a collection of 150 poems and song lyrics mostly written on Mount Baldy, California, where he has spent 12 years as a Buddhist monk. Slightly too many of them are tiny Zen squibs, thin and precious if sometimes surprising ("The road is too long/ the sky is too vast/ the wandering heart/ is homeless at last"). Their tone veers from Kahlil Gibran glibness ("You go your way/ I'll go your way too") to the US poet laureate Billy Collins, with whom Cohen shares a fondness for cute epiphanies inspired by birds or spiders or laundromats. Accompanied by Cohen's charcoal line drawings (mostly pretty hideous self-portraits), they could pass as greeting cards in an upmarket, if pretentious, gift shop.

The mood of his longer poems is not so much elegiac - the Buddhist monk saying farewell to his former appetites - as atrophic, as Cohen charts the decline of his powers ("Why did you come back to me tonight/ I can't even get off this chair"). He writes about the inevitable end of love, and the departure of children in the gorgeous "Alexandra Leaving", which stands up well, sans music. He reflects on the women who have been "exceptionally kind/ to my old age", presumably not by giving him Wincarnis and Iron Jelloids. He wryly records that not a single woman in the whole of teeming Mumbai betrays the least interest in him.

But instead of self-pity, he maps this wasteland of the heart with humour, and sometimes anger. He announces he is "too old/ to learn the names/ of the new killers" but turns this regretful opening into a chilly harangue against the Bush administration. What appals Cohen is that the new generation of Pentagon warmongers probably grew up as Sixties kids, fans of his music - "all the bloody hand bathers/ and the chewers of entrails/ and the scalp peelers/ they all danced/ to the music of the Beatles/ they worshipped Bob Dylan" - and none of it prevented a single atrocity. His fury is impressive, but more as polemic than poetry.

The best things in this very mixed bran-tub are the ballads - simple quatrains that nod towards both William Blake and Emily Dickinson, and hold in balance the poet's desire and self-disgust: "Who shall I take/ to the edge of despair/ with my knee on her heart/ and my lips on her hair." In their jaunty rhythm they hint that, despite his late pursuit of inner peace and cosmic harmony, the former ladies' man hasn't quite succeeded in transcending his joie de vivre: "need your hand/ to pull me out/ need your juices/ on my snout." Amid all the mystic apophthegms and weary sophistication, they sound a nicely ludic note. Perhaps that's what the great songwriter was all the time - not a great poet, perhaps, but a good, bittersweet light versifier.

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