Poetry Wednesday: Leonard Cohen

Last Wednesday, in the comments, John and I had a short discussion about poets and music and poetry and musicians.   We agreed (I think) that Shel Silverstein combines all four admirably.

So, in a different way, does Leonard Cohen.

Until last year, I didn’t know Mr. Cohen was a musician as well as a writer. All I knew was that he’d written a poem that one of my teachers used to explain the Buddhist philosophy towards perfection.*  The verse not only explained the concept, but has whispered to me whenever I needed to hear it, for the past decade:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I won’t get into why these four lines are so powerful for me—savin’ it for my memoirs—but let me just say that being granted permission to be other than perfect was both revelation and salvation at the time.  At any time, really.

So.  One day, I find a blog by the writer of two of my favorite nonfiction books. The commentary for each of her posts is a virtual playground for writers—the place to riff and be riffed on, to be supported and called to task—and that day, one of the coolest regulars commented with a video**of Leonard Cohen performing “Anthem.”

It turned out that there was more to my small verse. Much more.

Anthem
(Leonard Cohen)

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every single government —
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
On your little broken drum.
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Here is the video:

I heard that, too, Mr. Cohen.  Thank you.

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* Buddhism maintains that it is only our conditioning that gives us the idea that “perfect” means unmarred and unbroken.  The concept of perfection is not limited to the unblemished, whole, or culturally preferred, and there is nothing better or worse in being damaged.  It just is.  I like this in a philosophy.

**I still don’t know how you do that, Averil—it never works for me.