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.

(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.


* 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.


16 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Leonard Cohen

  1. Sarah,
    You found another gem here. I was a fan of cover versions of Mr. Cohen’s songs way before I new he was singer himself. And I didn’t know he was a poet either. Truth be told, though, his words speak more to me than his performance. But I’ll put this one with Hallelujah and Bird on a Wire as lyrical poetry that feeds the soul. Nice.

    • Thank you, John!

      I found one of his peotry collections a few months ago, and I’d love to hear him reading it cover to cover with a simpler musical accompaniment—he has the voice of a venerable bluesman.

  2. I have to say that Cohen’s lines, more than the lines of any other poet, surface to my mind at random moments like rising cream. I’ll be folding laundry and then all of a sudden think of Suzanne, her place by the river, and the tea and oranges she feeds us. His lyrics and books of poetry are a treasure trove of mind boggling lines and images. They sear me.

    • They do, don’t they?

      I hope Mr. Cohen isn’t one of a kind—though of course, he is—because we need more people who see the world his way, and can help the rest of us see it, too.

  3. In my last angst-y year of high school I listened to the album(yes ALBUM!) The Best of Leonard Cohen constantly.
    Suzanne, Sisters of Mercy, Famous Blue Raincoat, Bird on A Wire – Leonard was singing directly to me, for me.

    And yes poetry and music – he just won a major Spanish literature prize for “a body of literary work that has influenced three generations of people worldwide through his creation of emotional imagery in which poetry and music are fused in an oeuvre of immutable merit”.

    You can read more here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/03/leonard-cohen-major-spanish-literary-prize

    Very timely Sarah!

    • I don’t know how I missed him . . . but I’m ready to listen now.

      Talk about coincidence— I had no idea about his prize! Thanks for the heads-up, Downith.

  4. How I adore Leonard. He’s one sexy old man.

    The trick to embed a video in comments is to cut and paste from the browser bar. Don’t use the embed code. The video won’t show properly until you post your comment, but keep the faith.

    Now will someone please tell me how to work the italics?

  5. Love love love this post! Leonard Cohen was the soundtrack for my final years of high school. Back when I had ideals, haha

    If you’re ever in the Montreal area, drop me a line- a friend of mine followed Mr. Cohen home once. I can show you where he lives. In a whimsical-stalker way, not a make-you-into-a-skin-dress way.

    Also, back when I was a gardener for rich people, one of our clients told us the story of how she grew up in the same neighbourhood as Leonard Cohen, and they would hear his mom bellowing down the street “Lenny! Lenny! You forgot your lunch!”
    not sure if that’s entirely true, but it’s one of my favourite tall tales.

    Thanks for Anthem- I didn’t know this one!

    • It’s comforting to think that Leonard Cohen occasionally forgot his lunch, just like the rest of us.

      If I’m ever in Montreal, you’re on—I’ve always wanted to be a whimsical stalker!

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