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Thoughts on “Leonard Cohen: Poems and Songs (Everyman edition)”

Leonard Cohen: Poems and SongsLeonard Cohen: Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d give this book five stars just for the poem “I have not lingered in European monasteries”. In fact, I’d give it five stars just for the title of that poem.

Cohen was a master architect. He could take words that by all accounts had no business being next to each other and then string them together in such a way as to bring beauty where before there was only chaos.

For much of the past seven or eight months I have been terribly miserable. Most of us reach that point at some stage in our lives. (Apart from those rare flowers who seem only to shine brighter when the rest of the world is plunged into darkness. I am not one of those, I have tried.) I’ve probed deeply into the depths of despair. My eyes have shed tears for all the earth and my heart has borne the pain of the heartless.

But no matter how miserable I’ve gotten, I can confidently say I have never gotten quite so low as Leonard. When I’m in a dark spot, and it seems there’s no good left in the world, I put on a Leonard Cohen record – these days, usually ‘You Want It Darker’ – and listen to a voice stained by a lifetime of cheap cigarettes and instant coffee and just want to give him a pat on the back and say “Come on Leonard, it’s not that bad.” No matter how miserable you get, you don’t get as miserable as Leonard.

And that was Cohen’s great achievement and his great contribution to the human race: he showed us the lower limit of human despair. Walking in the footsteps of King David, he made his bed in the depths, but to his surprise, found that the Almighty was already there.

His life philosophy is probably best summarised in these words from his song ‘Anthem’: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” I first listened to those words last summer as I stumbled around Europe in a pair of beat-up old trainers with a scruffy rucksack on my back. I thought they well described the miserable situation of the human race.

One hot day in late July I went hiking through the hills around Carl Jung’s home by Lake Zurich and suddenly reached a deep ravine. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was as if Mother Nature herself had one day turned Her gaze upon this old forgotten town and found something that caused Her such offence that She had torn the very ground apart with Her own bare hands. Trees were strewn left and right, and jagged rocks stuck out on the cliffside. It was an abomination.

But then as I looked down the middle of the gorge, I saw the most luscious stream running through. As I followed it downhill, I saw that the stream ran down in waterfall upon waterfall of the most exotic varieties. Birds were singing and I was sure I could hear Tom Bombadil laughing and bounding off into the distance. This was no crack – this was an opening-up.

That same evening, I called an old friend, a wise man – the world-weary Gandalf to my fleet-footed Frodo. As is our custom, we soon found our way back to the pits of despair. Then I quoted those words from that old Leonard Cohen song: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s where the light gets in.” But then old Gandalf said to me, in so many words, “That ain’t no crack, son. That’s an opening-up.”

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