In the comments to Ogged's post on Ezra Pound, DS links to something I once spent years looking for: Leonard Cohen's prose-poem "How to Speak Poetry." Of course, Google returns thirty copies of it, mocking my then-futile search to acquire a copy of the collection it's from, Death of a Lady's Man (1979). (Not to be confused with his 1978 collaboration with Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies' Man. I love the humility of the book's singular.) All of the copies online (until now) contain the same typos and odd paragraph breaks, which nicely parallels the copy I found in 1995: hand-written, riddled with misspellings, and slightly altered to apply to one local poet in particular. So I clean it up the copy I found on Google with some reservation. You can read the whole thing at the link above, but for my current purposes, a few excerpts will suffice:
The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love.
Sound advice, since most poets are poets, not actors—only, some poets are actors. For the second time in three days, I'll link to "Innisfree." Does Cohen want to deprive the world of Yeats' oracular chanting?
Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don't peep through them. Just wear them.
No. Cohen can brook the performance of poetry, he simply has no patience for poets whose performance consists of a pale representation of their poems: "The word butterfly is not a real butterfly." Cohen rails against the obviousness of reference, against the poet who shoots his audience a seductive look when he speaks of seduction, who mistakes the words for what they represent.
His dictum against the obviousness of reference extends to the obviousness of response: "Do not get a hard-on when you say panties." Inspiring the audience to erection is the point, otherwise the performance degrades into expression—another uninteresting whinge about which no one beside the poet cares.
Anyone who listens to Cohen must choose which Cohen performs "How to Speak Poetry" in his or her head. Will it be the thin, flat voice of the '60s and '70s or the gruff majesty of the '80s and '90s? Time for visual aids. Do you hear this one:
Does it make a difference so long as it is read without affect? Can it even be read with affect? I ask because so much spoken poetry reminds me of this:
Some people read poetry, which I think we can all agree, is a form of torture we should really be employing on enemy combatants. Remember when we were trying to get Noriega out of his compound and we blasted heavy metal as an enticement for him to give up—and let me tell you, you want me out of my compound, all you need to do is get some White Lion on the loudspeaker and my shit will be making time for the exit like it was my job—and yet inside he stayed? I'm telling you, get some black clad-clove-smoking-Tori Amos fan out there reading his free verse in poet voice and we could solve the Gaza Strip issue in five lines:
And the WORDS were like a RASH upon my FECES
AND the feces were like a burning BUSH and Bush was like my FECES
Upon the alter of OIL and THE MAN and the Man was like A RASH
And I am a TOOL of LIFE and LIFE is a TOOL that smells of my fetid waste
WASTE. WASTE. I am a waste. A BURNING BUSH. The hypodermic push of my ... Oh, sorry, looks like the Palestinians and the Israelis have figured it all out. I'm off to the hooka lounge.
Cohen certainly never sounded so craven, despite gazing more deeply into his navel than most of his contemporaries. "How to Speak Poetry" is far too measured to bear the treatment of Tod Goldberg's hypothetical emoter. Were this a different sort of blog, and were bandwidth permitting, I would love nothing more than for people to submit slammed versions of Cohen's prose-poem. Who could pass up the opportunity to hear the tale of the fucking flower-befriending butterfly, hovering the fuck hither, the fuck thither, so fucking fragile, so fucking symbolic, like a bush, a burning bush, a fucking burning Bush, burning in the effigy, in the effigy of sympathy, for the fucking efficacy, of the inefficacy, of the inefficiency, of the bush, the burning Bush ...
I take it back. That would be horrific. Even in parody, some things bruise the soul.