My Photo


Roll Call

Become a Fan

« One Drawback to Being a Detail-Oriented Misanthrope ... | Main | How to Remove a Ring Stuck on Your Finger »

Saturday, 04 August 2007


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Leonard Cohen's "How to Speak Poetry," How He Spoke Poetry, and How Poetry Shouldn't Be Spoken:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

marc page

Since '71, I have kept with me the Caedmon disc (TC 1326, For Stereo or Monaural Phonographs) of T.S.Eliot reading The Waste Land (complete) b/w nine other of his Greatest Hits. And from time to time, I have tormented family and friends with the thing. Of course, if I'm feeling truly sadistic, there's always Caedmon TC 1155 at hand: Ezra Pound reading a few Cantos ...

With usura, with usura hath no man a house of cut stone ...

And a wider dissemination of Cohen's advice would be helpful. That and outlawing Poetry Slams.


Leonard Cohen reminds me of Bob Dylan, in the sense that every version of his songs by other people is superior to his own versions (with a few exceptions in Dylan's case, but I've not seen any exceptions yet in Cohens).

And if you want to parody Cohen, you'll have to get in line. The Austin Lounge Lizards' LEONARD COHEN'S DAY JOB is pretty devastating (and sung in the later style).

Adam Kotsko

I agree that listening to "poetry slam" is torturous.


Marc, I've heard the Eliot, but if I remember correctly, he's reading it in the '40s, which would be like hearing Cohen sing "Suzanne" now. Torture, indeed.

Ahistoricality, you won't find me parodying Cohen, although the man himself does now. "The Future" is a far cry from anything off New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The same goes for the Dylan comparison: better to hear Jeff Buckley sing "Hallelujah" than Cohen at this point, but I don't think anyone other than Cohen can make "The Stranger Song" dance. And now that I think about it, most of what makes the covers of his mid- and late-period material superior is the lack of 1) synthesizers and 2) annoying female backing vocals. Strip Cohen's "Everybody Knows" down and it's every bit as good as Concrete Blonde's cover.

Adam, the sound of poetry slamming is comparable to the sound the body of an investment banker working on the fiftieth floor makes upon impact. Disgustingly squishy yet crunchy, like God cracking the knuckles of His Soapy Hands.

Ford Prefect

Some people read poetry, which I think we can all agree, is a form of torture we should really be employing on enemy combatants.

The Vogons figured this out a long time ago, Acephalous. Time to reread your Guide.

marc page

Leonard Cohen reminds me of Bob Dylan, in the sense that every version of his songs by other people is superior to his own versions (with a few exceptions in Dylan's case, ...

After breathing into a brown paper bag for several minutes, I still cannot process that remark. I am reduced to muttering, "Damned kids today ... "

[Although Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" is fine, I prefer Rufus Wainwright's cover. ]


He sings flat and he sings loud and he sounds like he's having fun: that's great in a jam session, and it's enough for other people to figure out a singable melody, but it's never going to be more than a rough first draft of music to me. Why does someone hyperventilate every time I make that point about Dylan? Never mind, don't answer that. Dylan is one of those cultural figures about whom I formed my own opinion and whose "artistry" is simply beyond my simple comprehension.

marc page

Never mind, don't answer that.

I will, of course, horor your simple request. But, if I may, perhaps you'd allow me to share a little story with you.

One night, working at a club in New York, Louis Armstrong had just climbed down off the stand after a particularly brilliant set when a fashionably-dressed woman came up to him in the bar and said, "You were just brilliant tonight, Mr. Armstrong, but I was wondering if you could tell me, what is jazz?"

Dabbing at his damp forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief, Satchmo just smiled and said, "Lady, if you have to ask, you'll never know."


Cohen, like Dylan, is an acquired taste. The fact that there are some amazing covers of his work (I'll throw my vote in with John Cale's version of "Hallelujah," though Rufus Wainwright's is great too.) doesn't take anything away from the power of the originals, particularly for the earlier work. Other people's voices can sound more pleasant singing "Suzanne", but I don't think anyone could achieve the same transcendent mix of regret and lack of regret that Cohen does. Scott gets the orchestration point about middle/late work right, though some of those songs are also just crap.

Poetry slams are like any open mic: long streches of the tedious and the unlistenable, sprinkled with moments of charm and magic.


Anyway, back to the original point of this post, I think Cohen is engaging in the "fallacy of the excluded middle": there's a huge stylistic gap between laundry lists and fluttering butterflies. Even with a single author, if they've got any range at all, some poems will sing with minimal presentations, and some invite playing along. We've been reading "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" to the Little Anachronism (yes, we're going to see that musical and we wanted to prep the little one so we don't have to spend the whole time explaining stuff), and somehow I just can't see those poems and "The Wasteland" being effectively read in the same style.

Obviously, Cohen really didn't acknowledge the existence (or at least the emotional reality) of anything other than the "artistic" emotions and modes, the ironic, the angsty, the incomprehensibly metaphorical, in other words, the serious. Given that, his screed makes sense, but it's a parody of itself, frankly.

marc page

... somehow I just can't see those poems and "The Wasteland" being effectively read in the same style.

And yet, somehow, Eliot accomplished it. (See recording mentioned above; "Macavity: The Mystery Cat," Side 2, Track 9.)


Cohen, like Dylan, is an acquired taste.

I guess. I liked both of them the first time I heard them, which would have been age 10 for Dylan and age 16 for Cohen. I don't think they're in the same league—Cohen has some amazing songs, but also some boring and indulgent ones; he doesn't do bitter sneering nearly as well as Dylan; and his verse structure changes hardly at all. I'd say Dylan's voice is better, as well, though Cohen singing "Suzanne" or "First We Take Manhattan" is as good as it gets.

Ahistoricality, the reason people get upset when you say that the covers of Dylan songs are better than his own versions, is that equating a singer's quality with the traditional purity and range of his or her voice is a form of small-mindedness that we're tired of hearing. Honestly, you aren't saying anything that I didn't hear from my friends in 5th grade. I find the Byrds' version of "Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man" vapid and meaningless, lacking any of the feeling that Dylan's rich voice conveys. It's a short step from to saying that Dylan sings "poorly" (I followed your link), to saying that Celine Dion is a great artist because of her remarkable range.

(That doesn't explain the "breathing into a bag" reaction, since your opinion is so common; I stopped being shocked years ago that people don't like Dylan's voice, but I've never stopped being disdainful.)

marc page

That doesn't explain the "breathing into a bag" reaction, ...

But hyperbole will.


It's not Dylan's voice that bothers me, as such. There are singers of (roughly) equally poor timbre and purity whose singing I find quite pleasurable (John Prine and Malvina Reynolds are the first who come to mind). And my favorite versions of Dylan and Cohen covers are picked for energy, not shimmering quality (though I'll admit that Joan Baez has both, most of the time).

Actually, I'd say that my problem with Dylan is very similar to my problem with Celine Dion: I honestly don't feel anything when I hear him sing, most of the time, and I get the impression that he doesn't care. If that makes me a philistine, so be it. Whatever he's selling, it just doesn't speak to me.

That said, I do think that he wrote some fantastic lyrics back in the day, and so did Cohen, but they both got way too full of the idea that anything that dropped out of their brains was "art."


While I don't think you have to read poetry as if it's the difference between life and death, I don't think you have to read it in such a way that it gives actual pain to your listeners. Have you ever heard the recordings of Robert Frost? He sounded pretty much like Jonathan Winters, to the point that, when I heard those recordings in high school (about a gazillion years ago when Jonathan Winters was still on television), I very nearly fell under my desk.


I just came across this because>Don Henley recommended that lyricists should read "How to Speak Poetry". I was shocked by how counterintuitive the advice was. It seems dishonest to tell people you have strong feelings about something but then act as if you don't as you render the message out loud before an audience. That would strike me as apathy, not respect for the audience, as he alludes with that labored mountain climbing analogy. Performing arts are entertainment, mountain climber meetings are not, and if it were, I would like the presenter to mime out how he compromised that big rock.

The vast majority of artistically and commercially successful musicians "act" to some degree, often to great degree, including Henley, so I'm shocked to see that this prose essay is so highly regarded, especially given it's wordiness, indirectness and vulgarity.

Sure, Celine Dion is not a great artist by virtue of an amazing range, but it also doesn't help that she doesn't write her own music or that she tastelessly hams up the music she's given. Music is a performance art, and the more elements that can be successfully coordinated to achieve whatever the aim, the better.

Maybe Cohen just sucked as a performer and wanted to convince others the lower the bar to his level.

Dan Edgley

I want to talk to leonard cohen. Fuck the work or whatever. I sent a good poem but apparently the johnny walker is not my best suit. please contact me.

Fiona Byers

I believe Leonard Cohen was one of the great artists and the fact that his music and his voice are imperfect only adds to his loveliness.


5436850550 Nicolas Sarkozy was already President before he married Carla Bruni.teen hottieOnce he arrives home, Mason takes a seat at his computer and puts on some porn to get himself in the right mood. sleeping pussyI always wanted to take "real" cars that are tuned and modified realistically. natural for woman to suck a penisOnce he arrives home, Mason takes a seat at his computer and puts on some porn to get himself in the right mood. teen choice awards 2006Despite trying with all my might to woo the fairer sex and asking many out on dates, I always got turned down.

The comments to this entry are closed.