Sunday, 05 August 2007

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Leonard Cohen's "How to Speak Poetry," How He Spoke Poetry, and How Poetry Shouldn't Be Spoken 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...

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