The Poetry of Leonard Cohen Illustrated by Two Short Films

Look­ing back on the lit­er­ary career of Leonard Cohen—in full flower in the mid-six­ties before his sec­ond life as a folk singer/songwriter—one encoun­ters many com­par­isons to Joyce. For exam­ple, in the Nation­al Film Board of Canada’s descrip­tion of Ladies and Gen­tle­men… Mr. Leonard Cohen, the 1965 doc­u­men­tary film about the 30-year-old Cana­di­an poet, we find: “it tru­ly is, after Joyce, a por­trait of the artist as a young man.” On the back cov­er of Cohen’s sec­ond and final nov­el, the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry, post­mod­ernist Beau­ti­ful Losers, we find a blurb from the Boston Sun­day Her­ald: “James Joyce is not dead…. He lives in Mon­tre­al under the name of Cohen.”

Beau­ti­ful Losers’ dense sys­tem of his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences does put one in mind of Ulysses, but the lan­guage, the syn­tax, the eagle flights into the holy and dives into the pro­fane, remind me some­what of anoth­er Bud­dhist poet of Cana­di­an extrac­tion, Jack Ker­ouac. Cohen even sounds a bit like Ker­ouac, in the short 1967 film, “Poen” (above), an exper­i­men­tal piece that sets four read­ings of a prose-poem from Beau­ti­ful Losers to a mon­tage of stark­ly provoca­tive images from black-and-white film and pho­tog­ra­phy, Goya, and var­i­ous sur­re­al­ists. Made by Josef Reeve for the Nation­al Film Board, the short reels out four dif­fer­ent record­ed takes of Cohen read­ing the poem. At the end of each read­ing, he says, “cut,” and the film fades to black.

Tak­en from the novel’s con­text, the poem becomes a per­son­al med­i­ta­tion on med­i­ta­tion, or per­haps on writ­ing: “My mind seems to go out on a path, the width of a thread,” begins Cohen and unfolds an image of men­tal dis­cov­ery like that described by Don­ald Barthelme, who once said “writ­ing is a process of deal­ing with not-know­ing…. At best there’s a slen­der intu­ition, not much greater than an itch.”

In the ani­ma­tion above, from the NFB’s 1977 “Poets on Film No. 1,” Cana­di­an actor Paul Hecht reads Cohen’s poem “A Kite is a Vic­tim,” from his 1961 col­lec­tion The Spice-Box of Earth. Like the poem from Beau­ti­ful Losers, “A Kite is a Vic­tim” is also about process, but it’s a for­mal med­i­ta­tion, focused on the image of the kite, which flut­ters through each of the four stan­zas in metaphors of tam­ing, cap­tur­ing and nur­tur­ing lan­guage, then let­ting it go, hop­ing to be made “wor­thy and lyric and pure.” The pace of Hecht’s read­ing, the piano score behind his voice, and the vibrant col­or of the hand-drawn ani­ma­tion makes this a very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence of Cohen’s writ­ing than “Poen.”

To see Leonard Cohen read­ing his poems as a young man, make sure you vis­it: Young Leonard Cohen Reads His Poet­ry in 1966 (Before His Days as a Musi­cian Began)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ladies and Gen­tle­men… Mr. Leonard Cohen

Street Artist Plays Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah” With Crys­tal Glass­es

Leonard Cohen and U2 Per­form ‘Tow­er of Song,’ a Med­i­ta­tion on Aging, Loss & Sur­vival

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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