I’m preoccupied with my upcoming trip to the USA. Every time I think about New York, the first song that comes to my mind is Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel. It’s been on my mind all day.
Before he starts singing (around 2.40), he tells the story of the song, which is absolutely worth listening to because because a – he’s wonderful and I could listen to him talking for days and days and b – his voice is straight-on sex.
Also this one, the first version of the song:
This song is like a drug. I’ve been listening to it all day and it fades all the small things into nothingness and connects me with the wide, wild and unspeakable mystery.
It swells my heart with a quiet but intense joy, and yet I feel like crying for the mundane and the fantastic.
It’s an epic song, a twelve-minute gem of a song, a song that treads with conscious yet light steps through time and place, through thoughts and believes, searching for what was left behind or maybe what was only a dream, and after a journey around the world it ends in failure. Beautiful failure full of dignity and the inevitability of Greek tragedy.
The pictures are so deep and yet so instantly recognizable. Every word is familiar and everything is woven together so beautifully. This is songwriting on the level of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. If you know me just a little bit, you will know that this is the highest accolade I can give.
[thank you, Adam!]
I never learned to love poetry. On the contrary – every time poetry came up at school, all it did was bore us and later on, faintly embarrass us (all that soppy stuff on love and passion! A poem on flowers – yawn! Poetry on dead people! How bizarre. Poetry on wars?! wtf?!?). And always the same questions. ‘What did the poet mean?’ – ‘What rhyming scheme was used?’ – ‘What literary devices can you make out?’ – ‘What is the historical context of this poem?’ – … ENOUGH ALREADY! While I generally read at the same pace as I was able to eat chocolate ice-cream (= very fast) and in amounts that sometimes seemed equally unhealthy to my family, I never touched poetry. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. I didn’t see it until I read Leonard Cohen.
I’d listened to Cohen’s songs since my early teens, and they were some of the first reasons that I really went through the struggle of applying my school-taught English to a specific task (understanding the lyrics; ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ in particular). I’d never considered the lyrics as poetry though. So one day, as I looked through the books in my Dad’s study, I came across a collection of Cohen’s poems. The ones he transformed into song, and even more that were just poems. I sat down on the floor and started reading. By then my English was good enough to get at least the gist of most of them.
And what a gist it was! It blew my brain. There were images that I could see without ever having seen them, sensory explosions in my mind as the written words travelled through my eyes into my brain! And the rhythms… and none of it rhymed or was forced or dealt with any high-brow topic – just a guy talking about the women he had loved, who had left him and who he missed and hated at the same time… just talking about this personal stuff, so very vulnerable and in such simple words, and yet every single thing he said was universal and I could understand it – no, not just understand it, feel it – even though I couldn’t be more of an opposite to him – female, two generations removed, grown up in a different culture and time, not even having really been in love before… And yet, I GOT what he said with every fibre of my bone.
It was a revelation.
I’ve stayed true to the master, and I will defend to the end my opinion that he is one of the greatest poets that ever lived, but he also helped me to appreciate other poets. I’ve bought books full of poetry; anthologies and books by individual poets. I read poetry online. I listen to the poetry of songs. A new poem finds its way into my mailbox every morning and reading it has become a treasured part of my morning routine. Hell, I even write poetry myself! And since that time, the only criterion that I use when approaching a poem is this: does it resonate with me?
That is the only thing you really need to teach about poetry in school: to read a great deal and a great variety and to pay attention to what each poem does with you. All the rest will follow by itself. I wish they’d taught me that. I might not have missed out on years and years of enjoying beauty.
I’d like to read
one of the poems
that drove me into poetry
I can’t remember one line
or where to look
The same thing
happened with money
girls and late evenings of talk
Where are the poems
that led me away
from everything I loved
to stand here
naked with the thought of finding thee
(Leonard Cohen – I’d like to read )