Review

Poetry fired up with wit and wanton inspiration

Leonard Cohen's (left) The Flame (above) is an ode to the power of words to seduce, probe and get under one's skin.
Leonard Cohen's (above) The Flame is an ode to the power of words to seduce, probe and get under one's skin.PHOTOS: OLD+IDEAS

POETRY

THE FLAME

By Leonard Cohen

Canongate Books/Hardback/ 278 pages/$40.46/Books Kinokuniya

3 stars

There are two ways of approaching this book - either as an insufferable poetry purist or as an unabashed fan of the munificent lyrical gifts Leonard Cohen has given the world. I chose the latter.

The Flame, the last volume of poems he worked on assiduously in his final months, is an ode to the power of words to seduce, probe and get under one's skin.

It is lit with wit and warmth, lust and wanton inspiration, the many fires that have kindled man's best and worst instincts.

Before he died of leukaemia at the age of 82 in November 2016, Cohen had just released his 14th and final album You Want It Darker, whose lyrics revealed his awareness that his days were numbered.

In Leaving The Table, he said it plainly: "I'm out of the game/I don't know the people/In your picture frame."

Leonard Cohen's (left) The Flame (above) is an ode to the power of words to seduce, probe and get under one's skin.

These words are contained alongside those of his other three recent releases, in a generous compendium comprising unpublished works chosen by Cohen himself, as well as a scattering of sometimes unwarranted notebook entries, drawings, e-mail exchanges and even an acceptance speech he gave in Spain for a literary award.

The picture emerging from these pages, put together by his editors, Professors Robert Faggen and Alexandra Pleshoyano, is an ambivalent one.

For naysayers, he may be less a poet, but for many of his devotees, Cohen is more than just a musician, closer to being a soothsayer who proffered truths, hard and scabrous, in the most mellifluous ways.

His words are often distilled to the simplest. This does not mean they are simplistic.

Take in his lines, scratch your head, weep, laugh - sometimes at the same time.

In the poem Happens To The Heart, the rhyme in "art" and "Marx" is a hoot: "I was always working steady/But I never call it art/I was funding my depression/Meeting Jesus reading Marx."

It is a meta-textual riff on the lionised artist and the romantic halo around him.

Cohen is at once the epitome of the artist who lives and breathes art, as well as being its best rebuke. Ordained a Zen monk who studied meditation in 1994, he understands the bathos underlining the life of such a pursuit.

You may point out, too, the hilariously b***hing poem Kanye West Is Not Picasso. It is a game of braggadocio where he declares that he himself is "the Kanye West of Kanye West/The Kanye West/Of the great bogus shift of bullsh** culture".

In a surrealistic piece called Undertow, he describes how he was "caught in the grip/Of the undertow/And ditched on a beach... With a child in my arms/And a chill in my soul/And my heart the shape/Of a begging bowl".

What is the tone of the piece? Sad? Funny? Tragicomic? Is the poem satirising the black comedy called Life and its string of twists and turns? In such cavalier moments, you miss his impish wisdom.

If you like this, read: Stranger Music by Leonard Cohen (Vintage Books, 1994, $26.29, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of his poems and song lyrics which showcases his accomplished early works.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2019, with the headline 'Poetry fired up with wit and wanton inspiration'. Print Edition | Subscribe