Trained as a poet and ordained as a Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 10, 2016) is our patron saint of sorrow and redemption. He wrote songs partway between philosophy and prayer — songs radiating the kind of prayerfulness which Simone Weil celebrated as “the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
One of his most beloved lyric lines, from the song “Anthem” — a song that took Cohen a decade to write — remains what is perhaps the most meaningful message for our troubled and troubling times: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” It springs from a central concern of Cohen’s life and work, one which he revisited in various guises across various songs — including in “Suzanne”, where he writes “look among the garbage and the flowers / there are heroes in the seaweed,” and in the iconic “Hallelujah”: “There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah”.
Nowhere is this interplay of darkness and light more nuanced, nor more prescient, than in Cohen’s song “Democracy.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world was ablaze with the euphoria of a blind faith that democracy was coming to the East. I was there — that’s not what happened. Cohen, too, saw things differently. Ever the enchanter of nuance, he foresaw the complexity and darkness that this reach for light would unravel, and he captured it in this iconic and astonishingly timely song. It begins:
It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
In his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo, found in Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — the source of Cohen’s wisdom on inspiration and work ethic, and his most illuminating interview — Cohen pulls back the curtain on his creative process and discusses the nature of democracy, how he wrote the song, and why he chose to leave out certain verses, even though he considered them lyrically good.
Today, as the world’s greatest superpower elects a bigoted bully with fascist tendencies for president, many of the lines Cohen left out pierce with their pertinence — lines like “Concentration camp behind a smile” and “Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay? / Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?”
A quarter century ago, Cohen speaks to our time with astonishing prescience — for any great artist is at bottom a seer in dialogue with eternal human problems — and tells Zollo:
I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song, too.
Using songwriting itself as a laboratory for democratic discourse, Cohen wrote several verses he chose to leave out of the final song. He gives as an example a verse in which he explored the relationship between black and Jewish people:
First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues.
This gutter people always in the news,
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man’s back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified.
Like the fingers on your hand,
Like the hourglass of sand,
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid.
And the dollar’s cruel display
From the law behind the law,
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
When Zollo asks why he chose to take these verses out, Cohen responds:
I didn’t want to compromise the anthemic, hymn-like quality. I didn’t want it to get too punchy. I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.
In these present days of outrage and confrontation, how much of even the most elegantly argued writing aims for “a revelation in the heart”? And what might our world look like if this is what we aimed for instead of belittling and badgering those we find at fault?
Self-portrait by Leonard Cohen from Fifteen Poems
With an eye to his core quest for light, Cohen reflects on the necessity for a creative process that includes such deliberately disposable composition:
Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… It’s just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse. I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.
Decades before Rebecca Solnit’s vital and vitalizing assertion that “power comes from the shadows and the margins,” Cohen considers the paradoxical sources of light in the dark:
Most of us from the middle-class, we have a kind of old, 19th-century idea of what democracy is, which is, more or less, to over-simplify it, that the masses are going to love Shakespeare and Beethoven. That’s more or less our idea of what democracy is. But that ain’t it. It’s going to come up in unexpected ways from the stuff that we think [is] junk: the people we think are junk, the ideas we think are junk, the television we think is junk.
Among the things we discard too heedlessly, Cohen notes in another testament to his virtuosity for nuance, are the spiritual and moral mechanisms of religion. (A quarter century later, Adam Gopnik made a parallel case for how a secular reading of scripture enlarges our lives.)
Art by Leonard Cohen from Fifteen Poems
Reflecting on the sense of sanctity and holiness in his songs — something Bob Dylan captured around the release of “Hallelujah” in remarking that Cohen’s songs are like prayers — Cohen tells Zollo:
“If It Be Your Will” is really a prayer. And “Hallelujah” has that feeling. A lot of them do. “Dance Me to the End of Love.” “Suzanne.” I love church music and synagogue music. Mosque music.
There’s a line in “The Future”: “When they said repent, I wonder what they meant.” I understood that they forgot how to build the arch for several hundred years. Masons forgot how to do certain kinds of arches, it was lost. So it is in our time that certain spiritual mechanisms that were very useful have been abandoned and forgot. Redemption, repentance, resurrection. All those ideas are thrown out with the bath water. People became suspicious of religion plus all these redemptive mechanisms that are very useful.
The creative process itself, Cohen observe, is a spiritual channel to the miraculous. He reflects on what it takes to write a beautiful song:
It is a miracle. I don’t know where the good songs come from or else I’d go there more often.
Self-portrait by Leonard Cohen from Fifteen Poems
Toward the end of the interview, Cohen reflects on the fuel for his own spiritual machinery as an artist. It’s a sentiment of especial bittersweetness in the wake of Cohen’s death, and one as true of the creative life as of the life of service (which is animated by its own kind of creativity); as true of making art as of fighting for justice:
I always had a sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.
There is hardly a greater jackpot than a long life of light-bearing purpose. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for everything.
If you haven’t yet read David Remnick’s spectacular New Yorker profile of Cohen, quench your soul here.
“Let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped,” Carl Sagan urged in his beautiful and timely case for moving beyond us vs. them and marrying conviction with compassion. But what does kindness mean, really, and how does it manifest?
The measure of true kindness — which is different from nicety, different from politeness — is often revealed in those challenging instances when we must rise above the impulse toward its opposite, ignited by fear and anger and despair.
That’s what the poet Naomi Shihab Nye captures with grounding and elevating tenderness in her poem “Kindness,” found in Words Under Words: Selected Poems (public library).
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
In her altogether elevating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Nye tells the remarkable real-life backstory that inspired this beloved poem — a story that only lends more potency to the poem’s message:
Complement with Ta-Nehisi Coates on our conditioned resistance to kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor on how it became our forbidden pleasure, and Einstein on its centrality in our existence.
“You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others,” the poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote in contemplating power, possibility, and language as a tool of transformation. A year later, she became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her poem “Praise Song for the Day.”
But where do we turn when the day is unpraisable? When we can’t find the kinds of words that Ursula K. Le Guin celebrated as able to “transform both speaker and hearer, [to] feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it”? When we can no longer respond but merely react to the stories of others, and can no longer sing?
Leonard Cohen, the great poet of redemption, called for “a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense” in considering what is needed for healing the divides that rip democracy asunder. How to do that is what James Baldwin(August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explored a generation earlier in a spectacular and acutely timely 1964 essay titled “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” found in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library) — the indispensable anthology that gave us Baldwin on the artist’s role in society.
James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)
Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist (“this England” indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all — should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak — I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.
Leaning on the scale of life-sobered hindsight with which one weighs the hubrises of one’s youth, Baldwin notes that he “was young and missed the point entirely.” He recounts the moment in which the point revealed itself to him:
I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesar’s blood. Cassius says:
Stoop then, and wash. — How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
In a passage of piercing prescience given the political situation in America today, Baldwin reflects on the revelation of this verse:
What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before — I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal — and contemporary: that “lofty scene,” in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State overthrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single-mindedness. And this single-mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man — to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially, those whose needs and whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just.
Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world — once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is — some of the self-protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away.