Poetry in the Tower of Song

“No comparison can be drawn between Leonard Cohen and any other phenomenon.”

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about Leonard Cohen ever since I saw him in performance in Paris last September. I was completely spellbound by the experience. I haven’t recovered from the spell. I accept that I may never recover, and will probably be the better, and the happier, for that.

But I am still finding it hard to discover the right way to say what I want; maybe I’ve become infected by Leonard Cohen’s well-documented song-writing difficulties. It took him five years to write “Hallelujah” and there are several extant versions of that plus many alternate verses and modifications, and now also a whole published book just about that one song. (The biography of a song, complete with an ISBN? How cool is that?)

Anyway, writing about Leonard Cohen turns out to be, for me, as tricky as herding cats. I get one satisfactory phrase lined up in my mind and the others immediately melt away, or reveal their stubborn inadequacy for the task in hand. Whatever the cause, I just don’t seem to have the words to organise this task – but on the other hand, I certainly know someone who does. One heck of a guy, with a speciality in smoke and mirrors.

The concert in Paris made me re-think the whole idea of good fortune. Leonard Cohen has been part of the soundtrack of my life since the late 1960s, which must be the case for many of my generation and tastes. But I didn’t, back then, put him at the very top of my favourites – I admired him, yes, but it’s only since he started touring again in 2008 that my appreciation deepened into something close to amazed awe. And for me – as for many others – the experience of a live concert changed it all over again. I knew I was in the presence of an extraordinary talent: one I’d not fully recognised before.

Of course, his work has changed over time, as have I. His recent songs seem freighted with layers of meaning and complex emotions that move me deeply. His miraculous creative revival offers truly profound and deeply serious ideas, while his themes of freedom, loss and redemption are universally uplifting and challenging.

My current favourite  is “Alexandra Leaving”, on which Cohen and Sharon Robinson (his long-time writing partner) started work in 1985, and didn’t release until 2001. I first heard it at the Paris concert but it wasn’t until a friend (and fellow Cohen groupie) pointed it out that I realised the song was inspired by a wonderful poem by Constantine Cavafy, “The God Abandons Antony”. The Cavafy poem I love the most is “Ithaka”, which I have long planned to have read at my funeral (friends please take note, though as far as I know there’s no need to start rehearsing just yet), but I did already know and love this poem too; I just hadn’t made the connection. Too mesmerised by the song, I expect. I am now addicted to “Alexandra Leaving” and no day feels complete unless I listen to it at least once. (A really good day is one where I can put it on repeat play for a while. Today is one of those. Yesterday was, too. I’m clearly on a roll.)

In Constantine Cavafy’s poem, the Antony of the title is Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra’s lover. The poem refers to Plutarch’s story that, when Anthony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the night before the city fell into enemy hands, he heard the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city and realised that the god Bacchus (Dionysus), his longtime protector, was deserting him. You could also understand it as a poem about facing any other great loss, with Alexandria a symbol for any beloved city or woman or past glory or fading powers, but, above all else, I believe, a symbol for life.

In Leonard Cohen’s song, Alexandria has become a woman – Alexandra – and the lyrics are focused on honouring and regretting the moment when her love has been lost. It captures and develops Cavafy’s poem in moving and memorable detail, and seems to me to make perfect harmony with the original.

See what you think. Here’s Constantine Cavafy’s poem, written in 1911:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Here’s the song written by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson in 1999:

Alexandra Leaving

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
Some deity preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
they slip between the sentries of your heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
they gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
and radiant beyond your widest measure
they fall among the voices and the wine.

lt’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
a fitful dream the morning will exhaust—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

You who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked—
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect,

And you who were bewildered by a meaning,
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

And here is the incomparable Sharon Robinson singing it – the video clip begins with Leonard Cohen reciting some of the words.

And for further indulgence, Leonard Cohen apparently in Henri Cartier Bresson mode.

And here’s a screen shot of the Paris concert, and I swear, I can see myself (and my friend Dee) in the audience. Over on the right, eleventh row back. Yay.

20 Responses to “Poetry in the Tower of Song”

  1. Tania Kindersley Says:

    Absolutely lovely post. I adore Leonard Cohen. Songs of Love and Hate was the first album I ever bought, with my pocket money, aged eight. (I had older brothers, who introduced me to him and Pink Floyd at the same time.) Cohen has seen me through every single heartbreak I ever had.

  2. admin Says:

    And those suits! The fedoras! The skipping and kneeling in concerts! There is nothing – nothing at all – not to like about him.

  3. Susan Lollis Says:

    You wrote a wonderful article, congratulations. I do not enjoy as much Mr. Cohen’s early voice from the 1960′s and 1970′s, was like Kristofferson or Dylan for me, more of a poet that sang, and was not aware of him at all until the mid 2000′s. I saw him the first time when he began touring again in 2008. It was nothing less than a spiritual experience. I was blessed again to see him in Nov of last year and informed a couple of friends that fell in love with him on Youtube after I came back from the first concert and couldn’t stop talking about my experience and we all rode the train to Austin to see him. Again, a triumph. My life is fuller for having and continuing to experience Mr. Cohen and let me not forget to mention the incredible sound of Sharon Robinson’s voice. After the first concert her’s was the first album I bought upon returning.

  4. Siw-Christine Brandt Says:

    Thanks for the poem,
    and your writing:)

  5. Birte Hella Says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks for the background.

    I was a bit perplexed about the meaning of the song, but enjoyed it, ‘as is’. You have given me the key to its connections to our seemingly ancient history making for a deeper appreciation.

    I too am still under the ‘Spell of Leonard Cohen’. Ever since I saw the live performance ‘Old Ideas’ in Toronto, Dec 4.12, I too have not been able to shake it, despite some deliberate attempts to ‘get me back to the here and now.’ Consistently I keep drifting back to the words and the songs in cycles — mind worms digging into my flesh and ‘being’ taking up permanent residency.

    There really is ‘No Cure For Love’. I have been reading and re-reading his Book of Mercy, (1984) which was gifted to me, years ago – perhaps there is hope. In the mean time. Thanks for the post. ‘Amen’ — next to ‘Going Home,’ are my current favourites — but, then of course ‘Darkness’ seduces.

  6. admin Says:

    Thanks so much for your comments, Susan – it sounds as though you and I are in complete synchrony, and you made me smile with pleasure at the similarities of our responses.

  7. admin Says:

    And thank you for going to the trouble of telling me!

  8. admin Says:

    Birte, thank you so much for telling me! We are obviously kindred Cohen spirits!

  9. Sharon Says:

    Have seen the legend that is Mr Cohen 3 times and each time has been more inspiring than the last! First time was at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the “Future” tour around 1996. The last time was at Wembley Stadium last year. I want desparately to see him again! I love his music, his words, his humour and him, full stop! Have many favourites too many to mention. Dance me to the end of love Lenny x

  10. admin Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, Sharon. I am lucky enough to be going to his London concert this June. I think that if he can still tour and sing, then I can still go and be amazed all over again!

  11. Stephen Vallely Says:

    This piece completely sums of my own experience of the wonderful LC right down to the choice of favourite song. I first heard the man live in Killed a couple of years ago and most recently in Dublin in 2012. Sharon Robin sons vocal of Alexandra Leaving at that concert moved me to tears. It must be a wonderful feeling to so enrich so many peoples lives.

  12. admin Says:

    Thanks so much for this comment, Stephen. It’s good to know we share something excellent!

  13. Annette Says:

    Beautifully written and so reflective of my own experience. The story behind Alexandra Leaving is such a perfect example of what I love about his work – so much depth, so layered. I also am in awe of his age and experience, he seems immortal. And that his years have enhanced his charisma and charm. What a wonderful role model. But the mind and the soul is uniquely Leonard Cohen’s – nobody will be able to replicate it.

  14. admin Says:

    Thanks so much, Annette. It will come as no surprise to you that I completely agree with your reflections on Leonard Cohen’s astounding talents!

  15. Norah Says:

    Lovely piece of writing & like yourself i love Leonard Cohen’s works also i think Sharon Robinson is brilliant too, thanks for your lovely piece,

  16. admin Says:

    And thank you for saying such kind things!

  17. Norah Says:

    Absolutely beautiful piece, thankyou for sharing, hope you’ll keep posting your various pieces, seeya Norah

  18. admin Says:

    Thank you very much Norah for taking the time to comment. I’m very glad you liked it.

  19. Alison Says:

    I would say that you have herded those cats very well indeed, Belinda.

  20. admin Says:

    Thank you sweetie!

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