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Songwriter Leonard Cohen Discusses Fame, Poetry and Getting Older

June 28, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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LEONARD COHEN, Writer and Poet: “I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could barely carry a tune.”

(singing): Now Suzanne takes her hand and she leads you to the river.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe Leonard Cohen can’t sing like an angel, and maybe he’s ambivalent about the title “poet,” but for decades a legion of fans has memorized his words and other musicians have loved to perform his songs.

LEONARD COHEN (singing): I have tried, in my way, to be free.

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed. Everybody knows that the war is over.

Everybody knows the good guys lost…

JEFFREY BROWN: In poetry, novels, and, most of all, a host of recordings, Cohen has been the romantic and seeker, solitary, at times reclusive, once youthful, now aging, able to express complex ideas and emotions with language, even in a three-minute rhyming song.

LEONARD COHEN: My heart is filled with gratitude.

JEFFREY BROWN: And his 71st year is proving to be a special one. In February, Cohen, who was born in Montreal, was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

LEONARD COHEN: If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.

JEFFREY BROWN: A new documentary on him has just been released, featuring a performance with rock superstars, U2.

LEONARD COHEN (singing): ‘Cause you can say that I’ve grown bitter, but of this you may be sure. The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor. And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong.

A conversation with a "fake" poet

JEFFREY BROWN: And now, Cohen has published "Book ofLonging," his first new collection of poetry in 20 years. I spoke withLeonard Cohen recently at Arena Stage Theater in Washington.

Did you start out seeing yourself as a poet or aspiring tobe a poet?

LEONARD COHEN: I never thought of myself as a poet, to tellyou the truth. I always thought that poetry is the verdict that others give toa certain kind of writing. So to call yourself a poet is a kind of dangerousdescription. It's for others; it's for others to use.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what were you doing when you started out?How did you see yourself?

LEONARD COHEN: You know, you scribble away for one reason oranother. You're touched by something that you read. You want to number yourselfamong these illustrious spirits for one advantage or another, some social, somespiritual.

It's just ambition that tricks you into the enterprise, andthen you discover whether you have any actual aptitude for it or not. I alwaysthought of myself as a competent, minor poet. I know who I'm up against.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know who you're up against?

LEONARD COHEN: Yes, you're up against Dante, andShakespeare, Isaiah, King David, Homer, you know. So I've always thought thatI, you know, do my job OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a poem in this new book called"Thousands" on this subject. You want to read that for us?

LEONARD COHEN: It is a very short one, but I think it speaksto the point. It's called "Thousands."

"Out of the thousands who are known or who want to beknown as poets, maybe one or two are genuine and the rest are fakes, hangingaround the sacred precincts, trying to look like the real thing. Needless tosay, I am one of the fakes, and this is my story."

JEFFREY BROWN: "I am one of the fakes, and this is mystory."

LEONARD COHEN: That's right.

The rhythm of poetry

JEFFREY BROWN: What's the difference for you between writinga poem and a song?

LEONARD COHEN: A poem has a certain -- a different time. Forinstance, a poem is a very private experience, and it doesn't have a drivingtempo. In other words, you know, you can go back and forward; you can comeback; you can linger. You know, it's a completely different time reference.

Whereas a song, you know, you've got a tempo. You know,you've got something that is moving swiftly. You can't stop it, you know? Andit's designed to move swiftly from, you know, mouth to mouth, heart to heart,where a poem really speaks to something that has no time and that is -- it's acompletely different perception.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's interesting, because poetry -- often wehear poetry is about music, in a sense, as well. Poetry makes its own music, sometimesit's said.

LEONARD COHEN: Oh, I'm not saying it's not musical; it'sjust a different tempo. And it's a tempo that migrates, depending on what themood of the reader is.

JEFFREY BROWN: I noticed there are some poems in this bookthat also you've recorded as songs.

LEONARD COHEN: That's true. Sometimes, you know, a lyric cansurvive on the page. You know, sometimes it can't, but sometimes it can. AndI've tried to choose the ones that can survive on the page.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things I've always noted in yourwork is the mix of the sensuous and the spiritual, I guess the body and thesoul. Is that a fair description of what you're doing?

LEONARD COHEN: Yes, but, you know, we've got both, so it'snot like...

JEFFREY BROWN: We do have both.

LEONARD COHEN: Yes. We do have these feelings that, youknow, run from coarse to elevated and refined. Everybody's got them, you know? Andthen we're stuck with this body, you know that -- I mean, we're all dying of thisincurable disease called age.

JEFFREY BROWN: This sense of aging is in this book.

LEONARD COHEN: Yes, definitely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that signify you are, in fact, feelingthat?

LEONARD COHEN: Oh, of course, sure. Of course you feel it,you know. My friend, Irving Layton, our greatest Canadian poet, he said,"The inescapable lousiness of growing old."

JEFFREY BROWN: "The inescapable lousiness of growingold"?

LEONARD COHEN: That's right. That's right.

Writing on oneself

JEFFREY BROWN: Is most of your writing, in fact,autobiographical? Is that fair?

LEONARD COHEN: Yes, that's fair. That's fair. But, you know,autobiographical takes in a lot. You know, it also includes the imagination. Youknow, your imagination also has a history. It also, you know, is born, growsold, suffers decay and old age, and dies. You know, so the imagination is partof the whole autobiography.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a poem called "Mission" which expresses some of this...

LEONARD COHEN: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... life yearning, I guess.

LEONARD COHEN: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you read that for us?

LEONARD COHEN: Oh, thank you for asking me. I'd love to. Ithink I remember that poem. "Mission."

"I've worked at my work. I've slept at my sleep. I'vedied at my death, and now I can leave. Leave what is needed, and leave what isfull. Need in the spirit and need in the whole."

"Beloved, I'm yours, as I have always been, from marrowto pore, from longing to skin. Now that my mission has come to its end, I prayI'm forgiven the life that I've led. The body I chased, it chased me as well. Mylonging's a place, my dying's a sail."

JEFFREY BROWN: Leonard Cohen, thank you for talking to us.

LEONARD COHEN: Oh, thanks so much for having me. Iappreciate it very much.

JIM LEHRER: More on Leonard Cohen and our poetry project isavailable at our Web site at PBS.org.