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“In Utter Defeat I Came to You:” Power, Mastery, and the Value of Submission in Leonard Cohen’s Verse

By: Claire Hurley

Pedagogical relationships are one of the many thematic preoccupations that dominate Leonard Cohen’s body of work over his long and esteemed career in literature and music. Through his portrayal of master-student dynamics in all their possible iterations, Cohen reveals a lasting fascination with power, authority, and the interplay between knowledge and ignorance. The varying models of pedagogy that appear in his works can be tracked as reflections of the performer’s changing relationship with his audience over time, and a key model in this regard is that of the master and the slave. In his early poetry and songs, a series of authoritative speakers designate themselves as prophets to distance themselves from and exert dominance over their audience, thereby granting unique and legitimate status to their art. Yet, in line with his characteristic reversal of binary structures, Cohen gradually begins to favour the role of the slave over that of the master as he moves into old age, and his works begin to grapple more seriously with adversity and failure. Consequently, the later works depict a poet-speaker who increasingly inhabits the role of the subjugated student on a journey of spiritual awakening. Over the course of his career, Leonard Cohen engages in self-reflexive revisions of his interest in and representation of pedagogical relationships. By making his poet-speaker experience the descent from teacher to student, and from master to slave, Cohen dramatises his own struggle to relinquish power over his reader in a quest for total spiritual renewal following personal trauma.

In The Spice Box of Earth, Cohen makes emphatic claims about the poet’s status that exemplify his self-imagining as an already established authority in the field of poetic discourse, thereby revealing the self-righteous ethos of his early writings. In this sophomore publication, the one that, according to Sylvie Simmons, “established Leonard’s reputation as a lyric poet” in Canada, the smug voice of the poet-speaker takes centre stage (99). Critic Stephen Scobie divides the thematic undercurrents of the 1961 release into three groups: “the role of the poet; love; [and] the inheritance of Jewish tradition,” all of which, he argues, are approached through the lens of Romanticism, evident in the sensuous language and lush imagery that characterise the collection (25). Scobie’s suggestion that the reader should liken the overall mood of The Spice Box of Earth to a Romantic sentimentality is striking, considering that Cohen’s speaker takes pains to explicitly reject such an association in the collection. This rejection is especially evident in the collection’s poem, “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries.”

“I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries” can be read as an articulation of Cohen’s early conception of the artist figurBy: Claire Hurley

e as a closed system of knowledge who stands fundamentally apart from, and above, the influence of past traditions. The poem opens with a reiteration of the title and utilises a rhetoric of negation throughout, as the speaker systematically lists all of the conventional strategies he has not found useful or necessary in his process of art-making. After the first stanza, it quickly transpires that the speaker’s seemingly disparate rejections are directed at the notions of self-loss and creative illumination espoused by the Romantics. Accordingly, in order to reject the central source of inspiration of that previous tradition, the speaker repeatedly invokes imagery of the natural world. He distances himself from the archetypal Romantic poet by insisting that he “[has] not parted the grasses” to reveal “the tombs of knights,” and by affirming that he has “not released [his] mind to wander and wait” for some divine inspiration to come upon him as he beholds the awesome landscapes “in those great distances / between the snowy mountain and the fishermen” (18). In meticulously setting up a poetry of refusal of past literary traditions, the speaker implicitly claims a self-generating mastery over his own reading of the world, as well as his translation and dissemination of it through poetry. In the third and fourth stanzas, he boldly redirects his rejection upwards, towards the spiritual realm, and claims that he feels no need to “[hold] [his] breath / so that [he] might hear the breathing of G-d” or “[starve] for visions” (18). Evidently, this speaker adheres to no creed and has nothing to learn from external sources, even those of divine origin. By ardently insisting that his visions are self-generating, this Cohen persona espouses a model of pedagogy that unequivocally refutes subservience to the Muse and contends that the poet is, and must be, his own teacher.

This early poem lays out an ideal framework for poetic creation. In it, the Cohen-speaker scorns the pre-existing attributes of the poet figure in order to claim a new and unique status for his authoritative persona. The speaker’s awkward tone, however, already reveals holes in the logic of his project. As he describes the behaviours his predecessors have adopted to fuel their work, he exempts himself from being subject to those same customs. As a result, the speaker unintentionally exposes his own self-conscious obsession with past poetic pedagogies; the fact that he constantly feels the need to evoke the methods of other artists instead of outlining his own reveals a sustained, circular orientation towards the very same role he emphatically rejects. Thus, “in the rejection itself there is another kind of ‘lingering,’” despite the poem’s opening claim (Scobie 30). This lingering can also be felt in Cohen’s conspicuous use of anaphora. Since all five stanzas open with the phrase “I have not” and proceed to describe the Romantic model in great detail, the reader begins to wonder exactly what this speaker has done to demarcate himself as a new type of artist. Some resolution in this regard appears to come in the last stanza, the only instance in which he utters active statements about his methodology:

During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.

My favourite cooks prepare my meals,

my body cleans and repairs itself,

and all my work goes well. (Cohen 18)

As the speaker’s language falls into a stiff, mechanical register, the tension between “the very flat, objective closing statement” and the lush imagery that precedes it creates an almost comical effect (Scobie 30). Indeed, the “anti-poetic tone [of the closing stanza] becomes so ironic that the poem contrives to mean the opposite of what it says,” and the reader is left unconvinced, with the impression that the young Cohen’s imagining of the artist (and, therefore, of himself) as a closed site of self-mastery is already showing signs of deficiency (Scobie 30).

The surprising self-importance of the relatively inexperienced poet-speaker in The Spice Box of Earth is amplified dramatically in Cohen’s next collection, Flowers for Hitler, and particularly in its opening poem, “What I’m Doing Here.” Here, Cohen establishes a more explicitly antagonistic relationship between the artist and his audience which resembles the dynamic between a master and his slaves. Published in 1964, Flowers for Hitler is a response to a post-Holocaust world “full of evil in all of its forms” (Ondaatje 36). The poems in the collection evoke a bleak landscape in the aftermath of mass death and destruction – it is in this landscape that Cohen extends his anti-poetic techniques in order to taunt, disarm, and subjugate the reader. With “What I’m Doing Here,” Cohen frames the motivating project of his book. In a series of active statements that reverse the negative rhetoric of “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries,” his speaker unabashedly admits his moral trespasses, stating: “I have lied,” “I have conspired against love,” and “I have tortured” (45). Rather than trying to justify his abhorrent behaviour in any way, the speaker affirms that he “would have done the same things / even if there were no death” (45). He then proceeds to address the audience directly, urging them, in the second stanza, to follow his lead and likewise confess their crimes, thereby establishing the protective hierarchy that allows him to claim a pedagogical authority over his audience.  

By claiming a secret knowledge of his audience’s moral shortcomings, the Cohen-like speaker in “What I’m Doing Here” becomes a “social-political messiah” with the power to both instruct and condemn his followers through his writing (Ondaatje 37). The messianic role with which Cohen endows his speaker at this point in his career is, by definition, a pedagogical one. In a world void of ethical standards, the poet teaches through intimidation. The neutral tone of his confessions suggests that he feels no shame disclosing his sins, and by singling out “each one of you” in the audience, he establishes a sense of rivalry between himself and his interlocutors (Cohen 45). This rivalry is skewed, however, since the speaker already knows the reader’s secret shame, and so is addressing her from a position of power. Thus, the model of pedagogy Cohen puts forward in this opening to Flowers for Hitler is one predicated on antagonism and nihilism. There is no hinting at a kind of instruction that might lead to renewal or redemption in the ravaged moral and physical landscape of “What I’m Doing Here.” The reader comes to the book only to find her own ugliness reflected back at her, as she would in “mirrors in a movie palace lobby consulted / only on the way out” (Cohen 45). Ultimately, this opening poem ties into Cohen’s design of the book as an “assault on the ‘pretty’ image of the ‘golden-boy poet’” who generated The Spice Box of Earth (Scobie 44). The reader is positioned more as a slave than a pupil, bound to feel the shame of her exposed sins, but unable to access the redemptive knowledge that the poet so clearly enjoys.

The link between the artist’s use of pedagogical dynamics and his desire for power over his audience develops as a major theme as Cohen moves into the middle stage of his career and begins to release music in addition to poetry and prose. In “Avalanche,” the first track from his third studio album, Songs of Love and Hate (1971), Cohen again fancies himself the master of the person he is addressing; however, unlike in the two poems previously discussed, in this song he presents a master-pupil relationship that culminates, significantly, in a role-reversal. The true identity of the speaker is unclear throughout the six verses, as he seems to embody, by turns, “a hunchback, […] grotesque creature with a mountain of gold lusting over women,” and/or “a tormented man who longs for connection with the Divine,” and/or God Himself, “a gentle, New Testament Jesus […] who turns out to be as demanding as an Old Testament Jehovah” (Simmons 248). The fixed identity that granted authority to the early poet-speakers has crumbled in this version of the master-slave relationship. Yet the singer is still the authority, at least as the song begins. He clarifies the terms of his contract with the listener: “You who wish to conquer pain / you must learn to serve me well” (149). And so the Cohen-persona’s hunger for control – so palpable in the poems – remains, as does his claiming of a secret knowledge, this time specified as the answer to overcoming pain. He continues to ostracise himself from conventional society as a way of asserting intellectual and spiritual dominance over his audience, and proclaims: “Your laws do not compel me / to kneel grotesque and bare / I myself am the pedestal / for this hump at which you stare” (45). It is only when the person whom he is addressing is revealed to be his lover that the master’s authority begins to slip out from under him.

The volta that comes in the fifth verse of “Avalanche” marks a momentous reordering in the rigidly hierarchical speaker-audience relationship as represented in Cohen’s writing thus far. After building up his spiritual authority through systematic rejections of his interlocutor’s offerings, the singer suddenly reveals his desire for intimacy with her: “I have begun to long for you / I who have no need / I have begun to wait for you / I who have no greed” (45). Seemingly out of the blue, Cohen flips the binary structure of master and slave by having his master-speaker express the kind of self-effacement and longing for closeness traditionally associated with the role of the slave. This clarifying moment reveals “the interchangeability of the saint’s and disciple’s experience” as the dominant theme of the song (Scobie 145). The speaker’s debasement from the position of a master to that of a slave in “Avalanche” signals a larger pattern taking shape as Cohen moves into the second half of his career in the late seventies. As the speakers in his poems begin to fall into a position of subjugation, Cohen’s works reveal a newfound awareness of the commonality of human experience that dismantles and eventually reverses the hierarchy between the performer and the audience.

Published in 1978, Death of a Lady’s Man is the collection that definitively marks the emergence of Cohen’s “self-revisionary phase,” during which he engages critically with the problematic ethos of his past personas in an effort to “[work] slowly toward renewal” (Nadel 119). The book is a difficult one, charged with tense autobiographical content that confronts the disintegration of Cohen’s relationship with Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children. Yet despite its overarching tone of despair, Death of a Lady’s Man also contains moments of staggering illumination – “How to Speak Poetry” is a prime example. As signaled by the title, the prose poem is a lesson in performance, a how-to guide for the emerging poet. While the speaker is still administering a lesson to the reader in this pedagogical model, he no longer is her master. In fact, in “How to Speak Poetry,” Cohen overhauls the speaker-reader dynamic in a way that grants ultimate authority to the audience. Addressing his pupil, the speaker in the poem warns against the dangers of presumptuousness: “Step aside and [the audience] will know what you know because they know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than them. You are not wiser” (288). This recognition of a shared knowledge between the artist and his audience is a radical departure from the protective distancing moves of Cohen’s previous personas. In the logic of this seventh book, the speaker has finally realised that he can no longer successfully use his art as a vehicle to enact his self-aggrandizing fantasies.

“How to Speak Poetry” removes the poet-speaker from his elevated position of mastery by evacuating all legitimacy from his old prophecies about the state of the world. Commenting on the unrelenting violence of the contemporary period, the speaker proclaims: “The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage” (288). This self-reflexive criticism can be read as a direct condemnation of Flowers for Hitler, and more specifically of its speaker’s self-appointed mission of defining the chaos of the world to an unsuspecting and ignorant reader. The new speaker continues to denounce the “shock verse” and anti-poetic strategies that dominate the mood of that earlier book, urging his pupil not to “work the audience for gasps and sighs” in that same way (Ondaatje 37). In Death of a Lady’s Man, the stage – understood on both a literal and metaphorical level as a platform from which the poet looks down on his audience – no longer exists. According to this speaker, deceiving, mystifying, and belittling the audience from the height of the stage is the wrong way to teach. Rather, “How to Speak Poetry” posits that there is no pedagogical component to poetry or performance, whatsoever. Its goal is to uncover “the expression which the age demands,” which the speaker argues must be stripped of all manipulative rhetorical flourish (Cohen 287). In line with this sentiment, he adopts an impersonal tone and a clinical diction to deliver his final instruction: “Speak the words, convey the data, step aside” (287).

The persona Cohen puts forward in “How to Speak Poetry,” and in Death of a Lady’s Man more broadly, occupies a middle position between his early speakers’ self-conception as masters and his subsequent speakers’ self-conception as slaves. This career-long arc toward subordination can also be seen in the poems that address Cohen’s growing commitment to Zen Buddhism in his middle age. “Roshi Again,” named after Cohen’s main teacher in the discipline, is an altogether new representation of pedagogical relationships in his poetry, in that its speaker is now firmly on the receiving end of a transmission of knowledge he does not inherently possess. The poem dramatises an encounter between the speaker and his teacher at the Mount Baldy monastery: the speaker enters to find Roshi in an unusual position, “hanging from a branch by his teeth,” apparently setting an example for his student to follow (286). Roshi’s lesson in this poem is foregrounded when his idiom suddenly permeates the speaker’s narration: “Destroy particular self and absolute appears” (286). In his appropriation of the mental life of his pupil, it becomes clear that Roshi’s manner of teaching the principles of non-attachment is markedly different from the retributive models of pedagogy espoused in Cohen’s early verse.

Rather than alienate himself from the speaker through a strategy of protective distancing, Roshi administers his lesson by bringing himself closer to his student, playing his guitar, even “[copying his] own fingering” (286). Unlike the accusatory speaker in “What I’m Doing Here,” who seeks to intimidate his audience to the point of confession, the monk’s pedagogy foregoes antagonism in favour of compassionate understanding and shared experience. In a striking moment of vulnerability, the speaker divulges that “there is a rebuke in every other voice but [Roshi’s]” (286) – the speaker’s familiarity with hostility from all directions makes him believe that his teacher’s gentle methods are exemplary. Yet the teacher’s support does not guarantee the student’s understanding. Cohen is intent on showing the speaker’s struggle to grasp the knowledge being imparted to him, and the poem closes with the speaker still locked in a state of desolation after failing to answer Roshi’s question, “What is the source of this world?” (286). Ultimately the speaker’s journey towards understanding the Buddhist principles of non-attachment evades the scope of this poem, which suggests a growing alertness in Cohen to the poet-speaker’s limitations, and a noteworthy progression from the haughty attitudes that characterise his earlier collections. As in “How To Speak Poetry,” the motivation of “Roshi Again” is that of self-revision, spurred by a growing awareness that the poet does not exist in a vacuum, and that his art is not necessarily a tool to be used for teaching but, rather, for learning.

The de-escalation from teacher to pupil in the Cohen-speakers’ subject positions is fully realised in Book of Mercy, the 1984 collection that represents the culmination of his self-revisionary project. Moreover, the collection can be read as the telos of his career-long concern with power in pedagogy. Tonally, Book of Mercy is Cohen’s most theologically charged written work. The poems in the volume are psalms addressed to an all-knowing God; the speaker in them, acutely aware of his own cosmic insignificance, is now fully – and willingly – entrenched in the subordinate position of the master-slave dynamic. “Sit Down, Master” demonstrates the completed reversal of the pedagogical relationship between speaker and interlocutor in Cohen’s late writing. The short prose poem illustrates the Cohen-speaker’s return to piety and embrace of the powerlessness that comes from total spiritual subjugation, demonstrated in his “awareness that he is living below what is above” (Nadel 124). In it, the speaker’s longing for influence over his audience has disappeared for good, to be replaced by an amended philosophy wherein “[p]ower is the obstacle” and “powerlessness is the hope” (Scobie 10). The poem begins with an apostrophe directed to God: “Sit down, master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom” (316). The speaker’s devotional self-effacement in this opening line could scarcely be more antithetical to the narcissism of the personas in both “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries” and “What I’m Doing Here.” In fact, Cohen appears to be speaking directly back to the bravado of these early speakers when he writes of being “soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of [his] tiny domain” (316). In this poem, he puts forward a speaker weathered and broken down by old habits, in search of a new kind of freedom that is only accessible through the experience of an ideal discipline.

While Death of a Lady’s Man marked the emergence of an interest in spiritual discipline with its representation of Zen pedagogy and the speaker embracing his role as a student within that model, Book of Mercy furthers this concern, in a natural progression, by dramatising the Cohen-speaker’s return to the Judaic tradition into which he was born. The spiritual convictions that motivate the speaker to write in this collection are made explicit as the poem closes, and his diction becomes steeped in a familiar liturgical formulation: “Blessed be the name of the glory of the kingdom forever and forever” (316). Cohen’s appropriation of a communal blessing to close this reverential psalm foregrounds the “inclusive spirituality” on which Book of Mercy is built (Nadel 119). This appeal to the canonical language of Jewish tradition simultaneously effaces the speaker’s individual voice and affirms the collapse of Cohen’s old, hierarchical pedagogies – which imagined the speaker as something between a master and a prophet – in favour of a corrected variety that places the speaker as one among his audience, in a position of common servitude under God.

In Book of Mercy, a disciple – whose poetry is an expression of devotional practice – thus takes over from the autonomous artist who produced The Spice Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler in an effort to exhort the superiority of his individual vision. When taken as a response to everything that came before it, Book of Mercy offers a new paradigm for teaching and learning in Cohen’s body of work. The general shift away from mastery and towards communal servitude in Cohen’s speakers extends beyond the writing and can also be tracked in the visual symbolism that permeates the book, perhaps especially in the Unified Heart on the original front cover. Through his translation of the Star of David into two interlocked hearts that signify “a version of the ying and yang, or any of those symbols that incorporate the polarities and try and reconcile the differences” (sic), Cohen invites his audience to join the Order of the Unified Heart, a community to which he, too, belongs (Simmons 332). As Ira Nadel remarks, this order “has no meetings, bylaws, or dues,” and is without interior hierarchy (121). The symbol, which Cohen himself designed and revisited regularly in his subsequent works, confirms Book of Mercy as a point of arrival for the representation of pedagogy in his art. In this collection that “represents the recovery and soaring of the spirit that had been undone by loss and suffering” (Nadel 124), Cohen dissolves, once and for all, the fraught power relationship between his early personas and the audience, and replaces it with a transformative teaching relationship between a universal spiritual authority and the common human subject.

The varieties and values of pedagogical relationships are a thematic concern that characterises Leonard Cohen’s artistic production and develops dramatically over the course of his career. In his early poetry, Cohen exhibited a desire to claim power over his reader as a way of legitimizing his art. Although noticeably different in tone and style, The Spice Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler are two collections that feature speakers whose ultimate goal is to declare total individuality, thereby acquiring mastery in a hierarchical relationship of dominance over their audience. In “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries,” the speaker claims power by systematically rejecting all influence of past poetic tradition and asserting the self-generating power of his art. In “What I’m Doing Here,” the speaker sees himself as a prophet for the new age, and intimidates the reader with rhetorical strategies that make reference to his possession of a secret (and dangerous) knowledge. But the arrogance of Cohen’s speakers falters in the middle period of his career, as his work begins to collapse the pedagogical binary to explore the interchangeability of master and slave subjectivities, as in the song “Avalanche.” In the 1970s and 80s, following a string of personal hardships, Cohen emphatically surrenders control in his writing.

The publication of Death of a Lady’s Man marks the beginning of Cohen’s self-revisionary phase and, as such, reads as a turning point in the ways he crafts his personas. In “How To Speak Poetry,” Cohen forcefully rejects his previous self-importance, and reveals a newfound understanding that the poet and his audience are equals. In “Roshi Again,” Cohen represents a pedagogical relationship in which the speaker is a student rather than a teacher, and makes a point of showing the speaker’s failure to understand a significant lesson of Zen Buddhism. The general trend towards submission in Cohen’s poetry reaches its climax in Book of Mercy, as the speaker embraces, and even seeks out, an experience of slavery through an emotional return to religion. Ultimately, Cohen’s enduring preoccupation with the dynamics of pedagogy can be read as a lifelong negotiation with power as a concept. While the early poet sought out personal power as a protective device that kept him inaccessible to the audience, the later poet recognised utter powerlessness as both a key facet of the human predicament and a necessary experience in his journey towards freedom through spiritual awakening.

Works Cited

Cohen, Leonard. “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries.” Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, p. 18.

Cohen, Leonard. “What I’m Doing Here.” Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, p. 45.

Cohen, Leonard. “Avalanche.” Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, p. 149.

Cohen, Leonard. “How To Speak Poetry.” Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, pp. 287-289.

Cohen, Leonard. “Roshi Again.” Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, p. 286.

Cohen, Leonard. “Sit Down, Master.” Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, p 316.

Nadel, Ira. Leonard Cohen: a Life in Art. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994.

Ondaatje, Michael. Leonard Cohen. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970.

Scobie, Stephen. Leonard Cohen. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1978.Simmons, Sylvie. I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2012.

Photo: “Self-portrait,” Leonard Cohen