Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker

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RIP: Leonard Cohen (illustration 2016 by jpbohannon)

About a month ago, a coworker sent me a YouTube link of the title track of Leonard Cohen’s upcoming album, You Want It Darker. She wanted me both to hear it and to help her make sense of it.

And it was dark. It was almost a challenge to a god that has allowed humanity to do what it has in the course of human history. It was punctuated by the opening prayer of Rosh Hashana, “Hineni, Hineni.” (Here I am, Lord).  And then it was followed by Cohen’s line: “I am ready, Lord.”

(Perhaps, Cohen shouldn’t have issued the challenge when he did. For in the week that he died, the world indeed became darker in many ways for many of us.)

There have been many wonderful obituaries written over the past week, articles that celebrated his music, his poetry, his novels, obits that detailed his fully-lived life, both the loves and the disappointments, the treacheries and the successes. (Here is The London Times’ obituary.)

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Cohen in London in 1978 (SIPA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock)

And, of course, there were the inevitable comparisons to Dylan. Over the past several weeks, both have been rightly acclaimed as momentous poets of  our times–death and international prizes undoubtedly will do that–but too many of the commentators positioned it as some sort  a race, a competition.

It isn’t. It never is.

Certainly, they were both poets, but they are greatly different. Dylan’s words, he claims, come easy; Cohen struggled long and hard on his. (He claims that “Hallelujah” took him five years to write.) But they both brought to their work an elevated sense of language and imagery, a modern sensibility far removed from the insipid themes of most popular music of the time.

I learned about both of them when I was a very, young boy. When I was eleven, my eighteen-year old cousin and I both got guitars for Christmas. So we learned together, except he was 18 and much more part of the world and the emerging folk scene. Consequently, what I first learned on guitar was the Dylan songbook and the folk music published in SingOut magazine.

My first songs were Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” (one chord, E-minor, throughout) and “To Romana” (two chords, C and G). Before too long I moved on to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” In the small and insulated world of folk music, the song “Suzanne” was everywhere, as everyone it seemed was covering it. ( I mainly knew Judy Collins’ version. I can’t imagine my cracking adolescent voice trying to imitate her beautiful soprano. But oh well, …)

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Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Bob Dylan

My fascination with Cohen, however, came much later. Dylan was Dylan and, if I had a musical idol, it was certainly he. For most of my adult life. But as I grew older, Cohen seemed to speak to me more readily. Oddly, Dylan’s writing began to seem overly specific, whereas Cohen was speaking to me individually and universally.

And as I grew older, his disappointments were more understandable. In a October 17, 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Cohen stated that “I am ready to die.”

I have been thinking about my own death a lot recently. One learns only gradually that one is not immortal, or at least the understanding of that comes on gradually. Cohen knew that, but he still kept creating;  at 82, two weeks before he died, he put out this last album.

It is serious and resigned and thoughtful.

It is beautiful. And sometimes funny.

And it is wonderful to listen to.

 

 

Quote #66: “Yes to dance beneath a diamond sky…” Bob Dylan

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“Bob Dylan” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
“Mr. Tambourine Man”

A pint of plain is your only man

I first published this post in February 2014. But I thought I’d re-post it in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, 2016. If nothing else, scroll down to the video at the bottom to see Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners recite Flan O’Brien’s grand old poem.

“The Workman’s Friend”

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlin’ plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A pint of plain is your only man.

— Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

As far as drinking is concerned I am a very simple man.  I like my “pint of plain,” a glass of whiskey every so often, and a bottle of wine.  That’s about it.  I’ve never tasted a margarita or any of its offshoots, the great variety of martinis does not interest me, and anything blended or frozen seems more a dessert than a drink.  And if a pint of Guinness is not available, I drink whatever stout is …or a simple lager.

So, I took my trash to the curb last Thursday night, a raw and a frozen night, and afterwards walked the three doors down to the corner taproom.  Across the bar, two people were downing shots of a “Fireball.”   The woman on my right told me it was a cinnamon flavored whiskey.  “It tastes just like Big Red chewing gum,” she said.

Now that’s the problem right there.

I don’t want my whiskey to taste like cinnamon chewing gum.  I want my whiskey to taste like whiskey.  There are vodkas now that taste like cupcakes and chocolates, and mixed drinks that capture the delights of a sweet shop.  I know what is going on.  But I’m against it.  It’s the infantilization of alcohol and it is a very lucrative business.

So fast forward a few days and I am in another city sitting in the hotel bar.  I have no obligations for a good four hours, so I sit in a snug with a good book and a large glass of Jamesons.  Life feels very good.

There must be a convention of sorts at the hotel because a number of similar young men come walking in,  all at once.  I’ll have a “Black and Blue” says the one.  Make mine a “Black Apple” says another.  The bartender guessed that the “Black and Blue” was a Guinness and Blue-Moon.  And he was told that the “Black Apple” was Guinness and Cider.  (I later learned that a “Black Apple”  is also called a “poor man’s Black Velvet” which is a century-old mix of Guinness and champagne.)

But there was something in me that bristled at their orders.  Leave a drink alone, why don’t you, I wanted to say. Why must you always be fussing with it?

Maybe I am getting old. (Actually no “maybe” about it!) And maybe I am getting crotchety.  But for me, as the wonderful Flann O’Brien once wrote, “a pint of plain is your only man.”

Here’s Ronnie Drew and the rest of the Dubliners reciting Flann O’Brien’s poem, with pints of plain in their hands:

Rumi on Figs

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Figs 

The Ripe Fig

Now that you live here in my chest,
anywhere we sit is a mountaintop.

And those other images,
which have enchanted people
like porcelain dolls from China,
which have made men and women weep
for centuries, even those have changed now.

What used to be pain is a lovely bench
where we can rest under the roses.

     A left hand has become a right.
A dark wall, a window.

     A cushion in a shoe heel,
the leader of the community!

    Now silence. What we say
is poison to some
and nourishing to others.

    What we say is a ripe fig,
but not every bird that flies
eats figs.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi

Video Poem #3: “Ca’ the Yowes” by Robert Burns

Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes
By Robert Burns

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them wha the heather grows
Ca’ them wha the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie.

Hark! the mavis’ evening sang
Sounding Cluden’s woods amang,
Then a-fauldin let us gang,
My bonie dearie.

We’ll gae down by Cluden side,
Thro’ the hazels spreading wide,
O’er the waves that sweetly glide
To the moon sae clearly.

Yonder Cluden’s silent towers,
Where at moonshine midnight hours,
O’er the dewy-bending flowers,
Fairies dance sae cheery.

Ghaist nor bogle shalt thou fear;
Thou ‘rt to love and Heaven sae dear,
Nocht of ill may come thee near,
My bonie dearie.

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die—but canna part,
My bonie dearie.

I first became interested in Robert Burns’ poetry as a young man. My father—who was not a particularly “learned” man but who was an
inveterate reader—would often recite snippets of his poems when I was a child, particularly “To a Louse”  and “To a Mouse,” two of Burns’ more famous poems besides “Auld Lang Syne.”

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Robert Burns

I often have taken to heart my father’s repeated phrase “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”  And, of course, he loved to reassure us that “The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

My next encounter with Burns was at university, in a wonderful seminar on 18th-century British poetry. It was then that I discovered his full range, his politics and his romanticism, his life and his career, his Scots poems and his English poems.

And then he kept cropping up in a different facet of my life.  Playing in a “Celtic folk band” for several decades, I kept encountering Burns’ poems set to music and recorded by some wonderful performers such as The Corries, Dougie MacLean, and Mary Black.  (When I would perform a Burns’ song–usually “Green Grow the Rashes-o” or “Auld Lang Syne,”  I often would introduce it by stating the many parallels that existed between my life and his, although mine was not quite as “rollicking.”)

I try to teach him in my Advanced Placement course, but I don’t think my enthusiasm is as contagious. Oh well. Maybe they’ll discover him when they are ready.

And so here is my third Video Poem.  The first came from a published poem of mine, the second from a poem I have not even sent out yet, and now this by a canonical poet from the 18th century.  Enjoy

A Video Poem: “Tomak Stuffing”

Several years ago, I published a poem called “Tomak Stuffing” in an anthology called A Magical Summer. The beginnings of the poem had come from a quirky misreading. It was around Thanksgiving and someone had left me a text saying that she Nodding Thistle 2was going “tomak stuffing.” She had texted hurriedly and meant to say that she was going “to make stuffing.”

I didn’t immediately pick up the mistake and asked her what indeed was actually involved in “tomak stuffing.”

Later, I decided to run with it, to make an entire world where “tomak stuffing” was an actual and important ritual, filled with wives’ tales and traditional lore

The poem was published in 2012.

I’d been thinking of the poem recently, so this week I put together a short four-minute video with various photos/paintings, with Enya’s version of “Na Laetha Geal M’óige” in the background and with me reading the poem itself.

I think of it as a Thanksgiving poem, but it really isn’t.

So here it is Tomak Stuffing: the video for your enjoyment: