The Flame: Poems Note­books Lyrics Drawings

Leonard Cohen

  • Review
By – February 25, 2019

Leonard Cohen’s final book is a tes­ta­ment to the songwriter’s endur­ing and par­tic­u­lar cre­ative dri­ve, which reveals itself here, as the book’s sub­ti­tle sug­gests, in poems, song lyrics, excerpts from his note­books, and pen-and-ink self-portraits.

In his accep­tance speech for the Prince of Asturias Award, includ­ed at the end of the book, Cohen writes of his deep asso­ci­a­tion and con­fra­ter­ni­ty with the poet Fed­eri­co Gar­cía Lor­ca,” from whom he learned the impor­tance of voice — specif­i­cal­ly, nev­er to lament casu­al­ly.” It sur­prised me to read this, part­ly because Cohen’s lyric voice is much loos­er and more obser­va­tion­al than Lorca’s. But what sur­prised me most is the dic­tate against casu­al lamen­ta­tion, because that’s pre­cise­ly what Cohen does best on the page. Take, for exam­ple, the short poem, My Career”:

So lit­tle to say 

So urgent

to say it

Cohen is weird­er and more can­ni­ly obser­vant when his poems are short­er and less like songs, as in the short poem, What I Do”:

It’s not that I like

to live in a hotel

in a place like India

and write about G‑d

and run after women

It seems to be

what I do

Or the poem, Kanye West Is Not Picas­so,” in which Cohen declares, I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is.”

More often, how­ev­er, Cohen deploys lan­guage, rep­e­ti­tion, rhyme, and line like the song­writer he is. This makes it a chal­lenge to encounter his lyrics and lyric-like poems on the page, where they lose some of their pow­er. Unlike W.H. Auden or Ken­neth Koch, two poets Cohen men­tions and evokes in The Flame, Cohen doesn’t use rhyme to make or com­pli­cate mean­ing. In“No One After You,” for exam­ple, rhyme and rep­e­ti­tion move the song for­ward but don’t con­tribute mean­ing. Here is the cho­rus, which is repeat­ed twice: 

Been on the road forever 

I’m always pass­ing through

But you’re my first love and my last 

There is no one, no one after you

The note­book sec­tion of The Flame is prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful, because here Cohen is less com­mit­ted to the sim­ple rhymes he uses in his poems and lyrics. Some of my favorite moments in the book take place out­side of a rhyme scheme, allow­ing Cohen to make mean­ing through line breaks and tone. For example: 

I don’t think we’re going

to get togeth­er ever again


I sin­cere­ly hope

you have not

come to believe,

that sim­ply because

you ran off & got

mar­ried behind

my back, you

are some how

enti­tled to keep

my tape measure

For all but Cohen’s mega-fans, The Flame is prob­a­bly best leafed through rather than read cov­er to cov­er. But it’s well worth leaf­ing through.

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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