Book Review

Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen

some inappropriate teenage nostalgia

I started writing the following as a submission for a magazine, but then realised it was getting wildly off-topic as it wasn’t meant to be a piece about Leonard Cohen. I then, thinking about Leonard Cohen, pulled out a small hardback copy of Cohen’s Poems and Songs (edited by Robert Faggen) and read it, weeping, weeping, weeping. Here is an elaborate intro that this review doesn’t need:

When I was a teenager I used to have the – in hindsight, bizarre – idea that conservatories were going to be a significant part of my life. This was because many of my formative teenage experiences happened in conservatories.

I first received oral sex in a conservatory (while watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and all the most important musical discoveries of my teens happened in a conservatory, too.

Conservatories were the cultural, sexual, conservatoires of my youth. Had I not grown up in dry, subrural Middle Class Middle England, the stairwells in blocks of flats, bus shelters, bandstands, whatever, would have been my conservatoires. But, alas, conservatories fulfilled that function in my uneventful life. Once I moved to a city, I stopped encountering conservatories (thank god) and came to the sad conclusion that there were probably thousands of other bored middle class teens who’d had their first mutually self-conscious, quick, blow-jobs in conservatories, and probably even more who had lounged about in conservatories coughing up Marlboro Reds, vomiting in plant pots and listening to Bright Eyes, to Bob Dylan, to Leonard Cohen.

Of those three pretentious men with guitars that – for a couple of years – formed the backdrop of these confessional, Jack Daniels and Stella Artois fuelled, late night chats1, the only one whose music I have continued to listen to (irregularly) in adulthood is Leonard Cohen. Actually, that’s not fair, there is one Bright Eyes album that I put on from time to time, but I’m not certain if I only like listening to I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning because of the memories it stirs, rather than any quality in the music. I haven’t once been able to get more than two tracks into any of Conor Oberst’s other albums since about 2008, so who knows?

Bob Dylan is problematic for a host of reasons, not least the colossal cultural embarrassment of being a Nobel Laureate, but Cohen… Leonard Cohen is dead.

Dead, dead, dead.

Dead like David Bowie.

Dead like Prince

Dead like George Michael, who is the only musician I’ve listened to with any regularity since my massive breakdown last Summer.

But when I’m seeking music that demands engagement, it is to Leonard Cohen that I still turn. For me, his work echoes, now, still, whenever I encounter it.

There are songs of Cohen’s that I haven’t listened to for years, and probably some I have never consciously put on. Every time, though, that I ever sling the metaphorical record needle of the Spotify search bar2 onto a Cohen album, I find myself mesmerised, transfixed, attentive. Tbf, though, I only really listen to music when I’m either a) driving or b) very, very wasted3, and in those nostalgia-weighted moments it is Cohen’s music (and shittier music, too) that I come back to. Cohen, Cohen, Cohen. I think, quite possibly, the best of all the pretentious men with a guitar.


I didn’t go back to his music this week, though, here in gorgeous fucking Barcelona. I went to a book, a book a book a book of joy.

Poems and Songs includes song lyrics as well as works only ever published on the page, and as I read through these words, I regularly smiled, through the book down in glee, smirked (because there are moments – early in his career – where Cohen’s poetry is weakened by his omnipresent Lust), and also had to stop so I could share poems with the world via that goddamn social media. Basically, they’re all about lust and desire and Leonard Cohen’s never-ending search for the perfect, deepest fuck. But also love. This one is amusing, in that it seems like a love poem, but is actually a sex poem that elevates the love for a lover, while simultaneously denying the significance of that particular lover when compared to Cohen’s intense and constant Need:


There is a playfulness to Cohen’s poetry and song lyrics, that becomes more knowing and darker as he ages. Ageing becomes a key topic, most famously in ‘Tower of Song’ but elsewhere, as well. Cohen is witty and sexy, he is romantic and desperate and beautiful and smart. Reading the lyrics to, for example, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’, ‘Chelsea Hotel’ etc, doesn’t diminish their power: these are famous works because they are smart and beautiful and speak articulately and intelligently to an important and deep part of the human mind. Cohen’s words are strong and nuanced, mired in religiosity and physicality, particularly the Passion and its relationship to passion.

‘You Have The Lovers’ is an early poem, that fits thematically with the gentle, lusty, romance of his first album, and this live recording of him reading it is a pleasant treat. It is about the pleasant way in which we disappear when we are in love, when we’re fucking someone we’re in love with, there is nothing else in the world that exists, we disappear, fade away, absent:

There is an interest in the liminal throughout Cohen’s whole career, including that famous lyric: “There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.” We pass through life, moving towards death but always alive. These are words – some written to be sung, others to be read – that all ask to be paid attention to and they are very much deserving of attention. From the sacred to the profane, from “Give me crack and anal sex” through to the bolshy “You loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win” and all the heartfelt expressions of love and lust and all of the gritty, sexy, sweaty stuff in between.

This book is a treat, and the pocket-sized li’l hardback will become something I maybe keep at the bottom of my bag, just in case I need a literary pick up, as I don’t have any intention to put conservatories back in my life for those more visceral pick ups.

Highly recommended. As too is being a teenager. Or just being in love as an adult.

bueller gif

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1. Basically they would go: Me: Did I ever tell you I was first sucked off while watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Other: Yeah. Did I ever tell you about [insert faux secret I’d been told in return over and over again.]

2. If you listen to records and don’t have a Spotify account you’re living in the impractical past. Maybe “technically” analogue sound is better, but I can’t tell the difference, YOU can’t tell the difference, records are absolutely fucking massive and they’re stupid stupid stupid. Music is online now: deal with it. Get over it. Stop trying to confuse your parents by embracing defunct technology. You’re forty years old. It’s not the 1960s. 

3. These never overlap because it’s 2018 and drunk driving is about as on fleek as the phrase “on fleek”.

3 comments on “Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen

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