Such songs now form the hoarse, moaning soundtrack to countless movies and television episodes. When a Cohen song rises from some awkward silence it’s a good bet the director has run out of ideas. The religiose sentimentality and painful growl, like a halibut with strep throat, have patched a lot of plot holes. He’ll give an emulsified version of everything the scriptwriter left unsaid.
“The Flame” has a little of everything for Cohen fans and nothing for anyone else. The publicity matter claims the stray work has been “carefully selected”; but if this is the best of his barrel scrapings, there’s not much barrel to scrape. With a plan laid down by the singer himself, the editors have included his own choice of some 60 poems, the lyrics from his last four albums and a long dreary selection of notebook jottings. The pages have been decorated with 70 or so rumpled self-portraits (the singer’s amour propre came streaked in self-loathing), with a dozen amateurish doodles of young women thrown in. That perhaps represents the internal proportions of Cohen’s famous vanity and his equally famous lechery — I mean, of course, his search for a muse variously named Marianne, Sahara, Vanessa, Charmaine, Anjani, Mara, Sheila, Heather, Carolina and Olivia. How awful had any of his passing fancies passed unnoticed.
The poems are monotonous scribbles of the moody-undergraduate school, what young Werther would have sung had he been Canadian:
O apple of the world
we weren’t married on the surface
we were married at the core
I can’t take it anymore.
The long miseries and brief graces of love are Cohen’s obsessive subject. Some famous love poems by Bernart de Ventadorn and Dante sound almost as bad when translated, but Cohen doesn’t have that excuse. The poems might seem that much better in Provençal or Tuscan.
Cohen favors an Audenesque quatrain with none of the puckish genius Auden used to refashion the form. What we get instead is:
And from the wall a grazing wind
weightless and serene
wounds Me as I part Her lips
and wounds Us in between
And fastened here, surrendered to
My Lover and My Lover,
We spread and drown as lilies do—
forever and forever.
Cohen loves “poetic” lines that are nearly excruciating (“And now that I kneel / At the edge of my years / Let me fall through the mirror of love”), rhymes that would cripple a musk ox (plug/enough, sword/2005, art/Marx), and passages the C.I.A. should use only during enhanced interrogation (a couple “waving at desire / as it rests in the foreground / foothill-shaped, peaceful, / devoted as a dog made of tears”).
The lyrics follow in cornucopian abundance, as if Cohen were possessed by a Dionysian mania forever unassuaged. Genial, sloppy, full of conventional lines, they sometimes have little twists that save them from disaster. Heavy on parallels and antitheses, they’re even heavier on abstractions, the words just a syllable or two, on rare occasions three, almost never four:
The parking lot is empty
They killed the neon sign
It’s dark from here to St. Jovite
It’s dark all down the line.
Cohen could turn this stuff out all day, and it’s not half bad; but lyrics without music, even decent lyrics, look like dried lungfish in someone’s den, mounted on varnished plaques. The difference between his lyrics and poems is tissue-paper thin except when he was writing some wretched approximation of free verse:
His cry his perfect word pitched against
The baffled contradictions of the heart
Wrestling them embracing them
Strangling them with a jealous conjugal desperation.
Cohen was not a poet who accidentally became a lyricist; he was a lyricist who for years fooled himself into thinking he was a poet. As poems these squibs are worthless; as lyrics, even sung in that lizardy groan, they often moved millions. His voice, that broken, battered thing, could make almost any song — even “God Save the Queen,” perhaps — sound lonesome, miserable, profound. If singing badly is no bar to stardom, everyone who stands caterwauling in the shower should take hope. You might not even need a whiskey-and-battery-acid cocktail to get there.
The final section consists of disordered entries from the hundreds of notebooks Cohen picked up and pitched down over the years (one was discovered in his refrigerator freezer). Fans who have pined for wisdom like “I think, therefore I am / right up there with / Mary had a Little Lamb” or “I was thinking / of a room in Westminster / room / with a woman from Hell / who thought she was hot” may at last be gratified. (The book reproduces the manuscript of the latter. That extra “room” is a bad editorial decision — Cohen was probably just trying to clarify his handwriting.) In the notebooks, the singer writes, “Whatever happened to my place / in the Anthology of English Literature?” The better question is, Why should he be there in the first place?