Pure Poetry #5: Leonard Cohen

Pure Poetry Week:

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal

Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
– Leonard Cohen

It took me many, many years to recognize Leonard Cohen as one of the great [relatively] contemporary poets. During my teens I was only ever aware of his musical accomplishments, that he was the older Canadian gentleman who performed deep-toned ‘adult’ folk that I’d never paid attention to.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I realized that Leonard Cohen was an accomplished poet, that his songs were poetry set to a soundtrack. I studied up and learned that Cohen was an English Literature undergrad at university and has been writing poetry since the 1950s. His first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published with critical acclaim when he was just 22 years old. After reading it I was compelled to read everything, all of the poems and lyrics and prose.

Over his career, Leonard Cohen picked up the titles of “the Poet Laureate of Pessimism,” and “the Godfather of Gloom,” largely due his willingness to write brutally about complex emotions and the darker aspects of the human condition. If I had to pinpoint one thing that I admire most about his work, that would be it.

If you’ve never looked into Cohen before, here are a few highlights.

Beneath My Hands
Beneath my hands
your small breasts
are the upturned bellies
of breathing fallen sparrows.
Wherever you move
I hear the sounds of closing wings
of falling wings.
I am speechless
because you have fallen beside me
because your eyelashes
are the spines of tiny fragile animals.
I dread the time
when your mouth
begins to call me hunter.
When you call me close
to tell me
your body is not beautiful
I want to summon
the eyes and hidden mouths
of stone and light and water
to testify against you.
I want them
to surrender before you
the trembling rhyme of your face
from their deep caskets.
When you call me close
to tell me
your body is not beautiful
I want my body and my hands
to be pools
for your looking and laughing.

Take This Longing
You’re faithful to the better man,
I’m afraid that he left.
So let me judge your love affair
In this very room where I have sentenced
Mine to death.
I’ll even wear these old laurel leaves
That he’s shaken from his head.
Just take this longing from my tongue,
All the useless things my hands have done,
Let me see your beauty broken down,
Like you would do for one you love.

Chelsea Hotel #2
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.
Those were the reasons and that was New York,
we were running for the money and the flesh.
And that was called love for the workers in song
probably still is for those of them left.

The Pro
I leave my silence to a co-operative of poets
who have already bruised their mouths against it.
I leave my homesick charm to the scavengers of
spare change who work the old artistic corners.
I leave the shadow of my manly groin to those who
write for pay.
I leave to several jealous men a second-rate legend
of my life.
To those few high school girls
who preferred my work to Dylan’s
I leave my stone ear
and my disposable Franciscan ambitions.

You can find more in these collection:
Let Us Compare Mythologies
The Spice-Box of Earth
Flowers for Hitler
Death of a Lady’s Man
Book of Mercy
Book of Longing

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Founding member. Former writer. Still loves Autostraddle with her whole heart.

Crystal has written 320 articles for us.


  1. I applied to be a waitress at Terra Blues, a blues club in NYC, simply because of the fact that they had ‘take this longing from my tongue, all the useless things my hands have done’ on the back of their staff t-shirts. So glad you’ve posted about this artist. Leonard Cohen is beyond brilliant.
    Thank you for this.

  2. I admit that i got into leonard cohen hard core because of The L Word — “My Secret Life” and “I’m Your Man” were both used in the first season (and used well) and then I realized he was a poet because Juan Moon always quoted Leonard Cohen on his blog. I have “tower of song” in my head now.

  3. Autostraddle, this is too much. I am far too in love with you. I love Cohen’s poetry… I knew him as a poet first, and the guy who wrote Hallelujah (I think I’ve really only ever heard like 2? of his songs?) as my mom gave me her copy of “15 Canadian Poets” which is from 1970,which, holy guac, is 22 years before I was even born.. but that is how I fell in love. A short one, but definitely a favorite:

    “The Music Crept By Us”
    I would like to remind
    the management
    that the drinks are watered
    and the hat-check girl
    has syphilis
    and the band is composed
    of former SS monsters
    However since it is
    New Year’s Eve
    and I have lip cancer
    I will place my
    paper hat on my
    concussion and dance

  4. Also, yesterday I bought a book of Stephen Dunn’s poetry because Autostraddle told me he was a good one. I was reading it on the bus earlier today. Autostraddle was right.

  5. The Book of Longing made me fall a little in love with Leonard Cohen, even beyond the brilliant music.

    He’s also got a novel, Beautiful Losers, which I think is definitely worth a read.

  6. I first discovered Leonard Cohen when his song Everybody knows played as the intro song to Pump up the Volume. I couldn’t fully appreciate him back then, but I can now.

  7. you know the Chelsea Hotel song is about Janis Joplin. That makes it better, right? Also you didn’t quote the best lines:

    I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
    you were famous, your heart was a legend.
    You told me again you preferred handsome men
    but for me you would make an exception.
    And clenching your fist for the ones like us
    who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
    you fixed yourself, you said, “Well never mind,
    we are ugly but we have the music.”

    I also recommend “Suzanne” and second whoever mentioned “Tower of Song”, which is also very funny. Sometimes poetry is so profound it forgets to be funny I think.

    • Suzanne is the best! The absolute best. My mom used to sing it to me as a lullaby, which is kind of a weird lullaby in retrospect, but it’s been my favourite forever.

  8. I know everybody does, but Laura Burhenn does a really really great cover of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.”

  9. I love this guy and everything he has made. He has been an ear who listens, a voice who can talk of the difficult feelings, and a space of solitude, healing and humour.

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