Leonard Cohen’s Transcendent “How I Got My Song” Speech
Make no mistake – Leonard Cohen’s 2011 Prince of Asturias Awards Speech, “How I Got My Song,” was an intricately constructed, exquisitely executed, profoundly effective and affective performance.
It was, no less than his most eloquent renditions of his most precisely crafted songs and poems, evocative, revealing, and strengthening. The immediate and worldwide audience found its tone, content, and presentation deeply resonant.
This accomplishment would have been impressive if the core of the speech had been one of the themes Cohen has repeatedly and reliably mined to move the human spirit: romantic love, sex (romantic or otherwise), persistence in the face of hopelessness, the metaphysics of surviving betrayal, or the cosmic aspect of music. That the speech actually dealt with notions of a very personal sort of indebtedness and growth, the impact of one human on another, and, most of all, beauty as expressed in the mechanical elements used to construct a musical instrument and the song played on that instrument1 renders the achievement remarkable.2
How Leonard Cohen’s Speech Achieved Sublimity
Leonard Cohen was the right man in the right place at the right time. The 2011 Prince Of Asturias Awards and the 77 year old iteration of Leonard Cohen proved a perfect match. It’s difficult to think of other locations,3 events, or men that celebrate the combination of intellect, passion, romance, belles-lettres, sexuality, and mystery.
Leonard Cohen pursued sublimity. Cohen attempted the task Paul Valéry set for poets, “to express by language precisely that which language is powerless to express.” He addressed all the senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, to convey a conceptual expression of a facet of the sublime. And, when Cohen reported saying to himself, “You are an old man and you have not said thank you, you have not brought your gratitude back to the soil from which this fragrance arose,” he is also expressing his fear that he will not be able to express – or, more accurately, adequately hint at – the essence of the profundity he has felt that eludes most of us completely.
Pico Iyer, writing liner notes in 2002 for The Essential Leonard Cohen, pointed out that Leonard Cohen
defined the Sixties for many of us, with songs like “Suzanne” and “Bird On a Wire”; he caught the bravado of the Eighties (“First We Take Manhattan”), and, having already plunged deep into the time out of time (“Night Comes On”), he then summarized the Nineties (“The Future”). When everyone had counted him out, he looked in on us again, from his cabin high up at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, and told us what was essential in the 21st century too.
In this 2011 speech, Cohen addressed (as he does in some of his most recent songs) what is important about the final chapter of ones life – the importance of beauty and dignity.
Leonard Cohen spoke to his audience. Like Keats, who wrote that a poem “should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity” and that ‘it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance,”4 Cohen used language that was in tune with the thoughts of his listeners.
Annotating Leonard Cohen’s “How I Got My Song” Speech
From my stint as an English major in college, I am acutely aware of that the potential benefits of annotations to and explications of literature are potentially offset by certain corresponding risks. And working on that cadaver in medical school brought me to the ineluctable conclusion that, the wonders of a virtual exploration of the body notwithstanding, a truly complete dissection requires the death of the subject.
Understanding a literary work’s allusions, background, and references is, at most, necessary but not sufficient for understanding the work itself. And how one comes to grasp an allusion may itself be significant. In Grand Allusion, a knowing essay in the February 3, 2012 New York Times, Elizabeth D. Samet points out
The Internet has turned students into supremely efficient trackers who grow up believing there is a seamless web of Google-ready allusion waiting to be exploited. Perhaps like spelling, memorizing phone numbers and reading a map, recognizing allusions without technological assistance is becoming an obsolete skill. Today any quotation can be identified in seconds, any suspicion of intertextuality immediately confirmed or denied.5
… In a letter she wrote the day she died, Elizabeth Bishop complained to the editor of an anthology that included some of her poems about the notes that had been appended: “If a poem catches a student’s interest at all, he or she should damned well be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary. . . . You can see what a nasty teacher I must be — but I do think students get lazier and lazier & expect to have everything done for them.”
Resistance to referential matters, of course, resides even deeper in literary theory. The New Criticism specifically argues that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley codified the concept in their essay The Intentional Fallacy:
The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.
In oversimplified form, they hold that the author cannot be reconstructed from a writing and, consequently, the text is the only source of meaning. Any details of the author’s desires or life are purely extraneous. Samet elaborates on this theme:
Eschewing the role of literary detective, they [Wimsatt and Beardsley] rejected the notion that we “do not know what a poet means unless we have traced him in his reading.” “Eliot’s allusions work,” they argued in “The Intentional Fallacy,” “when we know them — and to a great extent even when we do not know them, through their suggestive power. . . . It would not much matter if Eliot invented his sources,” as Walter Scott and Coleridge had done. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s warning that identifying an allusion does not amount to the same thing as understanding its significance has renewed urgency in the current age of allusion-automation, for if the Web makes it that much easier for the allusion-hunter to bag his quarry, it does not necessarily tell him how to dress it.
Still, comprehending the meaningful equivalent of Chaucer’s Middle English in contemporary language or locating the pancreas of a patient on the operating table is dicey without a footnote or the experience of dissecting a human body, respectively. Similarly, it seems at least possible that knowing, for example, a bit about Conde guitars, Cohen’s penchant for chocolates to fuel his writing, Frederico Garcia Lorca, flamenco music, and which lines in the speech Cohen had used previously and which were unique to this talk, might be useful in understanding the speech in depth or enhancing its impact.6
It is thus with some trepidation because of my ambivalence about such commentary, not unlike the “sense of unease” Cohen reported “because [he had] always felt some ambiguity about an award for poetry,” that I offer a work in progress – Leonard Cohen: The Prince Of Asturias Awards Speech With Annotations & Commentary._____________________
- This use of the mundane to evoke the phenomenal is hardly a new tactic for Cohen. Beatie Wolfe Watson in The Strange Case of Leonard Cohen notes
What I find most compelling about Cohen as a writer, whether a poet, a novelist, or songwriter, is the way in which he makes creative use out of whatever material he finds to hand. This bricolage artist draws on Hellenistic myths, fairy tales, Biblical imagery (which he deems the universal language, one that speaks to us all), his inherited Jewish popular customs, adopted Zen Buddhism philosophy, suburban neighbours, grandparents, the social-political state of Canada, and the contemporary Montreal scene to forge a style simultaneously unique, and inclusive. To account for all the allusions in Cohen’s work would be feat no less challenging than trying to categorise this multifarious writer. [↩]
- With the devaluation of superlatives in recent years such that rather ordinary peanut butter is advertised as life-changing, an imperfect skateboard maneuver is described as awesome, and a nondescript political speech written by a press agent and delivered for the third time the same day by a candidate for Lieutenant Governor is accounted important, there are seemingly no terms remaining in the language that reliably convey the quality I wish to express in this case. “Remarkable” will have to suffice. [↩]
- The only countries that come to mind as rivals of Spain in their national passion for poetry, music, and romance are Ireland and, perhaps, France. [↩]
- John Keats in a letter to John Taylor, February 27 , 1818 [↩]
- While the following not germane to the purposes of this post, it would be a loss of fun not to note that Samet goes on to report
Some authors play with this very assumption by planting red herrings in their work: David Foster Wallace, for example, or Arthur Phillips in his recent novel, “The Tragedy of Arthur.” By intermingling manufactured and verifiable allusions in the same poem, Robert Pinsky has baffled several keyboarding Natty Bumppos of my acquaintance. [↩]
- The annotations are, like Heck Of A Guy posts, luridly idiosyncratic, often tangential, overwhelmingly arbitrary, and in some cases, opportunistic. Nonetheless, I wager readers will find at least of fraction of them interesting and even a few that prove helpful. [↩]