Leonard Cohen & Bob Dylan Are Iconic Songwriter-Poets – That’s A Problem

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Reverence For The Myth
Prevents Learning From The Man

My Craft or Sullen Art: Poetry and Songwriting by Joe Dolce (Meanjin: Sept 26, 2013) is a compelling argument for the premise that conferring upon one the status of songwriter-poet is an obstacle to understanding, appreciating, and learning from the work of that individual. The opening paragraphs of this essay follows:

Among many contemporary poets and writers there is a reverence approaching myopia towards certain iconic singer-songwriters from the early 1970s, most notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, which prevents clear-eyed critical analysis of their careers and current work. There is also confusion as to whether these singer-songwriters should be considered poets, lyricists, poet-lyricists, singer-poets or a dozen other hyphenated nouns.

Accomplished and extremely gifted writers and critics, such as Robert Adamson and Sir Christopher Ricks, who are currently writing at the high standard that both Dylan and Cohen wrote at in their best years, or have even transcended their skills with language, continue to heap lavish praise with nary a critical word to be heard. These same writers, who have no problem dismantling the work of their respected peers, seem to be paralysed when it comes to their musical heroes. They see no conflict in analysing the work of other writers around them but react to any adverse criticism about the ones they choose to follow in music with something approaching the same distain that a mother might have of another mother saying disparaging things about her children.

It is worth emphasizing that Mr Dolce does not address the amorphous mass of fans who revere Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan but focuses specifically on “contemporary poets and writers” who admire those musicians, going so far as to name examples.

Nonetheless, extrapolating from the descriptions of these professional writers who are “super fans” (see below) to those of us who are Cohen or Dylan followers of the sort unburdened by literary gifts, proves irresistible.

For example, the nature of this reverence and the problems it causes, outlined in the third paragraph, is surely as applicable to fans in general as it is to fans who are “poets and writers:”

A strange bond between these ‘super fans’ and their beloved musical artists falls somewhere between a family tie, the devotion of a sanyasin for a guru and awe and reverence given a tribal shaman. The unspoken taboo and emotional reactiveness given anyone questioning the sacred musical texts of the ‘masters’ becomes a serious impediment to learning anything from the strengths and weaknesses of these artists, incorporating the strengths into our own work—while avoiding the weaknesses.

Later in the article, the author elaborates on this theme:

The work of the beloved becomes a kind of spiritual canon, much like the Bible for certain fundamentalists as the unquestionable Word of God—blind faith is required to understand it, not reason. Once you attribute the sacred state to someone else, it puts them in a different moral value system to your own. Followers no longer conceive of themselves to be as worthy as the one they follow. One can only be devoted. And people outside the circle can become less than human if they doubt or question.

Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It …

This is an essay every fan of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, and those other singer-songwriters accused of being poets should read. While there are disputable points and the occasional cheap shot,1 Dolce’s piece provides insights that can lead to self-awareness, albeit via uncomfortable disillusionment, and the reformation of ones perspective. Ultimately, one can come away with an enhanced recognition of the strengths – as well as the previously denied limitations – of these singer-songwriters.

The entire article can be accessed at My Craft or Sullen Art: Poetry and Songwriting by Joe Dolce

  1. The only poetry by Leonard Cohen Dolce quotes, for example, comprise seven nonconsecutive lines about cigarettes from “The Flow” (Book Of Longing: 2006) – hardly one of Cohen’s most profound efforts. Given that these lines are specifically positioned as a comparison to another poet’s work, Dolce’s choice is sufficiently suspect to generate a prima facie case that, as everybody knows, “the fight was fixed.” []

3 Responses to Leonard Cohen & Bob Dylan Are Iconic Songwriter-Poets – That’s A Problem

  1. Oh, my. The fight is fixed indeed. Where to start? I know, I’ll start with a cheap shot of my own: if thou wouldst accuse literary or musical icons of lazy writing, first cast the “distain”[sic] out of thine own writing. Thank you for indulging me there, I feel better now.

    It seems to me that Mr. Dolce is trying to do one thing that has some real merit (calling attention to excesses of blind (or deaf?) devotion toward and identification with musical heroes on the part of fans by doing another thing with no merit at all: attempting to knock those icons off their pedestals, “demythologizing” them by a systematic process of cherry-picking and what seems like willful misunderstanding. So, the Dylan who wrote

    “I got troubles so hard,
    I can’t stand the strain,
    some young lazy slut
    has charmed away my brains.”
    has sadly come down in the world from his younger self who wrote:

    “In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand,
    at the mongrel dogs who teach,
    fearing not that I’d become my enemy,
    in the instant that I preach.’

    Really? How does it seem if you set the song from 1964 against a different one from 2006 instead? Say, for example…

    “As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
    The wounded flowers were dangling from the vines
    I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain
    Someone hit me from behind”

    Cherry-picking and special pleading. And while anyone who’s any kind of fan of Dylan knows how much he has enjoyed taking jabs at interviewers from time to time (and who can blame him, really?) Mr. Dolce doesn’t even seem to spare a thought for an alternate explanation: that a man might have a different understanding of poetry, songs and songwriting after 50 years of practicing the craft than he did when he was a 20-something newly intoxicated with language. And Leonard Cohen, too, who always resists when asked to be the Talmudist on his own work (though he doesn’t resist it with quite the picador brio of Dylan) has on occasion been persuaded to speak at greater length than “It’s mysterious,” and said perfectly cogent and sensible things about the necessary differences between poetry written for the page and song lyrics, which must move more swiftly from heart to heart. And let’s not forget that he’s also said that some of the pieces in “Book of Longing” are more in the nature of jokes than poems.

    Trying to make great writers look bad by holding up lines specially selected for their ephemeral or risible qualities hardly seems like a good method for persuading diehard fans that they need to look with a more critical eye on the work of their beloved icons. To me, in fact, it seems more like trolling. But then maybe I spend too much time on the internet.

  2. Peter Offermann

    Thank you for bringing the “back pages” back into our memory (“Lies that life is black and white”). Maybe as humans we can hardly escape from the problems of dualism – except from personalities like the DalaiLama? But we can try to be conscious and aware.

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