Facets of our own day-Pound and Cohen

On the bus and on the train: wherein I read from Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era while listening to Leonard Cohen’s Live in London album, and exegize further on Pound and Cohen.


The following two quotations are from advice given to Ezra Pound by Ford Madox Hueffer* as he started his career, quoted in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era.  They’re somewhat ironic as they’re about the usefulness of contemporary comprehensibility, but they can be difficult to understand by today’s  standards.  The first quotation is seen against the background of the then-current practice of writing about Greek or Latin poems:

Aureate diction** was a civic menace because ” the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects, ” and “poetry, like everything else, to be valid and valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day.  Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche.***  And as to the use of the past, “study every fragment of Sappho; delve ages long in the works of Bertram de Born;…let us do anything in the world that will widen our perceptions.  We are the heirs of all the ages.  But, in the end, I feel fairly assured that the purpose of all these present travails is the right appreciation of such facets of our own day as God will let us perceive.”

That has to go over even better in America, since here we tend to  emphasize science, military, engineering, and other practical subjects over “classical” studies.We are lucky to have retained any liberal arts at all in our universities.  Most of today’s students have probably never heard of (or care about) the foreign language stanzas the poets of Pound’s day so painstakingly expounded upon.  And of course the issues they cared so passionately about make as much sense to us now as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The second quotation, again advice about how to write poetry:

…Ford had hammered on the diction and syntax of natural speech: “nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say.”

Who could say things more completely with fewer words than Leonard Cohen?  But as for “appreciating facets of our own day”, part of Cohen’s fascination is the way he weaves in such bits of history, Old Testament imagery, and archaic ritual that is still floating around our collective consciousness.

For instance, Who by Fire is part Bible, part Camelot, part leprosy and Salem witch trials, part choir madrigals, and part Shakespeare .

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?

Interspersed with this vision of sixteenth century maypoles and dungeons, is the telephone age phrase “who shall I say is calling?” Below it echoes the older meaning of paying a call on someone, and below that, medieval folk tales of visits by the grim reaper.

Just as the literature that inspired Shakespeare does not resonate so much with us, Cohen’s apparent antecedents don’t pass the Ford test of “nothing that you couldn’t in some circumstance… actually say” .  A verse  somewhat similar to “Who by fire” is all over the internet attributed to a  1951 prayer book, but tracing back further, we find this verse from the Unesanneh Tokef |wiki|, part of the liturgy in rabbinical Judaism for centuries, possibly going back to the third century Genesis Rabbah tradition.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the Decree!”

The smell of judgment day and shepherds’ flocks is all over this, not the stuff we usually concern ourselves with in this century, but leave it to one of the Kohanim (Leonard Cohen is halakhically a priest) to bless us with a version that not only expounds in terms of “facets of our own day” and in words “that someone could actually say”, but also resonates with deeper cultural memories of our collective past.

Above: blessing during a Cohen concert (8:00)


*Ford Madox Hueffer.  From wiki: “In 1908, he founded The English Review, in which he published Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, John Galsworthy and William Butler Yeats, and gave debuts to Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. In 1924, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal with great influence on modern literature. Staying with the artistic community in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France, he made friends with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Jean Rhys, all of whom he would publish….”

**Aureate diction — ornate  poetic diction (“a speaker’s distinctive vocabulary choices and style of expression”, not “pronunciation”) with internal rhyme and Latin coinages

***pastiche–stylistic imitation  or composition from different works

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