Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Like Leonard Cohen I may sing about
transcendence, but I don’t endorse it.
Inhibited by devastating doubt,
which is the skeptic scholar's corset,
I soar towards the sun and the supernal,
but tend to be too temperamental
to focus on what’s labeled as eternal,
and temporize, untranscendental.

Unlike Leonard’s gift my own, though golden,
was not a singer’s velvet voice.
To unsung words I’ve always been beholden,
and neither Carnegie nor Royce
have halls where verses unaccompanied
by instruments like a guitar
or piano draw the audiences I need
to validate my verse, as noir
as Leonard’s, and emerging from the same
Judaic sources we endorse.
Not wild—in fact I’d say extremely tame—
about the transcendental force,
I try to make the point that life must be
experienced without expectation
that we should wait for what we cannot see,
transcendent causes for elation.

Inspired by an article on Leonard Cohen in the New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones (“State of Grace: Leonard Cohen’s Return,” August 24, 2009):
Over the past forty years, Cohen’s songs have been covered so often they’ve become their own cottage industry. Aretha Franklin, Jarvis Cocker, Philip Glass, Will Oldham, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nina Simone, Willie Nelson, Françoise Hardy, Anthony Michael Hall, Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, and the Whiffenpoofs have all recorded Cohen songs. During the fourth week of December of last year, two versions of Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—one by Jeff Buckley and one by Alexandra Burke, a winning contestant on the British talent show “X Factor”—occupied the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on the U.K. charts. Cohen’s lyrics stand up in a variety of settings, and his limited vocal range tends to leave his melodies unfinished, allowing room for experimentation. On Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” for instance, the verse melodies ascend, and the open-throated singing transforms the chorus into a kind of earnest incantation that the songwriter probably wouldn’t attempt himself. Cohen may sing about transcendence, but he seems never to fully endorse it.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 8/19/09

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