A Whisper Through Life : A Book of Poems

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Jew or Buddhist? Hedonist or hermit? Across his 82 years, the Montreal-born Leonard Cohen was all of these things — and in his posthumous book of poetry, given the Lawrentian title The Flame by his son Adam, all sides of the man are present. And moreover, not demystifying it. To Cohen himself, though, it was never enough. Oddly, he made early forays into music as a teenager, forming a country-folk band with friends called the Buckskin Boys, but he mostly let music drop until the release of his debut at age Those first poems emerged from a close-knit group of Canadian versifiers reading stanzas to each other in cafes and flats, printing mimeographed copies.

But his sense of the art stretched back thousands of years and great writing would, he knew, outlive what he saw as his own meagre contributions. Cohen was an exacting reader of the verse of others. In , he sued his longtime business manager, a decade or so after she began taking his money.

For his final publication, he left almost nothing to chance. Though Cohen came up during the beat era and admired Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the cult of spontaneity never appealed to him. I find last thought, best thought. The first is a selection of 63 poems, some of which have been published before, going back several decades. Most of it is in rhyme and metre; at least half could be described as light verse. Cohen produced and wrote the lyrics.

On the page, the poise and polish of these songs remain striking. A acceptance speech for a Spanish award serves as a brief coda. There is also an email exchange with a friend; even his online correspondence seems to be in rhyme and metre. Included in various proportions are love, sex, death, regret, exaltation, piety and gentle fondness. The first literary instinct of the young writer is always to transcend the traditional means of utter- ance; the conventional forms have lost their vital response to the subject, he feels; they want re-adjusting, renewing. As he goes on he reconciles in time the new need with the old equipment, bringing in as much fresh force and quality as his genius and energy can satisfactorily compass.

This achievement of renovated modes of utterance is of course largely dependent upon the new condi- tions of life, and therefore of literary subject-matter, amid which he is placed. But what must be specially remarked, it is not usually from too ardent a renascence of words and their art forms that a writer fails in the translation of life, but usually from his being overawed by tradition. Convention is the curse of poetry, as it is the curse of every- thing else, in which at a second remove the outward show can be made to pass muster for the inward reality.

Now, the hastiest glimpse at the conditions under which a poet who has attempted to deal with the whole scope of the new civilisation, and with all that it implies of new science, new philosophy,. Poetry of the last few decades in England has occupied itself mainly with archaic or purely ideal subjects, with specialist experiments in psychology and morbid anatomy, or the familiar stock material of fantasy and sentiment. For these a certain art- glamour, so to speak,—a certain metrical remove, —is required as a rule, which can be best attained, perhaps, by the fine form and dainty colour of rhyming verse.

And there will always, let us hope, be those who will continue to supply this artistic poetry, bringing as it does so much inestimable enchantment to the everyday life. Up to the pre- sent it may be that this poetry has fairly satisfied the need of the time,—a time occupied too much with its processes of material civilisation and wealth-acquirement to attend very truly to the ideal. But standing now on the verge of a new era—an era of democratic ascendancy—it may be well to ask ourselves, even in conserva- tive England, whether, seeing the immense poetic need of a time dangerously possessed of new and tremendous forces, this poetry of archaic form and.

It may seem that a dangerous comparison has been invited in these instances, but it is one that must be faced straightforwardly.


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The name of Burns suggests a solution of the whole matter. He at any rate sang out of an abounding sympathy with, and knowledge of, the popular need of his day,—. Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,. But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the. I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in.

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Thinking on this suggestion, first of all from its purely literary side, we are brought face to face at once with problems of extreme difficulty, which have been suggestively treated by William Sloane Kennedy and other American writers recently, but which it will be rather attempted to roughly state than to solve here. The whole of Whitman's depart- ure in poetry is concerned with the vexed question of prose and verse, and the proper functions of the two modes of expression. Absolutely stated, prose is the equivalent of speech in all its range; verse, of song.

But it is evident at once that the matter does not rest here. In a hundred ways needs arise which cannot be met by a strict adherence to this line of demarcation, as when, for instance, an elevation of utterance is required that yet does not, properly speaking, arise into pure song. In the right adjustment then of the relations betwixt prose and verse lies the difficult secret of the art of words.

Whitman noting in his literary work the restricting effect of exact rhyme measures, sought to attain a new poetic mode by a return to the rhythmic move- ment of prose, with what signal result may be seen by a sympathetic dive almost anywhere into. Thinking on Walt Whitman's initiative in the larger sense, and turning over the Leaves of Grass. The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of.

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I. I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the. I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each. Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust. It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that. It is not possible here to go much into detail in speaking of the great wealth of poetry to be found in Leaves of Grass.

Perhaps it is best for the uninitiated reader to begin with the "Inscriptions," then turn to the section called "Calamus," Calamus being a sort of American grass which is used here to typify comradeship and love! Proceeding then, turn to the more simply tuneful summons of "Pioneers! O Pioneers! Many of Whitman's most characteristic poems have necessarily been omitted from a volume like the present, intended for an average popular English audience—an audience which, be it confessed, from the actual experiment of the present editor, is apt to find much of Leaves of Grass as unintelli- gible as Sordello , not without a certain excuse haply in some instances.

The method of selection adopted in preparing the volume has certainly not been scientific or very profoundly critical. The limitations of the average run of readers have been, as far as they could be surmised, the limitations of the book, and upon the head of that unaccountable class, who have in the past been guilty of not a few poets' and prophets' maltreatment, rest any odium the thorough-paced disciple of Walt Whitman may attach to the present venture.

For those who wish to thoroughly apprehend the Leaves of Grass it will be necessary, let it be said at once, to study them in their complete forms, which is to be obtained in the edition of Messrs. Maurice Bucke, mentioned in these pages. The Specimen Days. At last, in thinking on all that might have been said to aid the true apprehension of one of the few true books that have appeared in the present generation, these jottings of comment and sug- gestion seem, on looking over them, more or less futile and beyond the mark.

But it would be im- possible for any writer, and especially for a young writer, to speak at all finally and absolutely in dealing with a nature so unprecedented and so powerful. All that he can hope to do is to suggest and facilitate the means of approach. Else there is a great temptation to dwell upon many matters left untouched, and specially to enlarge with enthusiasm on certain of the poetic qualities of the book. Of Whitman's felicitous power of words at his best; of his noble symphonic movement in such poems as the heroic funeral-song on President Lincoln,—.

Apart from any mere literary qualities or excel- lences, what needs lastly to have all stress laid upon it, is the urgent, intimate, personal influence that Walt Whitman exerts upon those who approach him with sympathy and healthy feeling. There are very few books that have this fine appeal and stimulus; but once the personal magnetism of Walt Whitman has reached the heart, it will be found that his is a stimulus unlike any other in its natural power.

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His influence is peculiarly individual, and therefore, from his unique way of relating the individual to the universal, peculiarly organic and potent for moral elevation. Add to this, that he is passionately contemporary, dealing always with the ordinary surroundings, facing directly the apparently unbeautiful and unheroic phenomena of the everyday life, and not asking his readers away into some airy outer-where of pain- ful return, and it will be found that the new seeing he gives is of immediate and constant effect, making perpetually for love and manliness and natural life.

With this seeing, indeed, the com- monest things, the most trifling actions, become. It is the younger hearts who will thrill to this new incitement,—the younger natures, who are putting forth strenuously into the war of human liberation. Older men and women have established their mental and spiritual environment; they work according to their wont. They, many of them, look with something of derision at this san- guine devotion to new ideals, and haply utter smiling protests against the deceptive charms of all things novel.

But if the ideals informing Leaves of Grass. Demand the copious and close companionship of men. Your horizon rises, I see it parting away for more. I see not America only, not only, Liberty's nation but. I see tremendous entrances and exits, new combinations,. I see that force advancing with irresistible power on the.

Your dreams, O years, how they penetrate through me! The perform'd America and Europe grow dim, retiring. The unperform'd, more gigantic that ever, advance,. Around the idea of thee the war revolving, With all its angry and vehement play of causes, With vast results to come for thrice a thousand years, These recitatives for thee,—my book and the war are.

And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles, The making of perfect soldiers. Bear forth to them folded my love, dear mariners, for. And so will some one when I am dead and gone write As if any man really knew aught of my life, Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing. The pennant is flying aloft as she speeds she speeds so.

Nationality, I leave in him revolt, O latent right of insurrection! And why should I not speak to you? I will put in my poems that with. States must be their religion, Otherwise there is just no real and permanent grandeur; Nor character nor life worthy the name without religion, Nor land nor man or woman without religion. These ostensible realities, politics, points? Your ambition or business whatever it may be? Land of wheat, beef, pork! Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world! Land of the eastern Chesapeake! Land of Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan! Land of the Old Thirteen!

Massachusetts land! Vermont and Connecticut! Land of the ocean shores! Land of boatmen and sailors! Inextricable lands! The side by side! The great women's land! Far breath'd land! Arctic braced! Mexican breez'd! The Pennsylvanian! O I at any rate include you all with perfect love! I cannot be discharged from you! O death! O for all that, I am yet of you unseen this. Must not Nature be persuaded many times? I harbinge glad and sublime, And for the past I pronounce what the air holds of the. See in arriere, the wigwam, the trail, the hunter's hut,.

Presidents, emerge, drest in working dresses, See, lounging through the shops and fields of the States,. O a word to clear one's path ahead endlessly! O something ecstatic and undemonstrable! O music wild! O now I triumph—and you shall also; O hand in hand—O wholesome pleasure—O one more. O to haste firm holding—to haste, haste on with me. With the life-long love of comrades.

By the manly love of comrades. I reserve, I will give of it, but only to them that love as I myself. How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,. I am silent, I require nothing further, I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of. Christ the divine I see, The dear love of man for his comrade, the attraction of. Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover? Do you think the friendship me would be unalloy'd. Do you think I am trusty and faithful? Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground. Have you no thought O dreamer that it may be all.

Frost-mellow'd berries and Third-month twigs offer'd. Louisiana solitary in a wide in a wide flat space, Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover. Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every. The splendours of the past day? Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city.

You friendly boatmen and mechanics!

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You twain! Then separate, as disembodied or another born, Ethereal, the last athletic reality, my consolation, I ascend, I float in the regions of your love O man, O sharer of my roving life. Be not too certain but I. You light that wraps me and all things in delicate. You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides! I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are. You porches and entrances! You windows whose transparent shells might expose so. You doors and ascending steps! You gray stones of interminable pavements! Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion'd, it is.

Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls? Why are there men and women that while they are nigh. Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink. Why are there trees I never walk under but large and. I think they hang there winter and summer on those. What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side? What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the. What gives me to be free to a woman's and man's good-. Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first, Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well.

I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes,. They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic. Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the. Let the tools remain in the workshop! Let the school stand! Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross,. Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil, I am he who knew what it was to be evil,.

The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous. River and sunset and scallop-edg'd waves of flood-tide? The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the. What is more subtle than this which ties me to the. Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning. What the study could not teach—what the preaching.

Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg'd waves! Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers! Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! Throb baffled and curious brain! Sound out, voices of young men! Live, old life! Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in. Come on, ships from the lower bay! Flaunt away, flags of all nations! Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are, You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul, About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung.

The words of true poems are the tuft and final applause. O for the dropping of raindrops in a song! O for the sunshine and motion of waves in a song! It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time, I will have thousands of globes and all time. To push with resistless way and speed off in the distance. I join the group of clam-diggers on the flats, I laugh and work with them, I joke at my work like a. I know the buoys, O the sweetness of the Fifth-month morning upon the.

O something pernicious and dread! Something far away from a puny and pious life! Something unproved! Something escaped from the anchorage and driving free. To behold his calmness—to be warm'd in the rays of his. To go to battle—to hear the bugles play and the drums To hear the crash of artillery—to see the glittering of. To see men fall and die and not complain! To taste the savage taste of blood—to be so devilish! To gloat so over the wounds and deaths of the enemy!

There—she blows! Again I spring up the rigging to look with the rest—we descend, wild with excitement,. What attractions are these beyond any before? What beauty is this that descends upon me and rises out. Iowan's, Kansian's, Missourian's, Oregonese' joys! To rise at peep of day and pass forth nimbly to work, To plough land in the fall for winter-sown crops, To plough land in the spring for maize, To train orchards, to graft the trees, to gather apples in. Joy of the glad light-beaming day, joy of the wide-. Joy of sweet music, joy of the lighted ball-room and the.

Joy of the plenteous dinner, strong carouse and drinking? Joys of the solitary walk, the spirit bow'd yet proud, the. The agonistic throes, the ecstasies, joys of the solemn. Joys of the thought of Death, the great spheres Time and. Joys all thine own undying one, joys worthy thee O. To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to.

To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports, A ship itself, see indeed these sails I spread to the sun. Long varied train of an emblem, dabs of music, Fingers of the organist skipping staccato over the keys. Or hotels of granite and iron? Where are your jibes of being now? Where are your cavils about the soul now?


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Rivals, traitors, poisoners, disgraced chieftains and the. Lawrence, or north in Kanada, or. Nor yield we mournfully majestic brothers, We who have grandly fill'd our time; With Nature's calm content, with tacit huge delight, We welcome what we wrought for through the past, And leave the field for them. For them predicted long, For a superber race, they too to grandly fill their time, For them we abdicate, in them ourselves ye forest kings! In them these skies and airs, these mountain peaks,. Shasta, Nevadas, These huge precipitous cliffs, this amplitude, these valleys,. Time and Space, You hidden national will lying in your abysms, conceal'd.

Colorado south, Lands bathed in sweeter, rarer, healthier air, valleys and. For we cannot tarry here, We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of. O you youths, Western youths, So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and. Have the elder races halted?

All the past we leave behind, We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world, Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labour. We detachments steady throwing, Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains. We primeval forests felling, We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep. Colorado men are we, From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the. From Nebraska, from Arkansas, Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the. O resistless restless race!

O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender. O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,. Raise the mighty mother mistress, Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry. See my children, resolute children, By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or. On and on the compact ranks, With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the.

O to die advancing on! Are there some of us to droop and die? All the pulses of the world, Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement. Life's involv'd and varied pageants, All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work, All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with. All the hapless silent lovers, All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and.

I too with my soul and body, We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way, Through these shores amid the shadows, with the. Lo, the darting bowling orb! Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering sons and. O you daughters of the West! O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and. Minstrels latent on the prairies! Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have. Not for delectations sweet, Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and. Do the feasters gluttonous feast? Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the.

Has the night descended? Was the road of late so toilsome? Still with sound of trumpet, Far, far off the daybreak call—hark! They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops,. Could I wish humanity different? Could I wish the people made of wood and stone? Or that there be no justice in destiny or time? And who are you, blabbing by rote, years, pages,. What about these likes of myself that draw me so close. Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds.

What is that little black thing I see there in the white? O troubled reflection in the sea! O throat! O throbbing heart! And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night. Paumanok, Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant, Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her. The old graveyards of the hills have hurried to see! Cock'd hats of mothy mould—crutches made of mist! Arms in slings—old men leaning on young men's. Does the ague convulse your limbs?

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President's marshal, If you groan such groans you might balk the government. You have got your revenge, old buster—the crown is. Liberty, let others despair of you—I never despair of. Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean,. I rendezvous with my poems, A traveler's lodging and breakfast as journey through.

For I myself am not one who bestows nothing upon man. These eager business aims—books politics, art, amours, To utter nothingness? O Manhattan, my own, my peerless! O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O truer. How you sprang—how you threw off the costumes of.

Manhattan arming. The blood of the city up—arm'd! Would the talkers be talking? Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder. How envied by all the earth. I hear the drums beat and the trumpets blowing, I myself move abroad swift-rising flying then, I use the wings of the land-bird and use the wings of the. New Orleans, I see far in the West the immense area of grain, I dwell. With passions of demons, slaughter, premature death? Eastern shore, and my Western shore the same, And all between those shores, and my ever-running.

Mississippi with bends and chutes, And my Illinois fields, and my Kansas fields, and my. O pennant! Valueless, object of eyes, over all and demanding all—. I too leave the rest—great as it is, it is nothing—houses,. O banner so broad,. Niagara pouring, I travell'd the prairies over and slept on their breast, I. O wild as my heart, and powerful! Heard the continuous thunder as it bellow'd after the. What, to pavements and homesteads here, what were. What, to passions I witness around me to-day? How it climbs with daring feet and hands—how it How the true thunder bellows after the lightning—how.

How Democracy with desperate vengeful port strides on,. And do you rise higher than ever yet O days, O cities! When you yourself forever provide to defend me? For you provided me Washington—and now these also. Proud and passionate city—mettlesome, mad, extrava-. Spring up O city—not for peace alone, but be indeed. Fear not—submit to no models but your own, O city! Behold me—incarnate me, as I have incarnated you! Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately. Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent after the. And come to the entry mother, to the front door come.

She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor adjust her. All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she. Who are you my dear comrade? Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming? And sullen hymns of defeat? In mercy come quickly. I should never tire, Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the. Give me interminable eyes—give me women—give me. Let me see new ones every day—let me hold new ones. Give me such shows—give me the streets of Manhattan!

Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give. The soldiers in companies or regiments—some starting. O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me! The saloon of the steamer! Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me. T HE last sunbeam Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath, On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,. Lo, the moon ascending, Up from the east the silvery round moon, Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,.

I see a sad procession, And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles, All the channels of the city streets they're flooding,. I hear the great drums pounding, And the small drums steady whirring, And every blow of the great convulsive drums,. For the son is brought with the father, In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell, Two veterans son and father dropt together,. Now nearer blow the bugles, And the drums strike more convulsive, And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,. And the strong dead-march enwraps me. In the eastern sky up-buoying, The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd, 'Tis some mother's large transparent face,.

O strong dead-march you please me! O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me! O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial! The moon gives you light, And the bugles and the drums give you music, And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,. Oregonese, shall be friends triune, More precious to each other than all the riches of the. O lands! I hear the sounds of the different missiles, the short.

Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colours. Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or.

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No more credulity's race, abiding-temper'd race, Race henceforth owning no law but the law of itself, Race of passion and the storm. I draw near, Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face. How I heard you flap and rustle, cloth defiant! Flag cerulean—sunny flag, with the orbs of night. Ah my silvery beauty—ah my woolly white and crimson! Ah to sing the song of you, my matron mighty! My sacred one, my mother. Did you find what I sang erewhile so hard to follow?

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Why I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to. O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul. And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul. And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I. America, chant me the carol of victory, And strike up the marches of Libertad, marches more.

Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in. If you would be freer than all that has been before, come. Columbia, Niagara, Hudson, spending themselves. Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, Manhattan firemen, the Yankee swap, southern planta-. But damn that which spends itself with no thought of the. States be fused into the compact organism of a. Equality, They live in the feelings of young men and the best. O the hard-contested fight! The cannons ope their rosy-flashing muzzles—the hurtled. The place is august, the terms obdurate.

Have you consider'd the organic compact of the first day. Commissioners, ratified by the States, and read by. Washington at the head of the army? Have you possess'd yourself of the Federal Constitution? Do you see who have left all feudal processes and poems. Are you faithful to things? Are you not of some coterie? Have you vivified yourself from the maternity of these Have you too the old ever-fresh forbearance and. Do you hold the like love for those hardening to.

Have you not imported this or the spirit of it in some Is it not a mere tale?


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