Book Review: Selected Poems 1956-1968 by Leonard Cohen (1972)

This book collects four of Leonard Cohen’s first volumes of poetry, including Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), Flowers for Hitler (1964), and Parasites of Heaven (1966). The book also includes some never-before seen poems, kind of like the bonus material you get on a greatest hits album. Except this collection is not greatest hits, it’s all the filler material, too.

I first heard Leonard Cohen, as I am sure many of my generation did, in the film Pump Up The Volume, where Cohen sings the theme song of the protagonist. Unfortunately, the credits and the soundtrack do not credit Cohen, so all this young man got was the Concrete Blonde rendition. But I persevered and discovered the I’m Your Man album. Good album. Leonard’s got a rich voice, and the songs are literary and lyrical in the best sense of the word.

So it helps to read the book with knowledge of Cohen’s voice. The voice can carry much of what the words cannot.

Cohen’s poems tread the mystical, where they allude to Judaica that I don’t understand. Then he’s throwing all sorts of Catholic imagery into the poems, which I don’t understand as well, but I’m more familiar with them; I went to a Jesuit university, you know.

The best section is The Spice-Box of Earth, wherein Cohen explores relationships in greater detail than the others. I could relate more to the poems, as I was once a young man seeking to get laid by young women. I appreciate the sensual confusion in the coffeeshop pheromones and cigarette smoke. Heck, the section made me feel ten years younger. I remember longing and loss.

But even the best poets have their off poems (apparently, Emily Dickinson had 1767 of them), and unfortunately readers have to wade through them. I took from this book no other poems I could recite from memory than when I began (I could recite “For Annie” which I remembered from an anthology I’d read before I heard I’m Your Man).

But I liked the book okay. I feel smart, reading poetry in my spare time and all. So if you don’t mind some free verse with a distinct coffeehouse flare, you won’t mind this book.

Post script: I would never knowingly participate in a poetry slam in which Leonard Cohen took part. He’s got enough A material, and he’s got the voice. ‘Nuff said.

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