Genius has its limits

Many 20th century rock stars have harboured literary pretensions and written novels and poems. The mercurial quality of their efforts shows that at least some of them should just stick to music.
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, London, June 1974. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images.
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, London, June 1974. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images.
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It is commonplace to say that the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are ‘poets’ rather than artists. Bob Dylan, after all, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature rather than the Nobel Prize for harmonica playing. Christopher Ricks – the literary scholar who has written on Tennyson, Milton, and Keats – counts Dylan as one of his subjects: Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2004) is a book-length study of Dylan’s lyrics, images, and their wider literary context. Songs by Nick Cave are featured in articles on ‘poems for every stage of life’, and this literary-musical bent is not limited to men: Patti Smith – the ‘punk poet laureate’ – won the 2010 National Book Award for Just Kids, and made her name as a poet before recording albums. And if you get any fan of Leonard Cohen on the subject (myself included), you’re liable to be treated to an hour-long monologue on his ineffable poetic perfection. His songs are the crack in everything; they are how the light gets in.

This reach for the language of literature when talking about these artists is not just confined to listeners and critics. Dylan’s work is saturated in literary references – ‘she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me / written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century’ – whilst Nick Cave, on his blog The Red Hand Files,  regularly writes about his favourite poets. Patti Smith waxes lyrical about the books she loved as a child in interviews, and declares that ‘poems are like prayers.’ Like Smith, Leonard Cohen unequivocally was a poet: more than ten collections have been published – The Flame was posthumously edited and published only three years ago – and he recited his work at his concerts.

The question of whether these artists are literary or musical geniuses is a rather hackneyed one. The truth is that songs – from medieval ballades onwards – have never been completely separate from their non-musical counterparts. But there is also nothing lost in recognising that these artists’ creativity has had a broader reach in concerts, singles, and records than it might have done in chapbooks, poetry competitions, and the pages of dusty periodicals.

Cohen’s poems are brilliant. His recitation of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ is arguably more emotive, intense, and evocative than the song of the same name on the album Ten New Songs (2001). His poetry collection The Book of Longing (2006) is a tour of love, loss, sex, and politics that swings seamlessly from scalding emotional intensity to laconic calmness and laughter. ‘Good Germans’ – with its eviscerating description of a family – marries these impulses perfectly.

And the two-sentence simplicity of ‘When You Wake Up’ – from The Flame (2018) – is the most perfectly Cohen-esque take on panic and modern life: Cohen’s speaker asks why, ‘when you wake up into the panic’, you don’t instead ‘lie down / in front of the ferocious traffic / of your daily life’. He manages to be simultaneously uplifting and oddly disconcerting – I know I’d rather read Cohen over Matt Haig any day.

Smith’s poetry is as brilliant as her music: its comparative quietness on the page belies an intensity no less forceful than her performances. In her poem ‘rape’, the horror of the act is made all the more disturbing by the faux-innocent imagery: ‘I’m gonna peep in bo’s bodice’.

The lyrics of Cave and Dylan are brilliant poetry if one accepts them as such. Dylan’s verbal brilliance ranges from the sardonic – ‘don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters’ – to the romantic, irreverent, and cruel. And in Cave’s case, it is hard to deny that lines like ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’ or ‘Come sail your ships around me / And burn your bridges down’ aren’t poetic in some sense (even if the rhyming of ‘my lap-dancing shoes, my tap dancing shoes’ on ‘Balcony Man’ leaves something to be desired).

But, in the argument over whether these artists are literary, rather than just musical, geniuses, the muddy realities of some of their non-musical writings are a rather ugly, inconvenient presence. Leonard Cohen wrote two novels – The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966); Bob Dylan has written an autobiography – Chronicles Vol.1 (2004) – and Tarantula (1971); Patti Smith penned Just Kids (2010) alongside a host of poetry collections, and Nick Cave has written And The Ass saw the Angel (1989) and The Death of Bunny Monroe (2009).

From such a pool of talent, these books make literary slim pickings. Cohen’s Beautiful Losers was initially hostilely received, but has been treated to something of a critical rehabilitation as a postmodern and postcolonial novel. This is a mistake. Both Leonard Cohen’s novels are nearly unreadable: The Favourite Game stretches the fascination with the erotic that defines his songs and poetry over too many words and pages to truly remain interesting, and the complicated love-triangle of Beautiful Losers is a product of such drugged-up intensity that reading it is a comparatively sober and fundamentally alienating experience.

In Cave’s case, much of And The Ass Saw the Angel is written in an attempt at a southern American accent. It is hard to take the novel seriously when the reader is subjected to sentences such as ‘as ah lay in harness, supine in mah lonesomeness, and watched with increasing dead as the aching light of day grew subfusc and fraught with the freakish music of the darktime.’

Dylan’s Chronicles is an autobiographical work which balances describing 1960s Village life with the inevitable turn to myth-making. At one point, he tells of insisting to the head of publicity at Columbia Records that he had taken a ‘freight train’ from Illinois to New York. Dylan repeats this four times as the interviewer struggles to believe such a journey was possible, before revealing in the next paragraph to his reader that he ‘hadn’t come in on a freight train at all.’ If Chronicles is readable, Tarantula is not: it feels like a parody of the beat generation rather than a literary work in its own right.

Why is it that these men, masters of the lyric, the line, and the stanza, should flounder so much when faced with the expanses of the novel? It’s difficult to even argue that these texts were only published because their authors were famous: Cohen wrote his novels before turning his hand to music, and Cave’s first novel was published when The Bad Seeds was still in its early years. Perhaps it is only in comparison to their music that these texts feel so lacklustre, but I’m not quite sure that’s true. Is it heresy to insist that they are just awful?

In comparison, Patti Smith’s Just Kids – the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe – deserves every bit of praise it receives, even if it has developed a somewhat evangelical following. I once met a boy who told me with a straight face that he always kept a copy on hand to give to any woman who admitted she hadn’t read it. It’s hard to say what Smith would make of this.

But rather than argue that these artists’ songs should be considered literature, maybe we should ask why we are so desperate to insist that a good song must be more than a song. As much of their written work proves, literature is no gold standard. There’s something brilliantly freeing – and funny – about the fact that Smith can get away with lines like ‘Pissing in a river, watching it rise.’ Brilliant? Yes. Keats? No.

Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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