Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Energy of Slaves

I found Leonard Cohen's The Energy of Slaves in a used bookstore the other day, and I've been enjoying it a lot. In many ways, it is a perfect illustration of my poetics. "It is the task of the poem to detach an experience from its politics," I have said. "To extricate it from history. By this means, the poet locates the emotion." And my example was very Cohenesque: A woman's beauty is intensely political. If the poet is to write a poem "to her beauty", his task is to free, e.g., her lips from the policy that governs her face. The Energy of Slaves offers a number of poems that, though often less politely, accomplish this task. And often more politically, I suppose. Sometimes it does not even involve a woman.

Consider poem #92 (here with simplified lineation):

The killers that run
the other countries
are trying to get us
to overthrow the killers
that run our own
I for one
prefer the rule
of our native killers
I am convinced
the foreign killer
will kill more of us
than the old familiar killer does
Frankly I don't believe
anyone out there
really wants us to solve
our social problems
I base this all on how I feel
about the man next door
I just hope he doesn't
get any uglier
Therefore I am a patriot
I don't like to see
a burning flag
because it excites
the killers on either side
to unfortunate excess
which goes on gaily
quite unchecked
until everyone is dead

Elsewhere (poem #107), he says that "Layton was wrong/ about the war," but "right/ about beauty and death". Irving Layton published a collection of prose five years later called Taking Sides, in which he really is outrageously wrong about number of things. Cohen here (in poem #92) resolutely refuses to take sides. Today, of course, it would be more accurate to invert the force of the poem's neutrality: Today, the killers that run our countries are more eagerly trying to overthrow the killers that run the other countries than they are trying to overthrow ours. I suppose that was actually true also in 1972, but perhaps it was too novel an idea to be useful in a poem.

In any case, what I'm really interested in is that line about his neighbor. The renunciation of all political allegiance and all faith in the proponents of social progress on the basis of "how I feel about the man next door" is exactly what a poem is supposed to do. This one is working from the (foreign) policy inwards. Others work from the (domestic) situation outwards. I'll write something about that later.

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