If poetry is the ‘music of ideas’ – an intriguing definition of the barely definable, put forward by the writer Peter Whitfield – can music claim to be the poetry of something? The ‘poetry of sound’ seems reasonable enough on the face of it, but great (and, indeed, not so great) poems invariably benefit from being read aloud by a sympathetic performer who understands the stresses and measures and rhythms of the material, and are therefore in no obvious need of a leg up from rival art forms. The music is in the verse. That’s the whole point.
This may explain why some of the most wondrous songwriters of our time have fallen on stony ground while attempting to recast poems as tunes. If Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell struggled to pull it off – the Irish titan and the Canadian goddess both tried it on with WB Yeats, without conspicuous success – where does that leave the rest of humankind? As for The Bangles… even they came up short, hard though it is to believe. The Californian jingly-jangly popsters went after Matthew Arnold’s captivating Dover Beach and finished so far off the pace, you could barely locate them with a telescope. How Arnold would have chuckled. Or maybe not. To the best of our accumulated knowledge, he didn’t laugh at anything, perhaps for fear of disturbing his mutton-chop sideburns.
We must, in the end, turn to Leonard Cohen, which is no bad thing. If we have to turn to anyone in our moments of musical need, it may as well be him. In Alexandra Leaving, one of the two or three best tracks he ever recorded despite the mind-boggling failure of many list-o-maniacs to place it among the best 20 or 30, Cohen accepts the most daunting set of challenges: to take a seriously good poem on a classical theme and reshape the subject matter without losing its essence (downsizing and universalising it at one and the same time), before moulding it into a form capable of sitting comfortably within the unforgiving structural dimensions of modern song – verse, chorus, refrain and so on. His triumph is overwhelming, to the extent that he gives this particular piece of music a definition all of its own: the poetry of poetry. How did he do it? That’s for a master to know, and the rest of us to guess at.
The poetic inspiration for the song is The God Abandons Antony, written shortly before the outbreak of the Great War by Constantine P Cavafy, a Greek who spent the vast majority of his 70 years in Alexandria, the second city of Egypt. Composed as a dramatic monologue, something of a Cavafy speciality, its 19 unrhymed, unforced lines paint us a picture of the Roman general Mark Antony at a subterranean point in his fortunes. Under siege in Alexandria and facing imminent catastrophe, he imagines that the retinue of the god who has forsaken him is leaving town.
At midnight, when suddenly you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly. As one long prepared, and full of courage, say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
A few lines later, Antony is urged to ‘go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotion… to the voices, to the exquisite music of that strange procession’. You’ve had the best of it, he is told by the anonymous narrator. Don’t belittle yourself by whining, but take pleasure in your memories. Have some dignity, man. It’s better to lose something precious than never to have had it in the first place.
Cohen’s version does away with the city by dropping the letter ‘i’ and gives us a woman in its place. The departing god is the God of Love and we see him leaving town with Alexandra on his shoulder. Some image, that. Better still, ‘they slip between the sentries of the heart’. This is a Cohenism, not a Cavafyism, and a slam-dunk if ever there was one. Cohen could have shut up shop after the first verse and still banked himself an all-time winner. Blissfully, there are another 30-odd lines to go, every last one of them eased gently into place with such care and discipline that Cavafy himself would surely have marvelled at his successor’s accomplishment.
Prog-rockers such as Genesis or Yes might have fancied their chances with the original poem, as written. They would certainly have had the chutzpah – after all, 19 lines of dramatic monologue are mere child’s play when set against the Book of Revelations or Paramahansa Yogananda’s musings on the Hindu texts of self-knowledge – but as they weren’t exactly shy when it came to writing and playing long, the profound intimacy of Cavafy’s vision would inevitably have been consumed by the orchestra-scale grandiosity of the music. Cohen does what they could never have done and he does it in a little over five minutes, with a perfectly-formed series of quatrains framing a precision-tooled rhyme scheme, caressed into being by achingly touching instrumentation of the minimalist variety. And then there are the words themselves:
And you who had the honour of her evening, And by that honour had your own restored Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving; Alexandra leaving with her lord.
That’ll do. That’ll do just fine.
Yet there is something else at work here – another layer, another texture. Step forward Sharon Robinson, who had first worked with Cohen as a backing singer of unusual quality on the Recent Songs tour in 1979, more than two decades before Alexandra Leaving, almost 15 years in gestation, surfaced on Ten New Songs. Cohen had barely recorded a note for public consumption since releasing The Future in 1992 and being a restlessly creative kind of chap, he was brimming with ideas. But if many of those ideas were fully-formed lyrically, they were half-baked at best in terms of melody and production.
He decided he needed Robinson’s sensibility, not just as a singer – his own voice, rarely a thing of beauty, was by now something less than the sum of his ailing vocal cords – but also as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist. The shared picture on the front cover and generous credits as writer and performer were the very least she deserved. Cohen once described the entire album as a ‘duet’. Trust a poet to find the right word.
There is nothing extravagant about Robinson’s playing on Alexandra Leaving, a song so slow in tempo that its heartbeat seems almost beta-blocked, but she is sensationally good at providing momentum without anyone noticing as she is at easing Cohen through the lyric. Listen to the drums and cymbals. The accents intensify as the verses unfold – hi-hat, followed by rimshot, followed by snare – and the drama increases with them, but it is almost as if it happens under cover of darkness. Which is as it should be, given Cohen’s opening, scene-setting line: ‘Suddenly the night has grown colder.’ Here, as with all of his mightiest contributions to the songbook of our age, everything fits.
Cavafy was writing about a classical hero fallen on hard and painful times, telling us something of ourselves in the process. It is called art. Cohen, an artist to his nerve-endings, took the same theme – the self-same words, in some places – and shrunk it into something contemporary. In so doing, he created a vastness: a song about the universal, in a recognisably human setting. There’s something heroic in that.