READING SONG AS POEM:
LEONARD COHEN’S ‘SUZANNE’
Article 2333, Academia Letters (2021)
‘Suzanne’, Parasites of Heaven (1966); Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Apart from ‘Hallelujah’, this is probably Leonard Cohen’s most famous song. It is reassuringly familiar: we hear the first few gentle sounds of Cohen’s acoustic guitar and we anticipate that opening line: ‘Suzanne takes you down …’, and maybe mouth the words along with the singer. But it is precisely because it is so widely known that it needs looking into more deeply, to see if there are hidden meanings that familiarity tends to prevent us exploring.
What I want to do, then, is take up a few significant words and phrases from the song, roughly in the order in which they occur, and follow them through as far as we can go. Cohen was an artist of great intelligence and learning, who made his reputation as poet, novelist and singer-songwriter. In many cases, he would take an existing poem of his and turn it into a song. ‘Suzanne’ is a good example. Were we analysing it as poetry, it would be expected that we trace cultural allusions, religious references and so forth. For some reason, many critics hesitate to be equally thorough when it comes to interpreting song, as it is assumed to be an inferior medium. Cohen’s work consistently reminds us that the distinction is fallacious.
Before proceeding, however, I need to address an issue that inevitably arises in the reading of songs, as of poems: whose voice is it we hear? Because it is never possible with any song to state that the person who speaks – or, rather, sings – in it is an actual person, it is always best to refer to this figure as the ‘persona’. Certainly, s/he is not necessarily to be identified with either the songwriter or the singer. For example: the persona of ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ is an unemployed veteran of the First World War, waiting for a food handout; he is neither E. Y. Harburg nor Bing Crosby. For example: the persona of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is a convict who is guilty of murder; he is not Johnny Cash.
Even when the persona and songwriter seem to be close, you have to be careful not to make assumptions. For example: the persona of ‘Blue’ is a woman desperate for real affection in a counterculture which seems to be all about love but which is really all about self-indulgence and exploitation; she is not necessarily Joni Mitchell. For example: the persona of ‘Graceland’ is a divorced man travelling to Memphis, Tennessee to visit the home of Elvis Presley in the hope of finding redemption; he is not necessarily Paul Simon. In both these cases – Mitchell and Simon – we may suspect that the persona does come pretty close to the songwriter, but that still does not permit us to make wild biographical speculations.
With Cohen, we need to be more careful than usual: after all, he has been too often taken to be merely giving vent to a mood of gloom (hence the sarcastic nickname, ‘Laughing Lenny’) rather than composing a subtly interconnected work of art.
‘Suzanne takes you down’
The general consensus is that the original Suzanne was Suzanne Verdal (married name, Vaillincourt). Certainly, it cannot refer to Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen’s children, Adam and Lorca. Alberto Manzana reports that Cohen himself stated that she was married to a sculptor friend of his in Montreal. He commented further: ‘She had a lot of courage, and in such a repressed society she used her courage to express what she wanted. She was a ballerina and on one occasion she invited me to eat oranges by the river.’
However, just as we have to be careful in matching up the ‘persona’ of the song with the songwriter, we have to be careful in matching up characters from songs with real people. Ultimately, the details of Suzanne Verdal’s way of life, and the nature of Cohen’s relationship with her, do not matter: they merely serve as starting points for an imaginative exploration of what it means for a person to achieve and maintain one’s vision.
‘The river … the boats’
In the mid-1960s Suzanne Verdal lived in an apartment by the St Lawrence River in Montreal. Nearby was the chapel of ‘Our Lady of Good Hope’, with a statue of the Virgin Mary facing onto the water, as if blessing the sailors setting off on their sea-voyages. This fact can help explain some details of the song, but we need to go beyond them in order to understand the song as a whole.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus declares that ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’ (V.i.7-8). The duke’s own position is sceptical: he means to demean both love and poetry. However, their association with madness has usually been positively celebrated – particularly by poets since the Romantic era of William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others. This song is no exception. Suzanne comes across as an eccentric, bohemian, artistic figure, who might be dismissed as ‘half crazy’ by more conventional people, but who has certainly cast her spell over her male visitor.
Moreover, whether we insist on associating that visitor with Cohen or not, this particular ‘poet’ is using his ‘imagination’ to celebrate Suzanne both as a particular person and as an archetypal woman. In this context, Carl Jung would call her the positive ‘anima’: that is, the female ‘soul’ who stands as an ideal for the male ego in its quest to become a centred, spiritual ‘Self’. We might think also of the figure of Beatrice, whom Dante celebrates as the inspiration for his visionary journey from Hell, through Purgatory, and thence to Heaven.
It is interesting that Duke Theseus goes on to elaborate on his insight as follows: ‘And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’ (V.i.14-17). Reading this in a positive, Romantic perspective, we can say that Cohen manages to capture ‘airy nothing’, that is, the indefinable, elusive quality of the kind of woman he admires. He does so by providing circumstantial details about her way of life that convince us that she really exists: he gives her both ‘a local habitation’ and ‘a name’. We come to know and like Suzanne – know and like her sufficiently to ‘want to travel with her’.
‘Tea and oranges’
Most students of Cohen concur that Suzanne Verdal served a tea known as ‘Constant Comment’, a blend of tea-leaves and orange rind. But we do not have to think of a real person or a real event to register the rich sense of detail in the song. This particular detail is charged with significance, though it is not immediately obvious. Suzanne is very exact in her choice of beverage and the manner in which she prepares and provides it. We are reminded, surely, of the Japanese tea ceremony, the purpose of which is to make us realise that everyday actions such as eating and drinking, if carried out attentively, can be a source of religious awakening. Now the basis of such a ritual is Zen Buddhism, which derived originally from China – the place from where, the song tells us, Suzanne’s tea comes. By giving us the details of her ‘local habitation’, her way of life, Cohen simultaneously alerts us to its spiritual dimension.
‘Perfect body … mind’
The relationship between male and female in the song seems to be Platonic: that is, spiritual rather than physical. But the refrain of each verse serves to query the distinction between mind and body, spirit and flesh. Putting this another way, we may say that the song assumes that we know the difference between what we call the ‘sacred’ and what we call the ‘profane’, and then takes us to the point where we realise they are ultimately one.
The standard definition of ‘sacred’ is ‘dedicated to a deity or religious purpose; relating to or used in religious worship’. ‘Profane’, on the other hand, means ‘showing disrespect for God, any deity, or religion; not connected with or used for religious matters; not initiated into sacred or secret rites’. What Cohen does in the song is deliberately to subvert the distinction: to reveal the sacred in the profane. In doing so, he is following the example of such visionary poets as Blake, for example, who famously declared it possible ‘To see the world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour’.
‘Jesus was a sailor’
It is typical of Cohen to talk of one sphere of existence in terms of another. That is partly why he effortlessly moves from the figure of Suzanne in the first verse to that of Jesus in the second. The transition to Jesus works particularly well because Cohen has already set up this association, with his stress on the river and the boats. But there is more to say about the idea of Jesus as ‘sailor’.
Cohen, brought up as a Jew in Montreal, was early on introduced to Christianity by his Catholic nanny, who instilled in him a lifelong fascination with the figure of the crucified Jesus. In 1968, the year of the release of this album, we find him reflecting as follows: ‘Our natural vocabulary is Judaeo-Christian. That is our blood myth. … We have to rediscover the crucifixion. … It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.’ [Leonard Cohen in His Own Words (ed. Robert Dimery, Omnibus Press, 1988, p 10]
Though the reality of the crucifixion is never far away from Cohen’s mind, the specific event which he evokes here is one of Jesus’s many miracles. We may recall that his disciples were instructed to take a ship out to sea in order to meet him after he had spent time praying on a mountain on the other side. However, a storm began to blow, and they became afraid. Just then they saw Jesus walking across the water towards them.
It is clear that Jesus’s purpose in walking on the water is not only to calm the fears of his disciples but also to demonstrate his divine powers. Moreover, his miracle has symbolic force. In the first chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, we are told that ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1: 2). That is, the establishment of the cosmos involves conquest over chaos, here represented by ‘the deep’. Jesus’s action echoes the act of creation. It echoes too the episode in the Book of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, where they have been held captive as slaves, thanks to God miraculously parting the waters of the Red Sea. Life comes out of death; freedom comes out of slavery.
How does Cohen use the story, and what does he add to it? He dwells on the human aspect of the character of Jesus, depicting him as waiting patiently before attempting to walk on the water, calculating that this will have most impact when his disciples are at their most vulnerable. It is then that his promise to liberate humanity from their enslavement, their immersion in the waters of death, will be most effective. Brilliantly, Cohen then immediately brings onto the horizon that other event, the crucifixion. Despite Jesus’s triumph, he knew he would have to fall: he would have to be ‘broken’ on the cross, condemned by the ‘wisdom’ of this world (Roman rule, or whatever forms it has taken in our supposedly less barbaric era). But then again, it is precisely when Jesus sinks beneath the weight of worldly authority that he is, for Cohen, most glorious. As the innocent victim, tortured and killed, he is the scapegoat who takes upon himself the burden of all our sins, from which he thereby releases us. His very defeat is his victory. We would be best abandoning our certainties in order to ‘travel blind’ and to ‘trust him’.
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind the title of Cohen’s second novel: Beautiful Losers (1966). It is a telling phrase, and it indicates Cohen’s love of paradox, which is the key to his worldview. Jesus is for him precisely a ‘loser’ in terms of our selfish, materialistic civilisation; but it is this very fact that makes him ‘beautiful’, for he offers a vision that lifts us beyond the terms of that civilisation. As Cohen himself has declared: ‘I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of this earth. Any guy who said “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek” has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness.’ [Leonard Cohen in His Own Words, p 11] As with Suzanne, we may know that he’s ‘half crazy’, but that is why we want to be with him.
There are other instances of a phrase or reference in ‘Suzanne‘ which merit further commentary, but that would result in an article almost twice as long. ‘Our lady of the harbour’ is certainly one, as is ‘Suzanne holds the mirror’. I’ll have to leave those for other readers to explore, but I hope that I’ve made a valid case for Cohen as an artist of complexity and depth.