Sunday Snippet: Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything—
That’s how the light gets in.

I never really knew Leonard Cohen. I mean, I’d heard of his name, but my knowledge of the late Canadian singer and poet didn’t really extend beyond that. I didn’t know that his work was sometimes controversial, speaking out about politics and religion. I didn’t know that he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada or that he had been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. And then, he passed away last week.

Suddenly, the deluge of political posts surrounding the presidential election was interrupted, albeit in a rather humble fashion, by friends expressing their sorrow over the passing of Leonard Cohen. They say that Facebook is the great echo chamber, and that may still be true, but it amazed me how many of my friends were touched by the Canadian songwriter. I had to know more.

The music of Leonard Cohen might be best described as folk. Maybe that’s why I’d never really known about him, as folk had never been my kind of thing. But reading through some of his lyrics, the poetry resonates with me. It’s beautiful, even if I’m not entirely sure what any of it really means.

For example, the excerpt above is taken from the song “Anthem,” which appeared on his ninth studio album The Future and was featured in the film Natural Born Killers. Cohen had been accused of being a pessimist many times before, but lines like this illustrate a sense of hope among the pain and suffering of the real world.

Some bells are assuredly broken and beyond repair, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. You can still ring the bells that can still be rung. It’s not about achieving perfection — I know I’m riddled with imperfections — but rather about understanding that the imperfections are what make us unique. They are what give us a reason to be, a reason to keep fighting. They’re how the light gets in. Perfection is stagnant. There is beauty in imperfection.

And clenching your fist
For the ones like us
Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty.
You fixed yourself
You said, “Well never mind,
We are ugly, but we have the music.”

This sentiment, this praise of the silver lining, is echoed in the song “Chelsea Hotel #2,” written about his affair with artist Janis Joplin. Yes, “clenching your fist” and “fixing” yourself are drug references, but even if we get beyond that reality, we see hope. We may not be beautiful in the conventional sense, not up to the impossible standards of popular society, “but we have the music.”

If the perceived “ugliness” is the crack, then the beautiful music is the light that shines in. And with the world it is today, as ugly as it is today, we could all use a little more light. We could all use a little more music. We could use a little more love.

Leonard Cohen may be gone, but his words, his songs and his poetry will be his legacy. He was 82.

Image credit: Takahiro Kyono via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)