Songs, poetry, Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah, an Iranian prison, and Trump.

I once heard an interview on NPR with Maziar Bahari, a Persian-Canadian guy who got thrown in jail in Iran and stayed there for quite a while, being abused in the ways that Persian-North-Americans get abused in Iranian jails.  It’s not pretty.  Something that struck me: he said that he kept himself sane through the ordeal by singing Leonard Cohen songs in his head.

Every year I post poems for National Poetry Month, and every year I ask myself the same question: do song lyrics count as poetry?  It’s not an easy question to answer.  In order to answer it, you have to define what poetry is, but you also have to define what a song is, and that’s not as easy as you might think, either.  For example: the most famous poem in Old English is Beowulf.  But, scholars widely agree that it was probably sung, not recited.  Phil d’Ange recently talked about the lyricists of the French chanson réaliste with respect to this question:

Aristide Bruant was the archetype of a very Parisian species, “les chansonniers”, late 1800s-early 1900s. The center of these song makers (who could also be singers) was more Montmartre (the famous Chat Noir) or the “guinguettes” along the Marne river than Grenelle. In a way these chansonniers were the descendants of the troubadours, the Greek aedes, a very old tradition. Of course they liked to mix slang and classical, sexual or political hints and word plays. … Chansonniers are not from the same level [as poets]. Gainsbourg once famously said that he was doing “un art mineur”, as opposed to poetry, classical music, theatre, etc … We could say the same thing, chansonniers did “un art mineur”. And they were not always poets: often they played with words, double-meanings, easily sexual or political about their time, there were many sorts of productions coming from them. [They] were practicing a quintessentially Parisian attitude, linked to all the provocation that the Parisian working classes provided to the world, from humour to revolutions. And some poetry too. I tell you, what you see and know is not Paris, Paris needed its working class inside the city, without this the splendid painters and writers who came from every country to work in Paris would not have been able to afford a hotel and a life there . And there would not have been any of the several French revolutions.

So, how are we to think about Beowulf–as the poem as which we read it, or as the … whatever it was as which it was sung?  And must we think of Higelin as a singer, not as a poet, even when he is (as far as I can tell) reciting his insanely wonderful stuff?

So, yeah: this is the question into which a lot of my mental energy goes during April, the US National Poetry Month.  An bigoted asshole opposed to American values rules the White House; the UK is poking a hole in the only organization that has kept Western Europe at peace for a generation since…well, has Western Europe ever been at peace for this long before?; the Front National got 1/3 of the vote in the 2017 French presidential election, and I’m putting my mental energy into definitional questions about music and poetry.  Enough!  

A walk through the St. Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris the other day brought me to the San Francisco Book Company, a delightful little anglophone used book store on the rue M. le Prince.  In the window, I saw the collection of books whose photograph you see above: Leonard Cohen: Collected Poems.  Leonard Cohen is (was–he recently died) the much-beloved singer/songwriter whose songs kept that poor Persian-Canadian guy sane through the tortures of an Iranian prison.  Is his stuff the lyrics of a song if he releases them on an album, but the words of a poem if he doesn’t?  If he publishes them in a book now, and then records them later, do they start as a poem, but then later turn into a song?  I elect to solve my problem this way: if they’re words–shit, if they are, or could be, sounds produced by the human vocal apparatus–I’m going to enjoy them for National Poetry Month, and honi soit qui mal y pense.  (Or, as we linguists like to say: honi schwa qui mal y pense, but that’s a joke for another time.)

So, for today’s little bit of National Poetry Month, here’s one of Leonard Cohen’s best-loved songs pieces: Hallelujah.  Seulement voilà, I’m going to give you my favorite version of it–in Yiddish.  It is most definitely not an exact translation, but I think that it captures the feeling of the original pretty nicely.  The English translation of the Yiddish words are given in the subtitles to the video, and below that I’ll post the Yiddish version in Yiddish writing and transcribed in what’s known as the YIVO Yiddish orthography in the Latin alphabet–just know that kh is the sound of the in paître (oh, how I love an excuse to use that verb–I wish to hell I could conjugate it) and you’ve mostly got it.  Enjoy, and may Leonard Cohen give us the strength to survive Trump that he gave Maziar Bahari to survive torture in an Iranian prison.

„הללויה‟ פֿון לענאָרד כּהן אויף ייִדיש

(איבערגעזעצט פֿון דניאל קאַהן; מיט דער הילף פֿון דזשאַש וואַלעצקי, מענדי כּהנא און מיישקע אַלפּערט)

געווען אַ ניגון ווי אַ סוד
וואָס דוד האָט געשפּילט פֿאַר גאָט
נאָר דיר וואָלט׳ס נישט געווען אַזאַ ישועה
מע זינגט אַזוי: אַ פֿאַ, אַ סאָל
אַ מי שברך הייבט אַ קול
דער דולער מלך וועבט אַ הללויה

דײַן אמונה איז געוואָרן שוואַך
בת שבֿע באָדט זיך אויפֿן דאַך
איר חן און די לבֿנה דײַן רפֿואה
זי נעמט דײַן גוף, זי נעמט דײַן קאָפּ
זי שנײַדט פֿון דײַנע האָר אַ צאָפּ
און ציט פֿון מויל אַראָפּ אַ הללויה

אָ טײַערע איך קען דײַן סטיל
איך בין געשלאָפֿן אויף דײַן דיל
כ׳האָב קיינמאָל נישט געלעבט מיט אַזאַ צנועה
און איך זע דײַן שלאָס, איך זע דײַן פֿאָן
אַ האַרץ איז נישט קיין מלכס טראָן
ס׳איז אַ קאַלטע און אַ קאַליע הללויה

אוי ווי אַמאָל, טאָ זאָג מיר אויס
וואָס טוט זיך דאָרטן אין דײַן שויס
טאָ וואָס זשע דאַרפֿסט זיך שעמען ווי אַ בתולה
און געדענק ווי כ׳האָב אין דיר גערוט
ווי די שכינה גלוט אין אונדזער בלוט
און יעדער אָטעם טוט אַ הללויה

זאָל זײַן מײַן גאָט איז גאָר נישטאָ
און ליבע זאָל זײַן כּל מום רע
אַ פּוסטער טרוים צעבראָכן און מכולה
נישט קיין געוויין אין מיטן נאַכט
נישט קיין בעל־תּשובֿה אויפֿגעוואַכט
נאָר אַן עלנטע קול־קורא הללויה

אַן אַפּיקורס רופֿסטו מיך
מיט שם־הוויה לעסטער איך
איז מילא, איך דערוואַרט נישט קיין גאולה
נאָר ס׳ברענט זיך הייס אין יעדן אות
פֿון אַלף־בית גאָר ביזן סוף
די הייליקע און קאַליע הללויה

און דאָס איז אַלץ, ס׳איז נישט קיין סך
איך מאַך דערווײַלע וואָס איך מאַך
איך קום דאָ ווי אַ מענטש, נישט קיין שילוּיע
כאָטש אַלץ פֿאַרלוירן סײַ ווי סײַ
וועל איך פֿאַרלויבן אדני
און שרײַבן ווי לחיים הללויה

Read more: http://yiddish.forward.com/articles/200434/leonard-cohens-hallelujah-in-yiddish/#ixzz5DCVVG7pV


Yiddish by Daniel Kahn from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with help from Michael Alpert, Mendy Cahan and Josh Waletzky
Geven a nign vi a sod,
Vos Dovid hot geshpilt far Got.
Nor dir volt’s nisht geven aza yeshue.
Me zingt azoy: a fa, a sol,
A misheberekh heybt a kol,
Der duler meylekh vebt a haleluye…
Dayn emune iz gevorn shvakh,
Basheva bodt zikh afn dakh,
Ir kheyn un di levone dayn refue
Zi nemt dayn guf, zi nemt dayn kop,
Zi shnaydt fun dayne hor a tsop
Un tsit fun moyl arop a haleluye…
O tayere, ikh ken dayn stil,
Ikh bin geshlofn af dayn dil,
Kh’hob keynmol nisht gelebt mit aza tsnue
Ikh ze dayn shlos,
ikh ze dayn fon,
A harts iz nisht keyn meylekhs tron,
S’iz a kalte un a kalye haleluye…
Oy vi amol, to zog mir oys
Vos tut zikh dortn in dayn shoys?
To vos zhe darfst zikh shemen vi a bsule?
Nor gedenk vi kh’hob in dir gerut,
Vi di shkhine glut in undzer blut,
Un yeder otem tut a haleluye…
Zol zayn mayn got iz gor nishto
Un libe zol zayn kol-mumro,
A puster troym tsebrokhn un mekhule,
Nisht keyn geveyn in mitn nakht,
Nisht keyn bal-tshuve oyfgevakht,
Nor an elnte kol-koyre haleluye…
An apikoyres rufstu mikh,
Mit shem-havaye lester ikh,
Iz meyle, ikh dervart nisht keyn geule.
Nor s’brent zikh heys in yedn os
Fun alef beys gor bizn sof
Di heylike un kalye haleluye…
Un dos iz alts, s’iz nisht keyn sakh.
Ikh makh dervayle vos ikh makh.
Ikh kum do vi a mentsh,
nisht keyn shiluye.
Khotsh alts farloyrn say vi say
Vel ikh farloybn “Adoynay”
Un shrayen vi l’khayem “haleluye.”

Read more: http://yiddish.forward.com/articles/200434/leonard-cohens-hallelujah-in-yiddish/#ixzz5DCVgGrrG

2 thoughts on “Hallelujah”

  1. I got caught forever the first time I heard Leonard’s Hallelujah, not for the lyrics I ignored, but the melody . Lyrics came later, as often for us with songs in English, but they didn’t spoil the song . On the contrary, really . I’d be for integrating certain songs in the poetry shelf for myself . You didn’t speak about Dylan ?
    And what ? Beowulf was certainly sung, everything we know from those times was sung :all the Muslim huge import to European civilisation included sung poetry coming from a ve-e-ery old East, Greek aedes like Homer sang their production (if I believe my Greek teacher in high school) .I thought maybe this singing had an all-Mediterranean influence but Beowulf obviously lacks of sun so it may be a universal tendency . The question could be as well : does a not-sung poetry deserve to be called poetry ?
    Later the troubadours, ménestrels and trouvères used to sing their poetry . On this subject, do you know something about l’Académie des Jeux Floraux, founded in 1323 in Toulouse and sponsored by the luminous Lady Clémence Isaure ? It is said to be the first literary society of our Europe, every year there was a poetry contest whose winner was granted a golden violet- and this poetry was always sung .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant post Zip. And the singing of “poetry” in many ancient and more contemporary cultures is a common thread.

    What is poetry but an expert play on, and of, words?

    Worthy and meretricious song lyrics come from exactly the same place; the creative juices of the wordsmith.

    Leonard’s lyrics are most certainly poetry, inmy opinion, as are his books.
    And now, amateur and non-expert in ANYTHING that I am, I will shut up.

    Liked by 1 person

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