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Who By fire -- Leonard Cohen

(Poem #481) Who By fire
And who by fire,
who by water,
who in the sunshine,
who in the night time,
who by high ordeal,
who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay
and who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip,
who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love,
who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche,
who by powder,
who for his greed,
who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent,
who by accident,
who in solitude,
who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command,
who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains,
who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?
-- Leonard Cohen
from 'New Skin for Old Ceremony', 1974; also appears on 'The Best of Leonard
Cohen' (1975), which I'd recommend to Cohen tyros.

I spent most of yesterday listening to Leonard Cohen's spine-tinglingly deep
monotone and bewitching lyrics while reading Neal Stephenson... ooh (on both

I sometimes wonder if it's quite fair to run Cohen and Dylan and the like on the
Minstrels - after all, there's definitely more to their art than just words on
the printed page; by considering their lyrics as examples of poetry, we rob them
of what gives them much of their power (the underlying music) while at the same
time minimizing the many constraints under which they were written.

I've mentioned these points before, of course [1]. What makes it worse, though,
is the fact that I have no really objective way of judging whether, for example,
today's poem is actually a good one in its own right (and one that'll appeal to
an audience who haven't heard the song - not _you_, Gentle Reader, but others
less musically-knowledgeable <grin>), or if it's just an adequate set of lyrics,
granted power and immediacy by the music it's set to. I wish I knew... As usual,
your feedback would be appreciated.


[1] The relationship between poetry and song lyrics has been talked about quite
a bit on the Minstrels; check out the essays accompanying Sting's
'The Soul Cages', poem #114
and Richard Thompson's 'Taking My Business Elsewhere', submitted by Amit
Chakrabarti; Hi Amit!), at poem #299

[Minstrels Links]

Footnote [1] above (is that an oxymoron, by the way?) has links to a couple of
examples of song lyrics; here are some more:
  poem #112, poem #227, poem #119.

In a sense, moving from the spoken (or sung) to the written word is a kind
of translation; some of my favourite examples of translated poetry are
listed at poem #472.

There's more about Cohen at poem #116.

And finally, 'The Music Crept By Us' is Cohen at his morbidly funny best:
poem #339 (Thanks to Zenobia Driver for suggesting that one).

[End Note]

All this meta-commentary about music and lyrics has left me without a great deal
to say about the poem itself. Suffice to say that I find Cohen's ironic
catalogue of ways to die pithy, yet not so direct as to be devoid of feeling or
subtle meaning. The counterpoint provided by the line 'and who shall I say is
calling?' is also very skilfully done; it's even more effective in the song.

25 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Emily M. Cowan said...

I may be the Nth reader to tell you this, but the inspiration for Cohen's
song was very probably the liturgy frm the Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur
is the holiest day of the Jewish year, and is spent atoning for one's sins
and praying to God to be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life.
There is a prayer w/a similar format to Cohen's song, listing all the ways
a person might have a bad or a good year. Our cantor has sung Cohen's
song (accompanied on guitar) at Yom Kippur services and it's beautiful.

golds_nm said...

echoes of Day of Atonement liturgy-the prayer is composed of a detailed list of all the horrible possiblilities awaiting those who do not repent of their sins-
a delightfully irreligeous poke at conventional worship.

Me said...

who for his greed,
who for his hunger

this should really be

Who faught his greed
Who faught his huner

this song is about Yom Kippur (and no im not jewish so dont think im just saying this) and not only that god can decide who dies, but also by what.

Shemesh Zohar said...

That song is indeed taken from the Yom Kipur pray. That part in the pray
is called in Hebrew "Unnetane Tokef" means - "you should tell others so
they would know".
The Story behind this part of pray starts in the Middle Ages, in the
City of Magenza in Germany, Rabbi Amnon was the leader of local Jewish
The cardinal of Magenza has asked Rabbi Amnon to christianize oneself,
again and again. As their pressure grow, Rabbi Amnon asked them one day
to give him 3 days to think this over.
Once he said so, he realized the horrible thing he said. Their request
is not something a Jew should even think of.
As the 3 days passed the Cardinal sent his soldiers to bring Rabbi
For the Cardinal question why did not Rabbi Amnon came back, he replied
- "I should ask you to cut my tongue for saying I would consider
"Not your tongue should be cut, but your legs which did not carried you
here on time, and your hands which refuse to make the sign of the cross"
and so he did. He cut his hands and legs.
Those were the days of Yom-Kippur than, and Rabbi Amnon asked his
believers to carry him into the synagogue, and in front of god he
compose this prayer, which describe the various ways God choose to pay
back or to punish us. Once Rabbi Amnon done, his clean soul depart.

Lucia Perry said...

Mortal chains-- the chains which hold us down to this state of being finite beings. I take this as a limitation of the spiritual, or the duality that Cohen portrays so well. The spiritual and physical longing.

The Lonely Slip I always thought meant someone dying a lonely death. I also think about Marilyn Monroe. Anyway, this is an image of someone exposed, almost naked, dead.

I think they spelled "Assent" wrong. It should be Ascent, at least that's the way I hear it. kind of plays off slipping, too, with the movement of going up the mountain. The mountain is where Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, went to speak with God (you can go up the God-made mountain to talk to God, but you mustn't create one, as in the Tower of Babel).

Reminds me of a line from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, "Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark.... [statesmen, ministers, etc.]"

I find this to be a very powerful song, with the arrangement. Sends chills down my spine.

It makes sense that Cohen is ensconced in a Buddhist monastery. With all his skills as a word magician, even that seemed to have been tiring, and part of the dualistic trap. He is a visionary, perhaps he wanted to just hand with the Vision, not have to be "somebody." In the recent film about him, he mentioned that the Roshi was not impressed by his public persona-- now they are good friends. Life is simple.........

Ivodne Galatea said...

For attaching to the Cohen song lyrics (thank you for posting them,
wanted to check a word), the text of the prayer that he is referring to

And all that have come into the world pass
before You as a flock of sheep. As a shepherd gathers his flock, making his
sheep pass beneath his staff, even so do You make pass, count, and muster
the souls of all the living. You determine the latter end of every creature and
record their ultimate verdict. On Rosh Hashanah it is written down for them,
on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall leave and how many shall be
born, who shall live and who shall die, who shall attain his full span of life
and who shall not, who shall perish by fire, and who by water, who by the
sword and who by wild beasts, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by
storm and who by plague, who shall have rest and who shall be restless, who
shall find repose and who shall be wandering, who shall be free from sorrow
and who shall be tormented, who shall be exalted and who shall be humbled,
who shall be poor and who shall be rich. But Repentance,
Prayer, and Good Deeds can avert the severity of the decree.

Anonymous said...

For me Who By Fire is simply & exqusitely about the many ways earthly lives may be ended. And it is Death that comes calling.

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