On speaking poetry

Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it without disgracing yourself or the material (…) The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality.

Leonard Cohen


The finest poetry creates its own place of power through words. It does so by itself, not through somebody selling the words. The words in the best poems don’t need any more than speaking. You don’t have to put emotion into them. What you have to do is to hear their strangeness and, within the strangeness, to hear the emotion in them, the whole odd electric experience vibrating as in a diaphragm. The diaphragm is all you really need. You could practically whisper poems like prayers. Their words will fall into the silence of the transformed space like a meteor shower.

George Szirtes

4 responses to “On speaking poetry

  1. I’ve been a fan of Leonard Cohen for many years. I love the way he uses words. But quite often I don’t think he is saying anything. It’s like foreplay with words. He is always trying to seduce you. Maybe that is why so many women love him. He reminds me of Hitler. I know that sounds odd. I compare Cohen to that madman not because they share any ideas. Or values. It is because both are more concerned with the effect their words have on their audience than on the content of their arguments. Read Mein Kampf. My Struggle. And that’s what it is. A struggle to read. But to the German heart of the 1930s, it was music. Cohen’s words are like scatting. They are jazz. But they are like road signs pointing everywhere.

  2. I came by your blog via the path of vanity, noticing that it had referred to me.

    Put that aside. What a lovely blog this is. Thank you. I shall be a regular reader.

  3. interesting to see this, thanks

  4. Glad you found it of interest DJB.

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