When I first became acquainted with the lyrics and music of Leonard Cohen (his lyric for
"Suzanne" did the trick for me, as it did for many people), I was struck by his ability to mix -- if
you'll forgive elitism for the sake of argument -- "true poetry" with pop in a way that perhaps
only Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had. Allen Ginsberg, after all, once commented that "Dylan blew
everybody's mind except Leonard's."
I chose "Waiting For The Miracle," a lyric written as Cohen approached his 60th birthday,
[as the topic of this paper] because it seemed to possess a great number of strengths and
weaknesses. Along these lines, I originally intended to use "...Miracle" as a vehicle for discussing
the special potency of and deficiencies inherent in a lyric that was shaped by music. As I read the
poem over a number of times, though, nearly all of the weaknesses
seemed to vanish. While familiarity breeds admiration (or just
breeds; just ask Adam and Eve), my increased respect for Leonard's
"Waiting For The Miracle" as time goes by is probably due to the author deceiving the reader
by presenting him or her with a discussion of a seemingly simple topic
within a seemingly banal, but in reality imaginative, format.
The opening four lines -- Baby, I've been waiting, / I've been waiting night and day. I
didn't see the time / I wasted half
my life away -- are, at first glance, nothing more than clichés strung together. After a few listens,
however, I came to realize that elevated language (as Paul Simon calls
it) wasn't necessary; so much that is complicated
is stated and implied in what amount to deceptively simple lines. The third line, for instance,
twists a cliché effectively. We're not talking "I thought it was 4:00, but it's really 4:30" here;
this is the much more puissant "I thought I was 20, but I'm really 55."
The fourth line makes an extraordinarily powerful statement which asks the reader to
draw from his or her own experience. We commonly feel that we've
wasted too much time; experiencing Cohen's lyric, after all, is one of mass culture's voluntary experiences. In striking an
extremely common chord (even Bill Clinton thinks that he's screwed up), Cohen has yielded to the
"generalities" that must be present for pop to be pop at the same time as he smashes through
them. Pop is always mass culture; poetry isn't. Cohen is both mass culture and a man with a
circulation of one, somehow.
Cohen sneakily begins a major discussion about dreams when he states that there were lots
of invitations. Dreams, after all, aren't realized for one of two reasons: you either can't make
them come true or you don't notice that they have come true, and therefore they might as well
have not. As we find out, Cohen hasn't accepted what is implied to be a great chance because he's
waiting for a sort of divine love, a probably unattainable miracle cure. Cohen admitting that he
could easily get love is critical to the rest of the poem; this is where this work's integrity springs
from. Additionally, the constraints of and lack of eloquence in pop is pissed on when Cohen
states "I know you really loved me, / but, you see, my hands were
tied." This is really chilling;
wasting your life away due to perfectionism while there's great chance waiting for you is "having
your hands tied"?
The technique of eventually aggrandizing what seems to be a minor line -- in this case,
"your bugle and your drum(1)
" -- is, to me, the most traditional poetic device found here. It took
about 10 readings to offer an interpretation of "The maestro says it's Mozart, / but it sounds like
bubble gum." It seems that the poet is, through an elaborate metaphor that unites presumably
unrelated verses, stating that all of his friends (the maestros) say that her love (her bugle and her
drum) is an incredible thing, that it's Mozartean (sp?). It seems
like Brill Building music
to him, though, in light of the fact that the miracle -- love that's even greater -- hasn't arrived. Is
that haunting or what? If there is a such thing as sexual politics,
Leonard Cohen is definitely a Democrat.
Some lines are extremely difficult. Why the mention of the end of World War II? He was
13 at the time. Was that, the beginning of his adolescence, the last time he wasn't obsessed with
this cause? Or is it alluded to because of the parallel between the bittersweet happiness at the end
of a war and the bitersweet happiness at the end of a long, fruitless search? And what does Most
of you was naked, / ah but some of you was light mean? Still, the very presence of these
ambiguities and simple-complicated (to parody Sondheim's phrase
"Sorry-Grateful" from the equally genre-twisting musical "Company") imagery such as "the sands of time"
help to stretch the limits of the form of the pop song.
Cohen brilliantly twists the story around and confuses us yet again by revealing that she's
waiting for a sort of miracle herself. Once they decide to be "alone together" (which is less worn
out than you initially think if context is taken into consideration), we realize that both "loves"
(e.g., his love for her and her love for him) are "absolutely wrong." They'll both wait for
something better until the end of time; the "improvement" is that they're wasting their lives away
Cohen's shrewd poem defies expectations and presents us with a number of challenges
and an opportunity to create a mind-numbing number of interpretations. It's probably a poem
about two people who settle for each other while they're waiting forever for something
unattainable. Alternately, they may be absolutely happy and absolutely at peace. This could be so
if, in the next-to-last verse, "something crazy..." is something sexual and "the miracle to come" is
an orgasm as opposed to "something crazy" actually referring to their marriage and "the miracle
to come" referring to a future love. Also, despite the fact that she's not the miracle he's looking
for, he may very well be the miracle that she's looking for and, powerless, she might be conceding
this and waiting with him until he finds a miracle.
In any event, I'm going to re-read, re-think and re-evaluate this work for some time, for
some time to come.
1. Maybe a reference to Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"? (Sad-eyed lady
of the lowlands, / Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes. / My warehouse
eyes, my Arabian drums, / Should I leave them by your gate? / Or, sad-eyed lady,
should I wait?)
Michael Dube holds a degree in music and administration of justice from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and will receive his law degree from Rutgers Law School-Camden in May of 2002.
Steven Dube, Linden High School's 2000 valedictorian, is an English major at New York University.