Leonard Cohen’s How to Speak Poetry is an instruction manual of sorts on how to speak poetry. Cohen takes a comprehensive approach, exploring the relationship between the poet and his audience, and why poetry and public speaking can be antithetical if done wrongly. Cohen sees poetry as truth. It is authentic, private and universal. The purpose of speaking poetry is to forge a connection between the speaker and the audience sharing this truth. However, speaking poetry can also introduce the speaker’s ego, contaminating the poetry and making it inauthentic, superficial and egoistic. There is an underlying thread of sex throughout the essay, espousing a sustained goal: above all, Cohen prizes truthfulness and authenticity. In approaching poetry and speaking along the lines of sex, Cohen emphasizes the innate and natural connection between speaker and audience that is required when speaking poetry.
It is perhaps first necessary to contextualize Cohen’s ideas on the relationship between the speaker and his audience. Written after the Vietnam War and during the birth of the post-modern movement, How to Speak Poetry denies the poet any authority or exclusive truths over his audience. “The age demands no expression whatever” (Cohen 345). The poet and the audience are very much equals. With this context in mind, the essay opens by examining a single word, “butterfly”. Cohen immediately cautions against excesses. There is no requirement to use the word, “It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies” (Cohen 345). The word exists as itself, without the need for the speaker’s ego. To say “butterfly” like the speaker is in love with butterflies is to elevate the speaker above his audience. “Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature?” (Cohen 345). It is here that Cohen introduces the theme of love and sex, “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” (345). Cohen uses masturbation to mock those who seek to speak about love—the only way to speak about love is to actually do it. “There is the word and there is the butterfly” (345). There is the word, “love”, and there is the actual love. Of course, love is more nuanced than can be simply acted out, hence the double entendre of “play with yourself”, which also implies the navel-gazing nature of such attempts.
Cohen then expands on the context of his time. The horrors of the post-modern world loom over any individual. “There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time” (Cohen 345).Instead, the speaker should acknowledge this fact, “You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet” (Cohen 345).Cohen advises the removal of the ego to connect with the audience. “Step aside and they will know what you know because they know it already” (Cohen 345). Again, Cohen returns to sex, rhetorically asking: “What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman” (345). Poetry is truth, and the audience yearns to be natural and truthful. Cohen advises, “Be good whores” (Cohen 345). For Cohen sees poetry like sex and love: the poet’s role is to provide an as natural and truthful connection as possible.
Hence, he sees poetry as essentially private, as one can be truthful to oneself. In reading authentic and private truth, the audience can recognize and empathize with the poet. However, speaking necessitates an external audience, making it public. “These pieces were written in silence… The discipline of the play is not to violate them” (Cohen 345). This violation is the insertion of the ego, to alienate the audience. To remove the ego, Cohen recommends speaking objectively. “Think of the words as science, not as art” (Cohen 346). The inherent truth in the poetry will come to surface. It is not necessary to embellish or exaggerate, “If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs” (Cohen 346). To insert the subjective ego is to pollute the objective truth. It is necessary to distance the speaker from the source, “Do not get a hard-on when you say panties” (346).
How to Speak Poetry ends with Cohen directly addressing the reader in the second person. Cohen reaffirms imperativeness of authenticity. By seeing the reader authentically, Cohen cannot but help reciprocate the bond, ending the essay on a note of embrace: “Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty” (Cohen 346).