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.
While it may seem that Leonard Cohen’s I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries is a clear rejection of external institutions for an internal individualism, a closer reading sees a more conflicted persona that does acknowledge—and even yearn for— external dogma. Central to the poem is the negative refrain, “I have not”, which the persona uses in the first three stanzas to dismiss various institutions: European culture, mysticism, religion and so on. However, these negative refrains are superficial: they secretly have an affirmative subtext that celebrates their respective external dogma. It is only with the refrain in the final stanza that this becomes clear.