OK, I admit I’m not familiar with that segment of literary theory that deals with “diss poems.” None of the courses I took as an English major, Modern American Poetry, Victorian Poetry. Seventeenth Century Verse, Restoration & 18th Century Poetry: From Dryden to Wordsworth, etc., addressed, as far as I recall, Epic Diss Poetry. That may explain why the internet’s current fascination with Leonard Cohen’s “Kanye West Is Not Picasso” and the characterization of that verse as “A Diss From Beyond The Grave” elude me. Nonetheless, we press on.
I’ve already posted the recommendation that if you’re weary of reading Twitter-sized appraisals of Leonard Cohen’s currently trending “Kanye West Is Not Picasso” poem (e.g., “Leonard Cohen is right,” “Leonard Cohen sucks,” “Who’s Leonard Cohen?”), take a look at Leonard Cohen’s Kanye West Poem Wasn’t an Insult; It was a tribute by Carl Wilson (Slate: Oct 12, 2018), which offers a more comprehensive, nuanced, and coherent take on the issue. Now, however, I want to approach the issue from another perspective.
Here’s “Kanye West Is Not Picasso” from The Flame by Leonard Cohen:
don’t ever fuck with me
or come up to me
and punch my gut
on behalf of one of your theories
I am armed and mad
Should I suffer
the smallest humiliation
at your hand
I will k–l you
and your entire family
I mean, doesn’t that sound pretty diss-ish to you? Yet, here’s what Leonard had to say about it.
I actually recited the poem [‘Dear Mailer’] to [Norman] Mailer with a smile, at some reading where we met up. He didn’t punch me out but he was alarmed. He said, ‘God, don’t publish that. You don’t know that some loony isn’t going to be excited by it and do what you threatened to do.’ It really scared him. I then had second thoughts about the poem because suddenly I saw it from his point of view. Earlier, I saw it as a humorous response to the position he was taking at the time, coming on like a bully. I had a real laugh when I originally wrote it. I then tried to stop its publication but it had already gone to press.
From Having Lunch With Leonard Cohen by Jon Wilde, Sabotage Times. Dec 3, 2015 (the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview).
“Dear Mailer” has provoked some interesting responses. The posts collected at “Dear Mailer” – Leonard Cohen explain the origin the poem and offers observations on it;.