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;.
Leonard Cohen – The Flame At The British Library, London
October 4, 2018
Hosted by Will Gompertz
With Rob Hallett via Skype
Poetry readings by Polly Samson,
Singing by Kathryn Williams
Video by DabbyNoNa aka Albert Noonan
The video atop this post is the Rob Hallett interview alone. Hallett, an accomplished raconteur, talks about his role in Leonard Cohen going back on tour in 2008. The video below is the full presentation.
Hear the broadcast and read the transcript at New Collection Showcases Leonard Cohen’s ‘Obsession With Imperfection’. Terry Gross Interviews Adam Cohen (NPR: October 8, 2018).
The Flame by Leonard Cohen is divided into sections:
Of these divisions, I find Notebooks the most intriguing because (1) most of the selections are new to me and (2) many of the entries resonate with issues raised in Leonard’s later work.
More information at The Flame By Leonard Cohen.
The flame burns on: Leonard Cohen has the last word in his posthumous book by Ian McGillis (Montreal Gazette: October 6, 2018) is, by far, the most thorough of the reviews of The Flame I’ve found and one of the most perspicuous.
It outlines, for example, the roles played by Alexandra Pleshoyano and Robert Faggen in curating and organizing the book:
Clearing the technical hurdles, Pleshoyano and Faggen put together a sequence of previously unpublished poems, lyrics for the late-period albums (often slightly but enticingly different from what ended up being sung), reproductions from the notebooks, and other late-life documents. Resisting the temptation to provide extensive marginalia and footnotes — “That would have made it an academic book, and that’s the last thing he would have wanted,” Pleshoyano said — they have assembled an illuminating and seamlessly readable volume that will be manna to Cohen fans worldwide.
McGillis goes on to describe Leonard’s drawings published in the volume:
What’s likely to cause the most surprise, though, is the visual component of The Flame. More than a hundred drawings and paintings from Cohen’s sketchbooks enhance the text, chosen by Pleshoyano from among roughly 400 provided. Many are self-portraits, though the designation doesn’t indicate their range: in 2003 alone Cohen did a self-portrait every day, in a variety of media, often with accompanying words expressing the first thoughts that came into his mind upon waking up.
He also discusses each of Leonard’s first six poetry collections (Let Us Compare Mythologies, 1956, The Spice-Box of Earth, 1961, Flowers for Hitler, 1964, Parasites of Heaven, 1966, The Energy of Slaves, 1972) and two novels (The Favourite Game, 1963 and Beautiful Losers, 1966) that McClelland & Stewart is republishing along with The Flame:
To coincide with The Flame, McClelland & Stewart is providing a fine corrective for those whose Cohen shelves are in mismatched disarray: a uniform edition, sold in separate volumes, of his first six poetry collections and two novels. While each is its own beast, it’s striking how they can also be read as a single entity, instalments in an unbroken lifelong project. Add to these The Flame, and the collections Book of Mercy and Book of Longing, and you’ll pretty much have the lot.
The entire review is accessible at The flame burns on: Leonard Cohen has the last word in his posthumous book. Highly recommended.
In The Flame: Poems And Selections From Notebooks, the late singer/songwriter, poet and novelist’s last book of poetry, lyrics and miscellaneous notes, he emphatically writes that West is not an artistic giant, like Picasso. “I am Picasso,” he writes in Kanye West Is Not Picasso, before adding “I am Edison / I am Tesla.” It’s a bold move – triumphant. Profound, even. To make Kanye’s greatness smaller, Cohen made himself bigger. He has the bigger ego. I almost believe him. You can picture Cohen living in Los Angeles, not far from West, seriously contemplating the once visionary rapper who, today especially, wreaks havoc on the culture. Kanye West is not even the Kanye West he believes he is, Cohen tells us. “I am the Kanye West of Kanye West / The Kanye West / Of the great bogus shift of bullshit culture.” While Cohen has been dubbed the “godfather of gloom,” the kind of introspective writer who toiled in pain purposefully, he still – and always – had sharp thoughts about the culture around him, evolving as he grew old. This poem is, curiously, perhaps not unlike Patti Smith’s Instagram posts: a legendary literary figure and musician who meticulously inspects popular culture and infuses a voice of concern or tenderness upon it. The poem Kanye West Is Not Picasso exemplifies the attention Cohen paid to the world around him – and how it disappointed him so.
From Leonard Cohen is as elusive as ever in his final poetry book by Sarah MacDonald (Now: October 2, 2018). The complete review is available at the link.