In terms of the intellectual content of his works, Cohen ranks alongside such twentieth century thinkers as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and John Lennon. Cohen the novelist and poet preceded his foray into song writing and singing. But even in a thought-provoking novel such as Beautiful Losers, the lyric writing talents of the author are quite evident, especially in the passage that includes God is Alive. One of the impressive literary features of the poem is the aura of the sermon that it evokes. The choice of words such as ‘poor’, ‘sick’, ‘mountain’ ‘shroud’, ‘hill’, ‘serve’, etc have a strong biblical resonance. These words were perhaps also chosen for their universal quality, whereby their meaning and relevance will stand the test of time and immediate social context. The repetition of words and re-arrangement of phrases are deliberate poetic devices that add weight to the author’s argument. This technique also makes the poem suitable for adaptation into song, as some contemporary singers such as Buffy Sainte-Marie have shown. But high quality lyrics are not necessarily high quality poetry, as song-making imposes some restrictions on the quality. To this extent one can take a tolerant view of the shortcomings in God is Alive. This is true of other rock stars of his generation who treaded between these two art forms. For example:
“You can see the failure of musical poetry even in the short span of rock’s dominance. The Canadian poet Leonard Cohen turned to music in the late 1960s after listening to Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono and realizing that an imperfect voice need not be a hindrance to pop success. If Cohen wrote a higher class of lyrics than some other rock-era composers (the song “Suzanne,” the lines “God is Alive”, / Magic is afoot”), it was at the price of writing a lower class of poetry.” (Bottum, 2000, p.56)
But overall, God is Alive is a satisfactory piece of literature that has endured the passage of fifty years. The fact that contemporary artists (such as Buffy Sainte-Marie) are using the lyric is a proof to its lasting appeal and relevance. Hence, in conclusion, beyond the cultural radicalism of the lyric, it is also full of profundity and mystical quality. The literary style too is high quality, albeit belonging to a genre that is somewhere between poetry and lyric.
Eugene Benson and William Toye, eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Second Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997: 220-221. Print.
Beautiful Losers. New York, Toronto: Viking Press, McClelland & Stewart, 1966. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart [New Canadian Library], 1991. Print.
J. Bottum, The Soundtracking of America. The Atlantic Monthly. Volume: 285. Issue: 3: March 2000: 56. Print.
God is Alive, Magic is Afoot – lyrics by Leonard Cohen, retrieved from <http://www.seeklyrics.com/lyrics/Leonard-Cohen/God-Is-Alive-Magic-Is-Afoot.html> on 16th December, 2011.