‘St John of the Cross, he did his best stuff imprisoned in a box;

And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks.’

Nick Cave

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds do all kinds of songs: weird fables, howling bad dreams, exquisite love songs. Blues straight from the abbatoir; lullabies filled with desire; stir-crazy sermons: my little list represents only part of what the band can do and what Nick Cave, as principal songwriter, can create. But still we find the greedy Cave is hungry to do more. This Elvis-Odysseus is on a mission to ‘move the world.’ He doesn’t stop. ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’ is the song that tells us of Cave’s greed, but also of his male muses, two of whom are named above. The rest? John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; Karl Marx; Paul Gauguin; Philip Larkin; Dylan Thomas; Vladimir Nabokov. Grisly lives, grisly deaths: debased, obscene and comic, all of them, even speccy old librarian Larkin, become rockstars the way Cave writes about them. They suffer and endure, but above all they carry on creating as they disintegrate.

‘There She Goes:’ a more joyous and desperate love-song you can’t imagine. A gospel frenzy, a prayer for the muse to ‘send that stuff on down,’ Cave’s song is one of his best. It’s like seeing  some crazy man walking into an open field in a thunderstorm and watching him bear his chest to the lightning–not so much prayer as dare.

Richard Wilbur is a poet who does not press his company on anyone. He does not prod you in the chest with a forefinger and insist on your undivided attention. Almost as modest as Elizabeth Bishop, his poems wait in the brain, outside the spotlight of conscious attention, until you see their sense–and hear it, as Wilbur’s St Teresa hears, pierced by ‘the spear which drew/ a bridal outcry from her lips.’ There is reading and there is this: the direct seduction by the speaking and singing voice of the poet. One is civilised: looking to like, if looking liking move. The other is not civilised–indeed nothing can tame it– a ‘did my heart love till now?’ moment. The first kind of reaction is of a Juliet who is offering a cautious assessment of how she might feel once she has met Paris. It is a rational reaction, an acknowledgement that feelings might grow over time. The second, a Romeo-seeing-Juliet response, is the kind of staggered gasp, the astonished inbreath that comes with a love that seems to obliterate everything else that came before it. Today has been that kind of day, a day in which Richard Wilbur has cast so many other poets that I love into the shadows. He, in my newly reconfigured mind, is teaching the torches to burn.

What has made the difference is hearing the poems. I have been reading them and liking them for years, but recently I acquired the Academy of American Poets’ 1989 recording of Wilbur’s poems, introduced by James Merrill, and as soon as Wilbur began to read his work, the  full-throated ease of the poems split me apart like a sharp thumbnail cuts a ripe fig. As I listened, I happened to be driving through a treacherous winter landscape: the car skidded and lost traction at times, but the poems never wandered from the path. Ecstasy escaped like odour from each poem, but the formal shape, the pattern of the metrical dance, was so exact that the ecstasy was never less than rational. Wilbur’s ‘Teresa’ again: ‘And lock the O of ecstasy within/ The tempered consonants of discipline.’

My Teresa moment in the car reminded me that metre, any poet’s metre, comes from the living organism that is the poet’s speaking voice. All rhythms that he or she is able to use spring from the musical rhythms of speech. And yet the great poets’ speaking voices are more than speaking voices. The rhythms used by the poet eventually come to use him: they order and shape his mind so that he is incapable of functioning without them. Indeed, he is those rhythms: falling and trochaic, rising and iambic, his mind moves as a poem moves. Many poets have this quality: when they give interviews and talk, their talk is spilt poetry. A sure test of a poet’s worth? The wash of rhythm rippling through apparently casual conversation, sufficient to make you imagine that rhythm undulating even through his dreams. 

Poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Kathleen Jamie, for example, seem to take topographical rhythms into their speech. Heaney’s peat-sharp consonants kick alongside bubbling lightness; Longley’s conversation is like the wind coming in off the sea at his beloved Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, a wind that picks up the otter’s water-pulse as it swims offshore, a wind that seems capable of counting the starry sand grains on the beach. Jamie, on the other hand, talks like an Alder in thaw, with a ticking passion and impatience, as if willing the sap to rise again.

Yet some poets, such as John Berryman, do not seem to have any metrical smoothness in their conversation. Berryman’s speech is an odd mixture of explosions and quiet despairing gurgles. Listen to him read at the Guggenheim in 63 and you notice he can make the word ‘but’ bang like sniper fire, and the word ‘elaborate’ drift off upstairs, downstairs, somewheres… His poems have the same kind of nitroglycerine unpredictability. Metre is there but it is volatile, as the Berryman personae swim in and out of focus: Henry’s quiet conscience-voice, the voice who tells Mr Bones that there is indeed a ‘law’ against him, contends against the noisier ‘impenitent’ and ‘seedy’  Henry. Still, even in the case of Berryman, speaking voice and metre are connected: the poems have all the irresponsible anarchy of dreams, and all the loopy order of a fine and fractured mind. Berryman’s speech is that broken mirror too.

Robert Lowell’s poems always sound like the Atlantic battling Melville’s whale. Lowell is the big sea, the ‘brackish reach of shoal’ he evokes in ‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’–even when he is writing about ducks. Hear him reading  ‘The Public Garden’ at the Guggenheim in ’63 along with Berryman and he delivers the lines

the shedding park-bound mallards, how they keep
circling and diving in the lantern light,
searching for something hidden in the muck.

with a voice which seems to thunder like Jehovah. He has no offswitch for that Miltonic grandeur, a quality which gives even his weakest poems a kind of sonic weight, and in interviews, he seems always to drift towards a magisterial iambic: ‘their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated’ he says of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams in his Paris Review interview, in ruptured hexameter.

Elizabeth Bishop, too, follows the same law of metrical overspill from her poems to her talk. Hear ‘The Armadillo’ on the website of  The Academy of American Poets (1) and all her conversational, epistolary modesty seems folded into every line. Her speaking voice crosses current with counter-current. Above is modesty and dignity, an elegant uninsistence; underneath is a struggle, almost with breath itself. What she says is beautiful, but her breathing hints that she can hardly bear to voice it: what poor things the lovely words are, she seems to say–words, as lovely and robust as those ‘frail, illegal fireballoons’ she describes.  Bishop’s speech also floats with a hidden, fragile fire. Below is a comment she makes in a 1977 interview with George Starbuck where she discusses the blue snails that appear in her poem ‘Crusoe in England.’

Perhaps — but the ones I’ve seen were in the Ten Thousand islands in Florida. Years ago I went on a canoe trip there and saw the blue snails. They were tree snails, and I still may have some. They were very frail and broke easily and they were all over everything. Fantastic. (2)

Now this is nowhere near as lovely as the description in ‘Crusoe’ where the snails are ‘a bright violet-blue with a thin shell’ and the shells of the dead snails ‘look like a bed of irises’ but the spill of enthusiasm and the joy of seeing is evident. Her rhythm comes from her eye, pulsing and receptive to the energy and fragility of the snails and everything else she encounters. Describing the snails in the poem hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for the snails she saw in Florida: that ‘and..and…and…’ gives a sense of the endlessly rocking eye within.

A final instruction: click on the link given below and sample some of the clips of an interview given by Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive. In them, you will hear his exquisite poetic cadence in so many phrases of explanation, whether he is talking about the ‘excitingly exact concrete perceptions’ of Marianne Moore or the ‘rhythmic jags’ of Hopkins.  Interviews like this are valuable because they give the reader a kind of faith in poems as self-generating, self-seeding. To hear a poet talk is to sense poems rising from speech.

But there is a further benefit to be had from listening to poets in conversation. Their talk, whether it be Longley’s, Bishop’s or Wilbur’s, also helps us to think about the question ‘What is a poet?’ After listening to Wilbur being interviewed, a few images come to mind: a poet is a split casing, a discarded pod, content to be left behind by the disciplined ecstasy of the growing flower. Ego needs to cede to voice.

Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive: http://www.peoplesarchive.com/browse/mpeg4_150k/5786/en/off/

(1) Link to Academy of American Poets and an audio recording of Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’ http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15214

(2)http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmarticleid=420

 

It’s the Pink Panther, the rinky-dink Panther,

 and it’s as plain as your nose,

that he’s the one and only truly original

Panther Pink from head to toes.

 

I can give you those lyrics so easily, straight from memory: the words aren’t even buried treasure, so close are they to the surface. Oh yes, I’ve got those Rinkydink-Batfink-Top-Cat-Tip-Top-Hit-Me-With-Your-Rhythm-Stick blues. Some days, it happens: an old beating-on-a-trashcan sound gets up some speed. ‘Starts again always in Henry’s ears/the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.’ Yes. It’s something to do with that compulsion John Berryman describes in Dream Song 29. Somewhere, in a mysterious corner of the cerebellum, two or more sounds connect like a little circuit and you are thrown backwards into a cartoon moment, a movie, a catchy number-one from Top of the Pops: cartoons such as The Pink Panther, Top Cat, or Batfink; that Ian Dury tune that your parents recorded onto the very first tape you had and played to death, the one containing an unholy amalgam of The Beatles, ‘Chanson D’Amour,’ Showaddywaddy and Boney M. But plenty of people reach for this kind of nostalgia. TV is full of this po-mo recent-past binge-thinking, and full of people moaning about how boring it is to focus on all this easily available Pot-Noodle memory. I quite agree.

The Pink Panther is hardly Rilke’s Panther in the Jardin des Plantes. Top Cat’s adventures don’t travel the same magical distance as Fred Astaire’s footsteps in Top Hat. Top Cat and The Pink Panther please like sweeties please, like lemon sherbets: a sweet quick fizz. Who can remember their plotlines? How did Hugo A Go Go try to trap Batfink and Karate in ‘The Short-Circuit Case’ ? Why didn’t Top Cat and Officer Dibbles try to make a go of it? We don’t much care. The reason these little toons had bite wasn’t their story, it was their sound.

Soundbites, as politicians know, work because their sounds bite. A little phrase locks its jaws into a lobe of the brain and a permanent link is forged. So, although the plot of Batfink is lost, the sounds of the names are not. Pun-punchdrunk genius went into those Batfink character names: Hugo A Go Go, Judy Jitsu, Goldyunlocks, Brother Goose. An assonating, alliterating badass thought of catchphrases like ‘My wings are like a shield of steel’ and ‘my supersonic sonar radar will save me.’  Never mind the story; have the pleasure of tasting tongue-twisters like that week on week and the kids will be hooked. But why?

It’s a deep-brainer. We learn language by making neural connections, and as researchers such as Hulme and Snowling have found, if ‘children lack “phonological awareness” […] they are destined to find learning to read and write difficult.’ (1) In other words, if they cannot hear rhymes and alliteration, and therefore cannot link or group the sounds of speech, they are likely to be poor readers and writers: reading and writing build upon ‘the child’s intuitive knowledge of the structure of speech.’ (2) This phonological awareness develops before we begin to read and write, so if such connections are not made, literacy is impaired. And if literacy is impaired, memory is impaired: memories are words that name images, smells, tastes, sounds and textures. From my experience as a teacher, a child with poor literacy has no memory. She cannot say what she remembers, because words strung into syntax are what call up the world, and her grasp of syntax is like a torn fishing net. She will not be able to describe her first memory. She will not be able to tell you about her house, her family, her dreams. She has no dreams–because she has no words.

Now I know how memory is stifled at birth (it happens when a child isn’t spoken to and listened to,  from the beginning) I know how precious the tongue-twisters are. Penelope Pitstop, Dastardly and Mutley and Hong Kong Phooey are little giggles, chimes that set off bigger, greater poems later. But they only delight me today because of early conversations I had with my parents, at a time when I couldn’t yet reply but nonetheless heard the pretty chime of things that set the darkness echoing.

1) from David Wood, How Children Think and Learn, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999),  215

2) Wood, 215.

 

Batfink usually has some alliterative delights, puns and rhymes, and this is no exception: Hugo A Go Go is the ‘copycat bat’ and poor Karate, thrown off a cliff, moves the voiceover narrator to comment: ‘It looks like Karate’s courageous career is kaputt.’ Karate also dusts down City Hall for the copycat bat’s ‘wingerprints.’ Bliss, even if the 4 minutes of cartoon does feel rather laboured.

‘For there is nowhere to bide,’ Rilke tells us in the first Duino Elegy. We live, however, as if we have a home, a stopping place, when we are just the movement of a heartbeat through the clockwork hours. And the heart beats counter to the clock. Heartbeat is wrong: life swims in us, rather than beating. The clock is the one who strikes. Dasein, being, is drowned out by the noisy seconds, their inexorable subtractions. Even our English verbs have forgotten this, subject as they are to the slap of minutes and the fist of days.

In England, we talk about where we’ live,’  and there hardly seems to be another verb used for it. In Scotland, friends ask you ‘where do you stay?’  and at least then living somewhere seems to keep faith with the lack of permanence that is its true condition. But in England, the question ‘where do you live?’ has come to mean something about postcodes, mortgages, even GPS coordinates that you can punch into a Satnav. It hardly has the drift of what it really means, less still the urgency with which Rilke, say, might ask the question: ‘where do you live?’

That question is one Rilke asks me now; Rilke, long dead, and yet breathing for me as forcefully as his ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo.’  ‘Where do you live?’ he asks, throwing his whole voice into the verb. It is not a question I can answer, but one that a line from Hopkins tries to answer for me: ‘deals out that being indoors each one dwells.’ Oh Hopkins. He just assumes that selving happens as a matter of course. ‘Each mortal thing,’ he writes, ‘selves, goes itself,’ as if those mortal things deal out their being as easily as they exhale. Not so, unfortunately.

Where we live and where we dwell is locked within us, an underground river, looking for its resurgence. Our task is therefore not to find a place to lay our heads but to descend to the slipstream and abide there. If you have ever tried to stand upright in a burn in spate you will know how difficult this task is: once in a torrent or meltwater, the ‘you’ is seen for the flotsam that it is. Try to stay standing in it and only your will remains, only your pure attention.

‘To ‘bide’ or to ‘abide’ is hardly possible; biding is fragile defense against the force of life. A parable: years ago, on the Shetland Island of Whalsay, I stayed with J in a cottage once rented by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who used the place as an office in which to write ‘A Raised Beach.’ The owners were a generous and sociable couple who had a thirteen-year-old daughter. One evening, we sat down to our meal, the door open to the warm July dusk. We ate and talked and did not notice that a third presence had approached. A girl (we assumed it was the daughter) was standing on the threshold, watching us eat. We did not know how long she had been there; perhaps thirty seconds, perhaps ten minutes: her gaze was so soft that it took light years to reach us. Realising who she must be, we tried to talk to her, asking her about her life on this tiny island, and about the other islands. Which was her favourite? ‘Bressay…where my aunt bides.’ Bides. In the dusk, that word swung back and forth before me like a candle lantern, and has swung ever since. Who was she, this girl who talked of biding? We could not persuade her to come into the house and we could not suggest that she leave. When I passed near her, she shrank against the wall, even though I was not less than five feet from her. To my shame, I felt afraid of her. She lived on Whalsay, but where did she bide? We had guessed who she was, but at no time did she offer us her name. Looking at us with curiosity, she managed not to stare, as if someone had charcoal-sketched the expression into her eyes. She was an ember made grey ash, slaked by the sea.

Visited by this creature, I was gifted the verb ‘bide’ and its lovely sister ‘abide.’ Full of longing, calling out ‘stay with me, though you cannot stay,’ ‘bide’ and ‘abide’ tell us of reaching out for stillness when the night comes, of desire breathing out and aching for rest.

Auden: the most accessible of voices, the most forbidding of minds. Even when he dodges and evades, his voice hits from far, like love. Aloof, he touches, even, especially with his plainest phrases. Want a love poet? He’s your man. But don’t expect to love in the same way after you read him. Want a compass? He directs, but only into solitude. Gentle, inconsolable, terrifying, his words have such reach that he can change you without you realising that he’s at work. Look on this place you’re living in and you will not know it. Look on yourself and the mirror will not say your name.

Or so I realise, now I see how he’s been at work in me all these years, ever since that time in my adolescence when I didn’t know poetry even mattered. Perhaps he was the one who started to make poetry matter to me. Let me tell you how.

1987, and I bought an LP by The Communards. Buying it was rebellious, listening to it and loving it even more so. Those were the days leading up to the introduction of Clause 28. Busy with grief, the gay community fought two enemies: the Thatcher government’s increasingly homophobic stance and the terror of HIV. In the midst of this, Jimmi Sommerville and Richard Coles released Red, The Communards’ second album. Part of the ‘Red Wedge’ movement that drew together artists such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, The Communards seemed to my fourteen-year-old mind even more radical. Anger, sadness and sexual freedom characterised their music, and they promised a liberated sexual identity that, as a straight, straight-laced private school teenage girl, I could never have imagined without their help. But when I bought their record that year, I hardly knew that this precious sexual liberty that they had written about owed so much to the man who wrote the lyrics to the standout track on the album, a man who had a beautiful name, beautiful even in the small print of the liner notes: W.H. Auden.

The song in question was a setting of Auden’s villanelle ‘If I Could Tell You.’ Long after I had ceased to think of the other songs on Red, the words to this song continued to blossom in my mind. ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ How much dumb pain lies here in this simplicity? ‘There must be reasons why the leaves decay.’ A wall you didn’t see coming lies in that word ‘must.’ No answer, no answer. ‘The vision seriously intends to stay.’ No one wants an ending to that sweetness; not even the glory of it wants to go. ‘Because I love you more than I can say.’ How often has that sentence been on our lips, and when has it ever meant more than here, when Auden says it for us? And again the villanelle turns round: ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ Every time it returns, we are in a little deeper.  Every time the words face us, we yearn to see our own face.

See? This is Auden, doing what he does best, going on ahead. On Red, Auden’s words lead the way. They lead Somerville and Coles into courageous truth-telling about what was then happening to their ‘lovers and friends.’ And I wish sometimes that I could take Auden by the hand and tell him how those words led me into thinking and feeling. Not immediately, I hasten to add: it is not easy to hear Auden. It is harder still to follow on behind. But once heard, the words themselves lead, and Auden does nothing.  No-one else I know has quite this ability to stand up for language and to stand so cleanly outside it. But in doing so, he gives us the best of ideals: to love words so that we leave ourselves behind.

‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’ There. Are there any more perfect lines in all of pop music’s history? I almost don’t need to write about them or the song they come from. I could simply instruct you to sit and contemplate their beauty ‘until ye start as if the sea-nymphs quired.’ That would be enough. But as Guy Garvey, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang and many others have found, Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece is just too delicious to be left at that. It’s a song that not only aches to be listened to, but aches to be understood and enthused over.

Hallelujah’s depth was all too apparent to me from the moment I came across it for the first time: Jeff Buckley’s superlative, fierce and tender rendering, heard on a compilation tape my now husband made for me back in the first few weeks of our relationship. I don’t remember any of the other songs on that tape. All I remember is ‘Hallelujah.’ Consider that I was in love then like I hadn’t been before. Consider that I might have been especially vulnerable at that moment. But even so, the song’s power was so extreme that there is only one possible explanation for it: duende.

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’  I heard those lines and began to weep; they cracked me open and broke me. A secret chord? Of course there is such a thing. The idea seemed so powerful because I had always suspected that a ‘secret chord’ existed. In other words, Cohen perfectly articulated an idea I had only ever dumbly sensed: that the beauty of music could be so profound that even God would react to it as I just had: the omnipotent one wouldn’t be able to help it. But there’s more. Actually, what Cohen is suggesting is not just the existence of the secret chord, but also the necessity for the singer or poet to pursue that secret and find it out, no matter what the cost (it’s a ‘broken’ hallelujah after all). The chord is not just a mesmerising possibility but a way of life. Buckley knew that: he lost his life in pursuit of musical purity and intensity. Lang knows it in the way she sings that pronoun ‘she’ in the line ‘she cut your hair.’ She knows the erotic passion and the loss involved, but also the weight of queer history: the song, too, is allowing her to sing of her love for women in such a nakedly erotic way that it it feels like a historical release–from all the secrecy and suffering that used to be involved in being gay. She isn’t singing merely for herself here. In her hands ‘Hallelujah’ becomes the ‘I Have a Dream’ of queer politics.

Lang knows what other great interpreters of ‘Hallelujah’ know: he song is a call to arms, a way and a liberation. Leonard Cohen is a lucky, lucky man that such a song arose in him. And any singer of real duende is lucky when they take on this song, because it will release in them a trueness and sweetness that feels like a pinnacle and a blessing to singer and audience alike.

A link to Buckley’s version is included below.

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=AratTMGrHaQ