Lessons from Canada’s Poet: How Cohen’s Beauty Outlasts Fear

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims. 

Canadians are in an uproar. Much to their dismay, Trump used their beloved Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah, twice over.  Leonard Cohen was a singer-songwriter and poet who died in 2016. I happen to be a huge fan of both his poetry and songwriting. He is a subversive figure who champions beauty. Trump is a divisive figure who champions fear. Cohen is an eloquent poet, Trump a brutish tweeter.

On Thursday evening of August 28th Trump’s campaign appropriated the lifegiving music of Cohen for the purposes of fear. The RNC used Cohen’s music to woo an audience and soften Trump’s rough image. The contradictory pairing of the venerated poet and Donald Trump calls for an examination of Cohen’s work. President Trump, his supporters and all of us would do well to learn from Canada’s muse.

The majority of Cohen’s songwriting is not explicitly subversive.[1] His honest beholding of beauty and pure expression of art, is itself, subversive to the powers.  He gently holds the beauty of humanity and of the created world while simultaneously witnessing the complexity of love’s suffering.

 Unlike the fast-paced consumption of modern media and politics, Cohen encourages somber yet pleasurable reflection. In the act of beholding beauty through poetry, our often-violent impulses for legal rights, guns, security and wealth dissolve. Marveling at beauty soothes us toward our more vulnerable selves. If society could simply be in awe of beauty, vulnerability might lead to compassion.

Imagery of Cohen’s “The Window” demonstrates the beautiful and vulnerable condition of humanity.

Now why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side?

And leave no word of discomfort
Or leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like the rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host, gentle this soul

The tension of beauty and pride, chosen love and frozen love, broken hearted and gentle soul evoke an exquisite tenderness for human suffering and love. Cohen is of Jewish descent and in several early writings he incorporated imagery of the suffering Jesus Christ. The first stanza brings to mind not only the spear in Christ’s side but also the spear in the side of the listener. For the spear “of the age” and the “powers that be” harm all of us in one way or another. 2020 is a stark reminder of how powerful entities harm people – black civilians, immigrant families, the poor. Cohen’s art touches the listener through beauty and inspires one to empathize with the wound in the side rather than extort it.

Works such as “The Window” cultivate empathy and reflection. Such practices are deeply needed in American culture. Cohen’s poetry stills the human heart and fixes our attention on beauty. His work calms fear and beckons our hearts toward peace. Like a mother gently rocking a baby to sleep, Cohen’s music woos listeners into a vulnerable surrender of beauty. The listener relaxes in a willing embrace. In contrast, Trump’s rhetoric to his base is like a parent exposing their child to a horror flick before bed time. Consequently, the child embraces the parent in white-knuckled fear.

One could say, “submission to beauty” is the power or spirit of Leonard Cohen. Evident in his poetry, written in “The Flame,” he submitted to beauty with raw vulnerability. This poetic spirit calls the listener, voluntarily, to bended knee before the sacred.[2] Conversely, Trump rhetoric orders people, often the marginalized, to bended knee via the smoke grenades of “law and order.”

During the convention Donald Trump and his political team, consciously or not, sought to harness and manipulate the spirit of Cohen – the power of submission to beauty – by using the song Hallelujah. Trump’s campaign emptied the meaning of Hallelujah by using it as a signifier or symbol for a faulty unity based on fear.[3]

The RNC used one of the most revered artistic songs of modern times, Hallelujah, and emptied it of its meaning by pulling on the spiritual strings of the conservative base. Consequently, a hollow Hallelujah becomes an empty signifier used for manipulation. The original song cues and signifies feelings of love. Unfortunately, the masses of the RNC mistakenly associate Hallelujah’s positive feelings with Trump’s spirit of fear.

The unparalleled beauty of Cohen’s melody disarms the hearts of listening Republicans and calls to the audience’s inner desire for beauty. Potentially, they opened their hearts with vulnerability and received not the healing of the artist, Leonard Cohen, but the poisonous lies of a con man, Donald Trump.

Cohen’s song Hallelujah typically ends with listeners awed into a profound solidarity and reflective silence. Cohen teaches we are all lonely and we all love. We are not alone in the exquisite pain and joys of love. Trump’s performance ends with raucous applause widening the chasm of division. Teaching not solidarity in existence but wealth in division.

Unfortunately, for fear filled power structures a paradox remains. Trump’s appropriation of the music, in effect, propagates Cohen’s message of beauty. Playing the song deposits its truth in the subconscious of listeners. Cohen’s expression of pervasive beauty is subversive to power structures by simply being in existence and Trump’s use of Hallelujah perpetuates Cohen’s
healing work.

His poetry is detached completely from consumerism, patriotism and other forms of power. To be in awe of Cohen’s art is to temporarily experience freedom from struggle while beholding beauty. Unwittingly, Trump’s campaign further propagated the humble yet eternal truth of Hallelujah. Unbeknownst to them, as Hallelujah wafted in sound waves to the ears of thousands of people, it carried sacred beauty and it’s unifying elements. However long it takes, no matter the loss, the disappointment, the suffering, beauty and love will out last.

The oppressed, the suffering and wide eyed cross bearers can find solace and enduring beauty in Hallelujah’s final lines:

I’ve told the truth
I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah [Praise Yaweh]



[1] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018 Although his song Democracy is an explicit example of subversion: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cohens+song+onamerica&docid=607993096676966909&mid=4E E0A854F88A4B8CF3A74EE0A854F88A4B8CF3A7&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

[2] Paul Axton explains the coercive use of signifiers in his blog:Forsaking Chritian Ideology.
https://forgingploughshares.org/2020/08/27/forsaking-christian-ideology/

[3] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018

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