Keeping the Flame–Introducing a New Generation to Leonard Cohen

Today was homecoming at school. As a longtime teacher, homecoming has become almost perfunctory for me, but I love watching my students show their excitement. They wear their class colors, perform in the assembly, participate in the lunchtime activities. It’s a fun week that culminates in the Friday assembly & game and Saturday dance. Needless to say, many students were out of class today to participate in the festivities. And the class that we did hold was shortened to make time for the assembly. So I had a choice to make: continue with the curricular plan as originally mapped out or make a quick change in lesson choices that would help better introduce an upcoming class assignment. I opted for choice number two.

For the first time I am requiring students to participate in Poetry Out Loud, a great spoken-word poetry competition. It’s not quite slam, but it’s a fantastic introduction to reciting poetry for the uninitiated. I’ve offered it as extra credit in past years, but this year I wanted to invest more in the teaching of poetry.

We started class by looking at a great opinion piece featured in the LA Times this past summer, “You Can Recite More Poems than You Realize” by Liesl Schillinger. Her premise was that we all know and recite song lyrics when we go to the karaoke party or sing in the car; therefore, we know and recite poetry–that happens to be in the form of song lyrics. She makes the claim that when artists cover each others’ work the “Arrangements and accompaniment can change; but for the song to have its sense, the words must stay the same.” She goes on to say, “A poem, like a song, has two creators; the person who writes it, and the person who remakes it in her own voice, by saying it aloud or singing it, whether a cappella or accompanied by guitar, piano, karaoke, or a legion of backup singers.” So I put her premise to the test with my students. We used the often covered song “Hallelujah.” I opted for this song because I noticed that a new cover of the song was in the iTunes Top 10 last night. So when I started with the new Pentatonix a Capella rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic.

Pentatonix “Hallelujah”

I only played the first minute or so. The students started buzzing. I heard many mutterings of “I’ve heard that before.” “It’s the Shrek song.””That’s so cool!”

And yes, it is the Shrek song. So I switched to Rufus Wainwright’s cover mirroring Welshman John Cale’s version from the movie (Wainwright’s version is on the soundtrack, Cale’s is in the movie).

Rufus Wainwright “Hallelujah”

No exploration of cover versions of “Hallelujah” is complete without Jeff Buckley’s definitive version. My students found Buckley’s version fittingly soulful.

Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”

Then we got our first listen to the original–Leonard Cohen’s version. None of my students had ever heard of Leonard Cohen or experienced his deep smokey voice, which saddens but doesn’t suprise me. So I took it upon myself to use this teachable moment–my students were introduced to greats like Wainwright and Buckley, but Cohen is a legend.

Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah”

While the students sniggered at first, they grew curious when we started analyzing the lyrics and uncovering the comparison of faith and love, the religious allusion embedded in the melancholy portrayal of a betrayed lover. They were engaged in looking at the lyrics (which often varied slightly because Cohen wrote multiple verses that weren’t originally recorded, but made it into live performances)–particularly the word choice. “Why use the word ‘baffled’ to describe the king?” “‘I’ versus ‘we’ ‘drew’ a hallelujah–how do you draw a hallelujah?” This was a great conversation with my students regarding a poem–when they would never readily admit to liking poetry. This is the version of the poem we used:

“Hallelujah”
Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

But baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Now my students were curious. They wanted to know more about Cohen. Before I showed them more, I introduced them to their assignment– to find a poem on the Poetry Out Loud website to memorize and perform. We returned to Schillinger’s idea that “you can’t like every poem; but you will know the ones that speak to you when you hear them, once they’ve been brought to life by the sound and texture of your voice.” I challenged them to find a poem that they could bring to life by finding one that spoke to them. I even suggested pulling out their karaoke songs and finding a soundtrack for their poem, to make it a song, to do anything to make meaning, find the pauses, find the punches. Then I shared the first song off of Cohen’s latest (and per his claims last) album: “You Want It Darker.” They were intrigued by the If even one of these students goes home and listens to Buckley’s Grace or Wainwright’s Want One or Cohen’s I’m Your Man, I will consider today’s interrupted-day-lesson-on- the-fly a win. So we ended class with the lyrics to “You Want It Darker” as we listened to the song and many students looking diligently through the copious poems available for the Poetry Out Loud competition in the online library. I kept them focused on Homecoming, and I found the way to make them want to find a poem to memorize. Sometimes, things not going as planned keeps the flame.

Leonard Cohen “You Want It Darker”

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