~ spoken word ~

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy”

Poem and performance by Leonard Cohen
Directed by Mark Pellington

See also the music video.

I have only known Leonard Cohen as a singer/songwriter. To my surprise I came across his video poem titled Democracy.

Cohen is an outstanding poet and I have been a devoted fan since my adolescence. However I have never seen or heard him just read his poetry, not without musical accompaniment, which was and remains the perfect blend by which Leonard Cohen presents himself. Neither genre supersedes the other. He is indeed an icon and has influenced an entire generation.

Visually, with the exception of the backdrop (flag changing into a bar code at the end), Democracy reminds me of a static poetry reading. Not much movement going on. Perhaps all we need is to watch Cohen stand there, and be the spoken-word artist. He does it very well. There is something to be said for letting purity be the platform and downplaying the drama. The camera plays a significant role in this by switching to close-ups of Cohen, zooming in and out, silhouetting, and coming back in while respecting the graphic element of the piece. This works well, and as we know, his words carry the weight. His voice is juxtaposed, rough but smooth, and he reads with feeling. The bar code provides the perfect ending to this political statement. The background music in my opinion is as important as the visual, which makes them combined vehicles that work well together. I only wish I knew what he is fondling.

This video poem was part of a series called The United States of Poetry, produced by Bob Holman, Josh Blum and directed by Mark Pellington for PBS. Sixty poets were featured, among them, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ruth Forman.

An interesting bit of information that I learned is that former president Jimmy Carter became the first U.S president to write a book of poetry: Always a Reckoning and Other Poems, published by Crown in 1995 and illustrated by Sarah Elizabeth Chuldenko. (Crown also published Jimmy Stewart and his Poems, which I happen to have illustrated.)

Bob Holman’s website will give you more of an idea of the series.