How postmodern is Cohen's poetry?

by Clint Burnham

    While Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers is widely seen as Canada's first postmodern novel (Hutcheon 14, 26-44; Bowering 136-37), the postmodern qualities of Cohen's poetry, and specifically Flowers for Hitler, have yet to be recognized.  To label Cohen's poetry as postmodern is no doubt a problematic enterprise, for any number of reasons: for example, "postmodernism" itself is a term that is overused and ill-defined — one might say, undefined precisely because it is used in so many ways.   And, then, to claim Cohen's poetry for the postmodern side seems disingenuous: there are certainly other writers, like Victor Coleman or Phyllis Webb, who at least in terms of influence seem more evidently postmodern.  Finally, the very facility with which the postmodern label has been applied to Beautiful Losers should warn off any critic.

     I propose to begin by outlining what I see as some of the key features of postmodern culture: the notion of the death of the subject, the prevalence of pastiche, space as a thematico-formal concern, and the dialectic of high and mass culture.  I will then argue that these stylistic issues and themes are manifested in Cohen's book.  Through this analysis, I hope it will become evident that I am not simply a cheerleader or apologist for postmodernism; I adopt Fredric Jameson's Marxist position.  This means viewing postmodern culture as the manifestation of a quite depressing world trend toward multinational or late capitalism: such pornographic buzzwords as "globalization," maquiladoras, and "synergy" are not merely the jargon of business journalism, but point to capital's growing and total capture of the world, its environments, and its consciousness.  Designating Cohen's work as postmodern, then, has less to do with literary style or influence, as Scobie and Hutcheon argue it does, than with linking the new features of Cohen's work to a set of dominant aesthetic and political changes.  In general, the new hegemonic features of postmodern culture I articulate here derive from Marxist (Jameson, Soja, Lefebvre, Harvey), psychoanalytic (Lacan, Rose, Zizek), queer (Butler, Tyler, Dollimore), and postcolonial (Said, Spivak, Bhabha, Ahmad) theories.

     The central text for my outline of the features of postmodern culture is Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which is both influential and (in its lead essay) concise.  Jameson argues that, because of the gradually lessening importance of the self-knowing individual under bureaucratic capitalism, a philosophical "decentring" of the subject has taken place (1-54).  What this means is particularly evident when we think of what modernist culture enacted, with its vitalist expressions of alienation and retreat: Conrad, Sartre, Woolf.  These writers documented the effects of the first wave of capital, as it was extruded from the crevices of Western Europe and swallowed everyone in its pathway.  In postmodernism, the anxiety and horror of modernist anomie is replaced by hysteria and euphoria, emotions that seem to depend on no ego or, rather, that depend for their very being upon a certain excess.  This death of the subject is then linked to three effects: style no longer being the imprimatur of the author, parody, pastiche, and plagiarism rule the day; the modernist disdain for mass culture and technology is replaced by a fascination with trash; and place and the dynamics of space replace the moderns' fetish of time.

     A certain archaeological move back "before" Cohen is called for, then, and certainly some of his themes or issues are evident in such precursor poets as Dorothy Livesay and A.M. Klein.  Cohen's embrace of mass culture in Flowers is a dialectical synthesis of the opposite positions on mass media adopted by Livesay ("Autumn: 1939," and of course in her various writings for radio) and Klein (in "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape").  More explicitly, Cohen's poem "Heirloom" (56-57) can be (mis)read as a pastiche of Klein's poem of the same name.  It is first necessary to re-read Klein's mournful poem, which turns out to be a textbook libidinal or Oedipal drama.  In essence, the poem mourns the lack of a phallic father, who did not bequeath to the speaker any "keys" — a metonym for sexual, economic, and even linguistic power.  The rupture posited by the poem, the lack, then is turned back onto the writing subject; as various feminist, psychoanalytic, and lesbian theorists have argued, the subject must mimic the Other before identifying with it.1   Instead, the father passed down beautiful books — the text of the mother, whom the son deceives himself into believing is a virgin.  But the mother is also stained (as Slavoj Zizek [88ff, Lacan 92] would argue) by the father (all the fathers):

The snuff left on this page, now brown and old,
The tallow stains of midnight liturgy —
These are my coat of arms, and these unfold
My noble lineage, my proud ancestry!
                                                          (Klein 298)

The son will then claim the blot as a seminal or semiotic coat of arms, as he proceeds to add his own stain to "this heirloomed ground." The poem's narrative climaxes with a Joycean pun — the son finds a hair in the heirloom from the father's indeterminate beard.

     In Cohen's pastiche of the poem, the heirloom has never even been found: the text first describes a memory of the object.  The belljar2 is less some sacred text rendered filial (as in Klein) than a perverse or Sadean toy: shiny magazines have replaced holy tomes.  But what is most explicit in the intertextual relations between the two poems is Cohen's replacement of a specific ethnicity (as ground for Klein's text) with a parodic neo-ethnicity.  That is, here, as elsewhere in Flowers, the turn to Nazi themes is not a matter of ethnic privilege — in late capitalism Jewish (or any other) ethnicity seems to be defined as much by consuming the same mass media products as by some racial determinism.3   So Cohen's take on Adorno's pronouncement that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz is, instead of rejecting Europe and its horrors, to reject North America and its innocence: the pretence of a nostalgia for streetcars,4 the semi-idylls of furtive teenage sex.

     The equation is absolute: no subject means no style.  Thus Cohen's great poem "Style" (27-28) begins with a contradictory attitude towards mass media: the narrator does not believe the Russian and American radio stations (the hyperbole of mentioning explicit propaganda services — Voice of America and Radio Moscow are suggested — is not unlike Horkheimer and Adorno's founding thesis in Dialectic of Enlightenment that U.S. mass culture and Naziism were fundamentally identical), but he likes the music and the announcers.  What these flat, prosaic lines (which seem to break less by dint of breath or meter or meaning than simply because of a very lack of meaning) signal is the very poverty of opinion being registered here.  That is, in mass culture, what any "I" believes in or does not believe in is dialectically of the greatest importance (the customer or voter is always right) and totally insignificant (there are millions of you).  So the lack of punctuation here and elsewhere in Flowers for Hitler is a true matter of carelessness, Baudrillardean apathy as reaction to bureaucratic democracy.  This carelessness5 is something different from the decadent ennui of a Wilde or Gide (for which see Dollimore) — and still less from the exhaustion of the existentialists or their American cousins, the Beats — for here we have:

. . . a man sitting in a house
on a treeless Argolic island
I will forget the grass of my mother's lawn
I know I will
I will forget the old telephone number
Fitzroy seven eight two oh
I will forget my style
I will have no style

Here, the loss of style, the forgetting of it, is linked explicitly to a spatial or geographic displacement, a concern with forgetting North America.

    A growing number of commentators (Harvey, Soja, Shields, Lefebvre, Jameson) have argued that one key feature of the transition from modernism to postmodernism has been the shift from issues of time to issues of space.  In its various economic (Taylorization, Fordism), literary (Joyce, Proust), and philosophical (Wyndham Lewis, Bergson, Heidegger) manifestations, time was for the moderns a paramount concern.  Today, late capitalism has compressed and distorted space, be it domestic (the media invasion of the home — Baudrillard, Lefebvre), urban (the failure of the city/suburbs split, new "exurbs," and "workburbs" — Wilson, Harvey), or geographic (the hyperspeed of international capital, maquiladoras or Mexican union-free factory zones, free trade zones and offshore data processing — Spivak, Soja).  This shift is signalled in two ways in Cohen's poems (I am implying that the postmodernism of Cohen's work forecasts trends that his contemporaries — Innis, Adorno, McLuhan — also deal with).  First, as I argue in the discussion of "Style," Cohen consistently inverts the Europe/North America split so that, from Greece, North America now seems old (rather like being older than your father, as Sartre remarks somewhere).  Second, and again this is evident in "Style," the formal arrangement of this new spatial order, mass media, is accorded a new respect both thematically and stylistically.

    So Flowers for Hitler is written from the subject position of the diasporic intellectual (Bhabha, Said, Ahmad), in a sunny Greece and meditating on old Montreal.  In "Front Lawn" (126), the forgotten lawn (of "Style") is here re-membered, complete with worms.   Sexuality and media and memory are allegorized in a vertiginous succession of images.  The textbook phallic symbol ("my penknife") and working class Oedipal object who will not "pee from her sweet crack" are consumed in an auto-da-fé of "Boy Scout calendars."  But the mirror image of the janitor's daughter, the "old mother," returns, and the narrator remembers that "our front lawn" is now full of worms.  The phalluses are multiple and disgusting and the image of decay is at a distance: all of the North American engines are rusting.

    If there is a moment in Flowers that most perfectly encapsulates or enunciates the postmodern attitude toward media and technology, toward the interpenetration of technology and the body that McLuhan forecast and that we now call "cyberpunk," it is probably the opening lines to "Waiting for Marianne": "I have lost a telephone / with your smell in it."  The lines are, as is a lot of Cohen in this book, faintly carnal and at the same time sentimental in the trashiest Harlequin romance sense.  But they also announce a full break with the modernist fear of media and technology (a fear which, to be sure, is mostly to be found in the high modernism of Eliot, Pound, and Klein).  That fear, as Roy Miki has shown in his stunning reading of Klein's "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" (74-75), was tied up with a Heideggerian desire to determine somehow a real Being-in-the-World.  As far as Cohen's poem is concerned, Being is now as curly as a telephone cord and all of its Sadean metonyms, or at least as marginal as the "crumbs of your breath," which lugubrious synaesthesia articulates what we call the materiality of language.  Being has escaped the false unity of the human body and in turn layered the telecommunicational furniture:

Did you take the telephone
knowing I'd sniff it immoderately
maybe heat up the plastic
to get all the crumbs of your breath

The absent lover being addressed here has left her material trace in the crevices of the technological instrument, an instrument that then is treated as a metonym for the Other's body.

    There are two methodologies or theories of literary history, then, that I have attempted to dispute here.  The first is the insistence that a tendency like postmodernism is simply a matter of aesthetic technique, or a club in which membership is determined by adherence to certain rules or by the use of thematico-stylistic tools.  The second is the desire to create a literary history in which normalizing questions of influence indicate canonicity.  These methods are evident with Hutcheon and Scobie, when a text is judged against a fairly monolithic modernism or postmodernism (as Weir has recently argued in respect to Hutcheon), and not interpreted in terms of history itself.  So while he was dismayed at the lack of editorial order in Leonard Cohen, which appeared in 1978, even in his recent theoretical work, Scobie rhetorically declares that "in Flowers for Hitler Cohen is still pursuing a modernist rhetoric in its negative form" (1991, 66).6   For Hutcheon, the critical stance is much more boldfaced: "I should just like to note the simple fact that postmodern metafiction like Beautiful Losers merely brings into the foreground what is asserted to be a fact for all literature: that it relies on its relationship to other texts for its very existence as literature" (29).  History has come to an end, and postmodernism is the pinnacle.

    Ironically, in decrying Cohen's lack of influence on the postmodernists, Scobie describes Cohen's work in precisely the terms I appropriated from Jameson as hallmarks of postmodern culture: "It may be that Cohen's style is too individual, not to say idiosyncratic, to be successfully copied; any attempt would end up as parody or pastiche" (1991, 67: my emphasis).  Ken Norris, too, has dismissed Canadian writing of a certain period as "a pale imitation of Dudek, Layton, and Cohen."  These sorts of influence tracing are a very sorry excuse for literary history, unless that second term is supposed to denote a causal narrative and not an engagement with History itself.


  1. See Butler (and also Borch-Jacobsen), who argues that "over and against [Freud's] account of psychic mimesis by way of incorporation and melancholy [which would seem to apply to Klein's poem], the theory of primary mimetism argues an even stronger position in favour of the non-self-identity of the psychic subject.  Mimetism is not motivated by a drama of loss and wishful recovery [as it seems to be in Klein's poem], but appears to precede and constitute desire (and motivation) itself [which we can see in Cohen's poem]" (1991, 26).  Freud's essay on "Mourning and Melancholia" (245-68), which applies in a standard fashion to Klein's poem, holds that "Melancholia . . . borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism" (259), and thus in Klein the melancholy over what the father did not leave the speaking subject ends up with a jubilation over his own deposit on the page.  Butler's "non-self-identity," which she uses primarily to talk about queer subjectivity and gender repetition, is evidently in my Marxist vernacular the death of the bourgeois subject.  The speaking subject in Cohen's poem is not "sensitive" in normal humanist fashion: he watches the torture with disinterest, refers sarcastically to shiny magazines. [back]

  2. Cohen's poem describes a small glass bell and can thus be read as an apostrophe to Sylvia Plath: this claim is substantiated by the jar, Cohen's and Plath's Nazi thematics (here and elsewhere), and Cohen's "shiny magazines," evoking Plath's well-known affection for mass-market media (Rose 165-204).  The other poet of the period with whom Cohen's postmodernism can be compared is Edmund Jabes.  But in terms of the serial repetition of inheritance and the fathers at work in Klein's poem (its inner structure) and Cohen's appropriation of it (literary filial relationships), Lacan comments: "The father, the Name-of-the-Father, sustains the structure of desire with the structure of the law — but the inheritance of the father is that which Kierkegaard designates for us, namely, his sin" (34).  See, for other Bloomian texts or misprisions, "For My Old Layton" (36-37), and "For E.J.P." (69-70). [back]

  3. I am grateful to Lisa Narbeshuber for the suggestion that Plath's attitudes toward Naziism (in her writings) are in some ways camp, or textual repetition intended to subvert (see, for recent theoretical formulations of camp, Dollimore, Tyler); this same technique seems to be at work in the various poems on Naziism in Flowers: "Goebbels Abandons his Novel and Joins the Party" (28-29), "Hitler the Brain-Mole" (43), "All There is to Know about Adolph Eichmann" (66), and "The New Leader" (67).  Cohen's work is camp in that it pastiches both the Oedipal text (Klein) and the social text (Naziism): as Butler has argued, "If we were to apply Fredric Jameson's distinction between parody and pastiche, gay identity would be better understood as pastiche" (1990, 157n56). [back]

  4. "The nostalgia of old photographs is the perception that mortality is at some point to be stopped in its tracks.  The figures in them seem so vulnerable, so unknowing of what we know about them, of the knowledge in store for them.  We could know this about ourselves, if we could turn the force of nostalgia toward an anticipation of the fact that every moment is always stopped from every other" (Cavell 75). [back]

  5. Scobie objects strenuously to this carelessness, arguing that the group of poems says " 'Look, I didn't revise them, I didn't write them carefully and slowly, they just all came rushing out and I left them that way' " (1978, 45). [back]

  6. I suppose I should frame my critiques of Scobie's work within the standard trope of academic bad faith, and note that I was an undergraduate and M.A. student of his from 1986 to 1988.  I remember one particularly powerful reading he gave of "Famous Blue Raincoat" that stressed the ambiguous gender of the shifters (pronouns).  This reading is quite amenable to today's "queer theory" and also at odds with his assertion that Cohen's actual work in mass culture, as a pop singer, still keeps him in the modernist camp: "one might argue that Cohen has approached this postmodernist medium in a modernist way . . . Leonard Cohen has become a modernist singer" (1991, 67). [back]

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