It is always a hard sell to convince students in poetry class that the poet's intention for a poem does not exhaust the range of meanings for that poem. Everyone wants to resurrect Shakespeare and ask him just exactly what he meant in a particular line. (And every student believes his or her interpretation is most likely the same as Shakespeare's!)
We don't do this with songs. We embrace covers of famous songs by the dozens (sometimes radically different interpretations) . Often, songwriters have recorded their own songs, so we have the author's interpretation, which we may really like. But we may also really like a cover, maybe even more than the author's version.
Leonard Cohen's composition "Hallelujah" is one such song. Cohen wrote and recorded the song. If we expect the same from him as we do from other songwriters/poets, we should insist that his recording is the final and best interpretation of the song - he's given it to us in the recording. Actually, he's given it to us in several versions, all slightly different - so what does that mean? Any version is awesome.
The artists who have offered their interpretation of this song are many and varied: Rufus Wainwright, Bon Jovi, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, The OC, Kate Voegele, Celtic Thunder (and apologies to anyone I've missed). Everyone has a favourite.
My all-time favourite is by k.d.lang. For me, the highlight of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was k.d. lang singing this song. I am humbled. (Here's the link to the Olympic performance - even if it were possible to embed this video, one would risk death and dismemberment to do so!). Here is a video of another occasion with k.d.lang singing this beautiful song:
I don't know why we make such a distinction between poetry and songs: too strict English teachers; needing the "right" answer for a test; considering poetry to be more high-brow and intellectual than songs; all of the above. (I'm not saying they are the same, just that our approach ignores the similarities.)
My best poetry teacher Rob Dunham said that after hearing some blues music, we don't ask, "What does it mean?" We listen and experience. We should do the same for poetry before we begin to analyze and interpret. Feel the ryhthm; hear the connotations; live the experience. Songs can guide us.