Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Chorus of Hallelujahs!

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.



Trulyfool said...


Shakespeare image caught my eye, but I stayed for Cohen. I've heard this song before, never at all paying attention to the lyrics, just getting caught up with the music.

This time I listened . . . and noted changes, differences. You may know whether any and all words lang sang were Cohen's originals? The youtube Cohen didn't, for instance, deal with the David/Bathsheba allusions at all. His?

askcherlock said...

As much as I love Leonard Cohen, I love kd lang's version of Hallelujah the best. What a remarkable talent.

ChrisJ said...


All the lyrics are Cohen's. He's such a good example of the point!

ChrisJ said...


Most of k.d.lang's renditions give me goose bumps!

Trulyfool said...


Maybe I'm being a bit 'lit-major' about this, but the song 'reads' differently without the Biblical story allusions (presented in the Cohen youtube).

Without 'King David', the 'hallelujahs' must be meant hollow, representing 'simply' body orgasm or (despairingly) lack of body orgasm, the love being the physical completion or discovery that its 'love' was a momentary sham.

With 'King David', it might depend on placement. If, as with the k.d. lang version, David is set up early in the presentation then morphs metaphorically to 'now', the let-down has some 'respectability capital' to spend. By that I mean listeners, readers can excuse the height of feeling because its been validated Biblically already.

If the David material came after a 'current-time' locus and were, in a way, a 'delusional' or 'self-pitying' metaphor by the man experiencing the strength of orgasm, followed by the disillusionment of loss, 'Bible validation' has -- in that context -- been sullied.

Hey! I'm almost writing a final, huh? Well, I don't know where Cohen inserted those passages that lang uses.

My skepticism sniffed out what I thought might be a softening of the raw sexuality for the purposes of mass, mass Winter Olympic audiences who would simply get caught up in (as I did, for years) the 'hallelujah' refrain sans irony but avec an orchestra full of inspiring strings.

This is what lit does, not true? The fact is that I was moved by both performances.

Thus, the power of music.

ChrisJ said...


My first response is to say "yes." All of the above to all you say!

The sliding between the biblical and the simply carnal is so typically Cohen, that for me that is part of it, and very possibly the slippage between the two may well be the point.

Ultimately, for me, the music and the wonderful voices which sing it - especially lang's - make more of a lasting point than the arrangement of the words. To me, Cohen's loose play with his own words suggests a kind of instruction - to just listen.

But, hey, hasn't all this always already been said/sung?

Songwriting sui generis.

angelshair said...

K.d Lang's cover is also my favorite!
Vancouver Olympic game opening ceremonies were the most touching I have ever seen. I cryed for 5 minutes. No kidding.

ChrisJ said...


The more I talk about her rendition, the more people I find who love it.

Pearl said...

true enough. my automatic answer to question of what my poem means is a reflexive: what do you want it to mean. it sounds flippant perhaps but really, the reader needs to take ownership the way he or she does with music.

And yeah, k.d.'s version rose the hair on my neck and not just the first time I heard her version.

ChrisJ said...


Of all the people who might comment, I was most wondering what you might say because you are a poet.

Sometimes the scholarly response is simply silly, and I am totally enmeshed in it and try to avoid it all at once.