My affection for Leonard Cohen, dating back to the mean streets of Earls Court in 1966, is undimmed and sufficient to impel me to acquire his latest Book of Longing. I had read that he had retreated to a mountain-top monastery to pursue Buddhism. He must now be 74. But it turns out from internal evidence that this information is fairly out-of-date, that the mountain was not far from Los Angeles, that his heart was not in it and that he descended in 1999 (back to cigarettes, whisky and ‘women’ — our 74-year-old is still an adolescent).


Essentially the Book of Longing, in spite of its somewhat declamatory title and style, is continuous with all the earlier poetry and song. Perhaps the song-writing has had an adverse impact on the poetry, in that there are now examples of empty doggerel which seem new. The language, as I have complained before (c.f. Ginsberg), is the language of journalism rather than that of poetry; it is enlivened by a top-dressing of Biblical terminology (c.f. Amichai), with words such as mercy and prayer popping up, as it is by fairly determined references to physical sex.


My pencil came out several times to approve one or other short poem — none of them is of any length — that moved me or fixed some thought or experience in an original way. Nowadays Cohen does lots of little drawings — of himself and the female body mainly — that are impressive and diverting; and these are a substantial proportion of the book, beautifully arranged by the devoted helpers he has never seemed to lack.


But the most striking thing about it all is the sheer egocentrism. I ask myself: why did I never see this before? He is simply unwilling to write about anything except himself. Right from the first page, which stands as a kind of apologia for all that follows, he writes, “I … I … I.” Indeed if he were asked to write something without using the first person pronoun, I don’t think he could do it. Yet he seems to discover a loneliness, emptiness or ‘privacy’ which remains both unrewarding and intractable, just as, presumably, those of his readers who have followed the same path must also have done.


Cohen seldom describes the world around him or addresses the great questions of the age. None of this interests him. Like all true depressives, he won’t be parted for long from his hobbyhorse which he rides obsessively — himself. But selves are not that interesting.