Hallelujah! Imagine if one of the most gifted poets and songwriters of our time were to drop by to help you craft a few words. Together you’d wring emotions out of a weary soul, warm up some long-forgotten heartsong, and write a post poetic and inspiring beyond anything you ever knew you had hidden inside.
Yeah. He’s not coming. Or if he is, he didn’t tell me. But don’t despair. Leonard has a message for you that should help you plumb those darkest depths of your unfulfilled talents.
It all starts though with a day in my high school. I remember reading one of the most depressing lines I have ever come across, before or since. It was from the poet John Keats, who wrote to a friend that, “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” I was horrified. I loved writing, even in high school, and while I have known a few days when words just came tumbling out like something inside had burst, on most days I had to push them out one by one and then pick through the scant pile to find even one or two that were of any use at all. Did this mean I should not be writing?
No. Writing is much like music, where a gifted few like Mozart are able to have great works flowing out almost too fast to write down the notes, while most struggle — and struggle with all that they possess — to give voice to the pains and passions they hold within. Because they wrestle, even while that small number have their talents on tap, does not make their writings any less valid. In fact, there is often some nuance that their battles add that just gives their voice more authenticity, and more resonance with those of us who also struggle to find our words and our voices.
This is where Cohen comes in. You know his classic, Hallelujah? You’ve heard it lots of times. But just in case it’s not coming to mind, here’s a great version by John Cale.
Nice. Very nice. But what does this have to do with your blog post? As undeniably gifted a writer as Leonard Cohen was and is, with greats like Bird on a Wire and Suzanne, he has known very well the struggle of not being able to find the right words. It is said he agonized over the writing of Hallelujah for two years — I’ve heard some say it was five — filling two notebooks with over 80 verses before finally settling for the ones that we know today. After all that struggle, when he released it, the entire album was considered by the label to be so uncommercial that they didn’t even offer it initially in the all-important US market. Yet bit by bit the song has made its own way in the world, and that seems only fitting.
Even seven years after the release, when John Cale wanted the lyrics from Cohen to record his 1991 version, the songwriter reportedly responded by faxing him 15 pages of lyrics. It seems that in Cohen’s mind, he was still writing and still struggling. He quite possibly still is.
Compare Cohen’s passion for the perfect word with most of ours. How long do we struggle typically before we lose patience with our lack of talent? How many minutes do we tolerate with nothing coming before we decide it’s just not meant to be today, and so we leave things for a time when the words will come easily or not at all? How much would our writing not only improve but be reborn if we were to agonize and refuse to give in, like Mr. Cohen did?
Granted, our blog posts and business reports can’t wait five years. But could we push ourselves to give even five minutes more to the struggle when we might otherwise just accept what we have so far? And could we believe in ourselves and our talents just a little bit more, remembering that even the great poets and songwriters often battle with the empty page or half-written sentence?
Maybe, just maybe, if we could do even that, we’d find words that strike a more soulful chord and speak a deeper truth. Maybe we’d find ourselves one step closer and one word nearer to penning our own Hallelujah.