Posted by: Debrah Martin | December 4, 2013

Commentary on Cohen

I was recently asked to read some favourite poetry out to a group and I chose two Leonard Cohen poems. Afterwards, I thought – now why don’t I share this with anyone reading my stream of (un)consciousness, so here they are:

Suzanne verdal



You can find the lyrics to ‘Suzanne’ here:



First published as a poem in 1966, it was recorded as a song by Judy Collins in the same year, and Cohen himself recorded it for his 1967 album Songs of Leonard Cohen. It has since become one of the most-covered songs in Cohen’s catalogue. Although Cohen is generally thought of as a singer-songwriter, he was first a poet – one of the Beat poets of the 60’s, and is one of the few whose work translates from poetry to lyrics equally effectively.

‘Suzanne’ was inspired by Cohen’s friendship with Suzanne Verdal, the then girlfriend of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, and was originally written as a poem. Suzanne often invited Cohen to visit her when she lived near the harbour in Montreal. They developed a kind of ritual which Cohen describes in the poem, drinking tea (a brand that had pieces of dried orange in it), talking poetry and ideals; then walking along the St Lawrence River and past a church noted for blessing sailors before they went to sea.

Suzanne Verdal was interviewed about the song in 2006 and said that she and Cohen were never intimate contrary to what some interpretations of the song suggest. When interviewed himself in 1994 Cohen said he only ever imagined having sex with her. Theirs was a spiritual union.

What’s it all about?

There are varying interpretations of the whole, and elements of it. For me it conveys how it is possible to be close to someone in mind, but not necessarily in body. Sometimes we manage to find that one person – maybe even only for a short time  – who we feel so connected with spiritually that we do not need a physical connection – ‘touched her perfect body with your mind’ in verse 1, and ‘she’s touched your perfect body with her mind’ in verse 3; and it’s reciprocal.

The references to Jesus, his ‘lonely wooden tower’ and

‘Only drowning men could see him,
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”

Reminds us that you can only be saved if you want to be – if you’re not drowning you don’t think you need help, but we all need help from time to time therefore “All men will be sailors then Until the sea shall free them”. Perhaps Cohen also found Suzanne saved him in some way.

The combination of ‘Rags and feathers’, ‘garbage and the flowers’, ‘heroes in the seaweed’ and ‘children in the morning’ in close juxtaposition point to the need to see beyond the obvious and to what lies beneath. It is that which is most precious and significant, and which is why Suzanne ‘holds the mirror’ – to see it in yourself and to be brave enough to travel the river (life) ‘blind’ – having faith in oneself. Profound, mystical, confusing, challenging – all the things that embody Suzanne, the river and God.

The poem/song has a special significance for me because it is one of the songs I chose to include in my first novel ‘Chained Melody’. Its message is of self-belief and moving beyond boundaries and the major catalyst for my protagonist’s transformation in the novel is a character called Suzanne, who leads the way for them, but,

‘Suzanne had indeed led me to a river. I wondered if it would drown me.’

front cover CM

‘Chained Melody’ – Debbie  Martin 

(Ch. 8 P.185, Pink Press 18 Jan 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1780035475)

By comparison ‘I did not know until you walked away’ is that perfect put-down; not mystical or deep-thinking at all, but deeply satisfying nevertheless!

Think of that moment when they dumped you and you wanted the best, most sarcastic and irrefutable retort possible? That’s the moment when you needed to remember the thrust of this poem.

Cohen writes on many topics – love, politics, people; a commentary on life. Sometimes reprehensible – there is a line for calling him an MCP as the women in his poems are often described in terms of their physical attributes alone – but this poem is just plain brilliant as a put down. And isn’t it just exactly how you’d want to mask the hurt; with clever indifference, when we all know we’re lying…

As far as Cohen is concerned, of course, we know he’s more than the sum of his wry words. He wrote ‘Suzanne’ too…


The latter poem is on page 21 of my old and very battered copy of ‘The Energy of Slaves’ – Leonard Cohen

(ISBN-13: 978-0224008174 pub by Jonathan Cape Ltd; 1st Edition 1 Jan 1972.) 

It currently stands at 767,042 in Books in the Amazon Bestsellers Rank – no reflection at all on it’s worth, as with many pieces of literature, old and new. 

You can also find it reproduced here: together with a few more comments on Cohen, the man and poet.


Suzanne’ was first published as the poem “Suzanne Takes You Down” in Cohen’s 1966 book of poetry, ‘Parasites of Heaven’ – Leonard Cohen,

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1966 ASIN: B0006BSLZO

It appears to be out of print now but you can get your hands on a copy for a mere £100 on Amazon, where it ranks 3,051,690 in Books in Amazon Bestsellers Rankings. 

Have a look at more of my work on

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or on Twitter: @Storytellerdeb


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