Poetry Is the Evidence of Life, and Other News


On the Shelf

Leonard Cohen in 1988.

  • Leonard Cohen has died at eighty-two. Less than a month ago, David Remnick profiled him for The New Yorker, and Cohen knew his time was near: “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” There’s so much to be said for this: he was ready. “Poetry is just the evidence of life,” Cohen said once. “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
  • Meanwhile, Shirley Collins, one of the stars of traditional British folk music, has started singing again in her eighties, after decades away from music. “It was only as Ms. Collins was approaching her eightieth birthday in 2014 that she started to seriously test the waters of performing again. ‘I was a singer,’ she said in a phone interview from her cottage in the English countryside. ‘I couldn’t bear to leave this world without giving it one more go.’ The results can be heard in the new album Lodestar, her first recording since 1979. The road to its creation snakes back twenty years, to when a younger friend of hers, the cult musician David Tibet, beseeched her to try and sing again. She demurred, repeatedly. But every few years, he’d nudge her again. Finally, two years ago, Ms. Collins said yes to a guest appearance at one of Mr. Tibet’s shows in Islington, a north London neighborhood. ‘That surprised me as much as anyone,’ she said.” 

  • Zadie Smith believes her new novel, Swing Time, is in part a treatment of liberalism’s shortcomings—which makes it an ideal novel for our political moment. Jan Dalley writes, “Her picture of social mobility, race politics and the power relations of the rich and developing worlds paints a much less certain, less optimistic picture. ‘In some ways it’s a failure of liberal thought,’ she says, ‘this idea of constant progression, perfectibility. History tells you that it’s not the case, yet in Britain, and certainly in America, people are still inclined to think that way. That things will get better … The whole book to me is about power relations—between people, countries, races—I think there are a lot of people in the world who feel marginalized. Who feel pushed out of their own lives. I was interested in the people on the edges.’ ”
  • When Anna Wilson was sixteen, she immersed herself in Lord of the Rings fanficLater, reading the medieval writer Margery Kempe, Wilson saw that these early Mary Sue stories of hers had emerged from the same emotional impulse: “The first time I read The Book of Margery Kempe, I was struck by recognition. Her visions, although religious in content, are very similar in form and in feeling to my Mary Sue stories. As I read work by feminist scholars, pointing out the sexism of Kempe studies, I began to suspect that dismissals of fanfiction might equally be based in ideologies that I had swallowed whole. Kempe imagines herself into the Gospels as a speaking character, interacting with the Holy family and the disciples, in her own fanfiction of Christ’s crucifixion. In a strangely compressed, time-travelling narrative, she works as a nursemaid for Mary’s mother, helps Mary raise the baby Jesus, and offers her a shoulder to cry on at the crucifixion. Kempe’s account is full of homely details that make it feel real and immediate; when Mary is worn out from weeping after the crucifixion, Kempe describes how she ‘made for our Lady a good hot drink and brought it to her to comfort her’, but Mary, distraught, responds: ‘Do it awe, dowtyr. Geeve me no mete but myn owyn childe.’ ”