By: Alex Johnson
When I first announced (rather anti-climactically) that I was going in to the arts, my dad printed off a copy of Leonard Cohen’s How to Speak Poetry, handed it to me, and said nothing. I read it. I had practically no idea what I was reading, but nevertheless understood it completely, thoroughly, profoundly.
Ever since then, I have tried to put this wonderful piece of writing into as may hands as would take it. I am forever curious as to how it moves others, and how it marries with artist’s approach (if at all).
I have invited three wonderful Toronto actors – from all stages of their careers – to offer me their thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s How to Speak Poetry (printed below). May I present…Katie Ribout, Ron Kennell, Maggie Blake, and Leonard Cohen.
LEONARD COHEN – HOW TO SPEAK POETRY
Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it without disgracing yourself or the material.
What is the expression which the age demands? The age demands no expression whatever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise. And remember that people do not really want an acrobat in bed. What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman. Do not pretend that you are a beloved singer with a vast loyal audience which has followed the ups and downs of your life to this very moment. The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on.
This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them. Let the audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy. Be good whores. The poem is not a slogan. It cannot advertise you. It cannot promote your reputation for sensitivity. You are not a stud. You are not a killer lady. All this junk about the gangsters of love. You are students of discipline. Do not act out the words. The words die when you act them out, they wither, and we are left with nothing but your ambition.
Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don’t peep through them. Just wear them.
The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.
Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.
These are the sentiments that stand out to me, which I believe, are a big part of his message. At first I thought it was going to be a long wanky rant, but turns out he’s against wankiness too! A man after my own heart! I really loved this, but I don’t think I could ever take it as an entire mantra to live by- either in life or in art. We can’t always forget that there’s a stage…in fact I think it’s important to remember that we need to put stories on for a reason….. and that indeed theatre is often a platform for us to observe ourselves- but to pretend that it is not a heightened reality? I think that does a disservice to the platform and the audience. We are not always nuanced. We cannot always not care about what we say.
Maggie Blake is an exciting young Canadian actress who got her start playing Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank at the Stratford Festival. Since then she has traveled the country and the world, training enthusiastically, obsessed with reading, and landing parts with many of Canada’s major theatre companies. If you ever hear Maggie’s name attached to anything…GO. She will charm the pants off you.
What I feel he is saying is to Trust and K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Two things which I strive for but have the hardest time doing.
Katie is a recent graduate of the University of Windsor’s BFA Acting Programme. Her performances have brought me to tears and laughter many times. She is now living in Toronto auditioning for anything and everything. Keep a look out for this one, and wish her luck.
“You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe.” is something I carry with me all the time. This poem and the song If It Be Your Will have become a huge part of my life. I am ever mindful that I am privileged to tell the stories of others, this sentiment makes me bold and keeps me humble.
Ron Kennell is a veteran of Canadian theatre who has played everywhere from Stratford to Buddies in Bad Times. Toronto audiences will recognize him from The Tempest with Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park, and his recent mind-blowing success, The Maids at Buddies. The first piece of advice I ever heard him give a young actor was: “Read. Everything. Out loud.”