Leonard Cohen: Take this Waltz

Written by Elaine Sexton

Poet, Critic, Educator

In category: Song of the Day

Published May 16, 2019

“This poet ruined my life,” Leonard Cohen said of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.  Cohen, a singer/songwriter and poet, himself, took great liberty with the original text of the haunting poem it is based on,”Pequeño vals vienés” (Little Viennese Waltz). The poem is from Lorca’s  Poet in New York, a collection written after a difficult year in depression era New York (1929-30) studying at Columbia University. One can see how Cohen would be drawn to Lorca, with ideas like this, from “New York: Office and Denunciation”:

‘What shall I do now? Align all the landscapes?/ Muster the lovers who turn into photographs/ and later are splinters of wood, and mouthfuls of blood?’

After returning to Spain, Garcia Lorca sided with the anti-fascist Republicans when Civil War broke out there in 1936. He was by then famous, liberal, and gay, all of which made him a target. He was shot and killed in the custody of the nationalist militia. He was 38. A version of Lorca’s ideas live on in Cohen’s homage, “Take This Waltz”. Cohen, who died in 2016, lives, too, in this poem/song, this waltz with its heartbreaking entreaty to: “take its broken waste in your hand”.

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Elaine Sexton is a poet, critic, and educator. She is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Prospect/Refuge (Sheep Meadow Press, 2015). Her poems and reviews are widely anthologized and appeared in journals including Art in America, ARTnews, American Poetry Review, O! the Oprah Magazine, and Poetry. She teaches poetry and text and image at numerous colleges, universities, and art and writing centers in the US and abroad, among them Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and Arts Workshop International.

NYFOS and Five Boroughs Music Festival recently commissioned a set of poems from Ms. Sexton inspired by the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. They have been set to music by a group of women composers and the complete song cycle, titled After Stonewall, will be premiered on June 11 at NYFOS Next: Laura Kaminsky & Friends.

1 Comment

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    Interesting article, but it’s not “broken waste,” it’s broken WAIST. Here Cohen was translating directly from the original: Cintura = waist.


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