LITTLE VIENNESE WALZ
Leonard Cohen was a poet and some of his greatest inspiration he says he found in the works of Federico García Lorca. So great was his admiration, he actually called his daughter Lorca. But, as he said in his Fundación Principe de Asturias prize acceptance speech1, he developed his own voice; he knew he could never copy Lorca: he wouldn’t dare, so he never tried. On another occasion, he describes how he stumbled on Lorca’s universe of imagery- dawn throwing fistfuls of ants in his face, or thighs that slipped away like shoals of silver minnows’. He did not simply copy these images, he explains2; rather, they made it possible for him to find his own voice, which he defines as a sort of unique poetic ‘self’.
‘Take this Walz’ is, everybody knows, a homage to Lorca, and if it is a translation of ‘Pequeño vals vienés, it is quite a free one, where Leonard’s voice deviates significantly from Federico’s. To compare the works of the two poets, I will turn to a set of schemata that contrasts a classical approach to art with a baroque one, not in any historical sense, but as a general tendency applicable at any point of time. Here, ‘classical’ is used to talk about a style that is simpler and more restrained, aspiring to formal harmony and clarity via the balanced proportions of its parts. A baroque approach, by way of contrast, is formally less straightforward, with a more elaborate provision of detail, allowing a greater degree of emotional expression and conveying a richer sense of drama and movement. Within the framework of these schemata, which is explained in the Encyclopaedia Britannica3, I find Lorca’s poetry as more classically inclined, Cohen’s as more baroque.
To demonstrate my point, let’s compare the first stanza and refrain from the Spanish poem and the Canadian song (see below). Revealingly, Lorca uses 46 words to cover this ground; Cohen 67, half as many again. Cohen’s style is wordier, then: Cohen spells things out for us, in more detail, whereas Lorca is less condescending to his reader/listener. There are more discourse devices in Cohen, to help us follow his argument. ‘There’s’ occurs five times, with obvious, almost laboured parallel repetitiveness. In this repetitiveness we also hear the insistent rhythm of the walz in Cohen’s song, unrestrained, almost exuberant. The Canadian draws us in with ‘Now...’, making it sound more confidential (this is between you and me). Lorca itches straight in with ‘En Viena ...’ and ‘hay’ occurs just three times, to indicate (with one minor exception) a new simple sentence, and while his ‘y’ is used to link three noun phrases in one of the sentences, Cohen uses ‘and’ to link two clauses. So, in the six lines of the first stanza, Cohen uses as many as nine clauses to Lorca’s four: the three ‘hay’s plus ‘donde solloza la muerte’. Clauses, built round a verb, are necessarily more dynamic than noun phrases.
In Lorca, there is in fact only one action verb: ‘solloza’; whereas Cohen gives us six: ‘comes to cry/ goes to die/ was torn/ hangs’. There is much more movement, more drama, more telling here; Lorca’s walz is static by comparison. It is restrained and relies on a simpler, barely embellished structure. Cohen’s version more deliberately tugs on the emotions.
For Lorca ‘En Viena hay diez muchachas’ and he doesn’t tell us if they are ‘pretty women’ or not. Cohen’s song is more poetic in conventional terms. He gives us more detail, fills things in for us, is more visual. ‘A tree where doves go to die’ is easier to see than ‘un bosque de palomas disecadas’. Even 900 (windows) comes across as more precise, concrete than 1000 (ventanas), which appears to be more of a neat rough estimate than verifiable tangible fact. Finally, in the refrain, Cohen gives us the unexpected and visually powerful ‘with a clamp on its jaw’ for Lorca’s simple ‘con la boca cerrada’. Clamp = ‘abrazadera’, ‘grapa’, or ‘cepo’, something restricting by force and not simply closed. This is bold poetic translator’s license and lays bare a relationship that is not revealed in Lorca.
The great Leonard with the great Enrique Morente.
In the end, both poem and song offer us the same five images, rather startling in their juxtaposition; only in Lorca’s version, stripped down to the essentials, they make more of an impact: 1) ten girls, 2) a shoulder where Death sobs, 3) a wood of desiccated doves, 4) a fragment of the morning in the gallery of frost, and 5) a hall with a thousand windows. What are we to make of this? Fistfuls of ants thrown in our face! Lorca offers us little help.
So even in this little homage, Cohen takes care to maintain his own distinct voice. He knows that to copy would be fatal. Lorca’s verse, and his startling imagery, is rather a catalyst for Cohen. Cohen is giving us his view, while Lorca leaves more work for his reader/listener to do: his ‘self’ is harder to locate. And this observation is, I believe, generally valid for the poetic works of the two men.
But I may be wrong.
The official photographer at the casa museo in Fuente Vaqueros told me that Cohen asked him to leave the room where Lorca was born while he meditated in the youga lotus position. This photo is not in the room where Lorca was born and it is not the lotus position, though it is clearly in Fuente Vaqueros.
These are the lyrics I refer to:
Now in Vienna there’s ten
There's a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Ay, ay, ay, ay
Take this waltz, take this walz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws
Viena hay diez muchachas,
un hombro donde solloza la muerte
y un bosque de palomas disecadas.
Hay un fragmento de la mañana
en el museo de la escarcha.
Hay un salón con mil ventanas.
¡Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Toma este vals con la boca cerrada.