Leonard Cohen is one of those artists of rare breed who drew creative inspiration from the rapidly changing social and cultural atmosphere after the Second World War. He is also one of the most versatile and accomplished artists, in that his genius is evident in various art forms such as music, poetry and the novel. The lyric poem in question (‘God is Alive’) is part of his 1966 novel ‘Beautiful Losers’. One of the most original thinkers of his era, Cohen experimented with words and ideas in all his works. This is true of God is Alive too, where Cohen’s personal religious beliefs are artistically and lucidly articulated in poetic form. This essay will argue the following points: ‘God is Alive’ was a radical act, in that it came amidst the rampant atheistic tendencies of the hippies generation; it is also deeply meaningful and insightful, as the poem lends itself to many layers of interpretation; the literary style of the poem is unique in terms of its fluidity, making it amenable to adaption into song or spoken word.
The 1960’s were a period of radical social change in North America. With California as its epicentre, the Hippies movement represented a collective rejection of traditional wisdom and morality. Instead of it, it sought to explore mystical experiences and alternative social arrangements, where artificial constructs such as nations and religions would have little relevance. As a result, the Hippies advocated free love, experimented with eastern schools of philosophy and promoted an ultra-liberal culture that included use of recreational drugs. Although the underpinnings for this movement have much merit, somewhere down the line it lost direction and some aspects of the Hippies culture have become decadent. It is in this context that the true value of God is Alive comes to light. God is Alive is a brave counter-current argument in support of the need for God. The argument in the poem is not only to show the hand of God in the workings of society, but also to make a case for the need for one. Liberally drawing from the Christian traditions of the gospel and the sermon, the poem has an unmistakable quality of one being delivered from a pulpit. (Benson & Toye, 1997, p.47)
While admitting to the poem’s Christian references, it should be noted that the message is universal and secular. Based on Cohen’s own personal tryst with Zen Buddhism, one could interpret the poem through the lens of eastern mysticism as well. The open ended puzzles and questions raised in the poem can be equated with ‘Koans’ and ‘Haikus’ of the Zen tradition. Read with this understanding, the poem becomes extremely complex and deep, with each line containing a body of wisdom and insight behind it. That magic is said to spawn in an empty mind (“It spawns in an empty mind”) is a clear reference to the philosophy of Zen meditation. The repeated use of the word ‘mind’ is further support for this point of view.
In terms of the intellectual content of his works, Cohen ranks alongside such twentieth century thinkers as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and John Lennon. Cohen the novelist and poet preceded his foray into song writing and singing. But even in a thought-provoking novel such as Beautiful Losers, the lyric writing talents of the author are quite evident, especially in the passage that includes God is Alive. One of the impressive literary features of the poem is the aura of the sermon that it evokes. The choice of words such as ‘poor’, ‘sick’, ‘mountain’ ‘shroud’, ‘hill’, ‘serve’, etc have a strong biblical resonance. These words were perhaps also chosen for their universal quality, whereby their meaning and relevance will stand the test of time and immediate social context. The repetition of words and re-arrangement of phrases are deliberate poetic devices that add weight to the author’s argument. This technique also makes the poem suitable for adaptation into song, as some contemporary singers such as Buffy Sainte-Marie have shown. But high quality lyrics are not necessarily high quality poetry, as song-making imposes some restrictions on the quality. To this extent one can take a tolerant view of the shortcomings in God is Alive. This is true of other rock stars of his generation who treaded between these two art forms. For example:
“You can see the failure of musical poetry even in the short span of rock’s dominance. The Canadian poet Leonard Cohen turned to music in the late 1960s after listening to Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono and realizing that an imperfect voice need not be a hindrance to pop success. If Cohen wrote a higher class of lyrics than some other rock-era composers (the song “Suzanne,” the lines “God is Alive”, / Magic is afoot”), it was at the price of writing a lower class of poetry.” (Bottum, 2000, p.56)
But overall, God is Alive is a satisfactory piece of literature that has endured the passage of fifty years. The fact that contemporary artists (such as Buffy Sainte-Marie) are using the lyric is a proof to its lasting appeal and relevance. Hence, in conclusion, beyond the cultural radicalism of the lyric, it is also full of profundity and mystical quality. The literary style too is high quality, albeit belonging to a genre that is somewhere between poetry and lyric.
Eugene Benson and William Toye, eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Second Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997: 220-221. Print.
Beautiful Losers. New York, Toronto: Viking Press, McClelland & Stewart, 1966. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart [New Canadian Library], 1991. Print.
J. Bottum, The Soundtracking of America. The Atlantic Monthly. Volume: 285. Issue: 3: March 2000: 56. Print.
God is Alive, Magic is Afoot – lyrics by Leonard Cohen, retrieved from