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Lyrics and Life

By Caitlin Ward


Take This Waltz
Leonard Cohen (after Lorca)

Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women
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 waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

Oh, I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lilly
In some hallway where love’s never been
On a bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand

Ay! Ay ay ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?

Ay! Ay ay ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz, it’s been dying for years

There’s an attic where children are playing
Where I’ve got to lie down with you soon
In a dream of Hungarian lanterns
In the mist of some sweet afternoon
And I’ll see what you’ve chained to your sorrow
All your sheep and your lillies of snow

Ay! Ay ay ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
With its “I’ll never forget you, you know!”

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

And I’ll dance with you in Vienna
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It’s yours now, it’s all that there is

I maintain to this day that the most pretentious thing I’ve ever uttered is this: “I never liked Federico García Lorca’s poetry until I read it in the original Spanish.”

It was especially bad, I think, because I pronounced his name with a Castillian accent: Federico Gar-th-EE-ah Lorca.

The trouble is, it’s accurate: the sentiment, and the pronunciation. I knew many people who had read Lorca in translation, often because Leonard Cohen referred to his work so often, but I hadn’t met many who much liked his writing. I spent a few years in graduate school studying Cohen and his work, but I’d never devoted much time to thinking about his love for Lorca, because I just didn’t see the appeal.

It was after I started to grasp Spanish well enough to read it (with the help of a few dictionaries, of course) that my sister asked if Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” made more sense in Spanish. The song’s lyrics are by Cohen, but modelled after Lorca’s poem Pequeño Vals Vienés.

It was the first time I’d tried to read Lorca in Spanish. And in doing so, I learned that no, the poem makes no more sense in Spanish than it does in English. But it’s much prettier. “Forest of desiccated (or stuffed) pigeons (or doves)” just doesn’t sound very good compared to “un bosque de palomas disecadas.” I’ll admit that I have no idea what he’s talking about in either language, but somehow it makes more sense in Spanish. Lorca’s writing is magical, and floral, and strange. In Spanish, it’s melodic and surreal. In English, it’s bizarre and clumsy.

As I’ve learned the Spanish language, I’ve also learned just how difficult it is to translate anything at all, let alone poetry. Languages come with embedded cultural assumptions, unique turns of phrase, and peculiar grammatical structures that don’t necessarily exist in your native tongue. There are words that encompass more meaning than a direct translation can supply. In Spanish, for example, there are different ways of saying “to be,” depending on what you mean by “being” in that moment. There are different ways of saying “to know,” depending on what kind of knowledge you are referring to at the time. The language has at least a half-dozen more ways to conjugate verbs than English does. They grant the speaker and the listener levels of meaning and understanding that simply don’t exist in this language. Spanish is much more precise than is English. In a larger sense, the result is a different way of understanding one another and the larger world. In a more immediate sense, it means that Lorca’s poetry doesn’t do so well in English, especially when it’s translated closely.

The interesting thing about “Take This Waltz,” though, is that Cohen understands the poetry of Lorca’s work well enough that his version of Pequeño Vals Vienés, although not exactly a faithful rendering of the poem, gets at the feeling of it far better than more direct translations of it do. Cohen captures the otherworldly appeal of Lorca’s writing: the way it upsets your balance just a little bit; how it makes no literal sense, but somehow still speaks to you.

All of this has made me think a great deal about poetry as a whole. I’ve spent much of my adult life teaching poetry and talking about song lyrics. I maintain that poetry and lyrics are not the same thing, but in many ways they serve a similar purpose. They give an impression, communicate a feeling, explain a personal version of reality. The funny thing about this, for me at least, is how so often people respond to lyrics automatically and naturally, and yet approach poetry with trepidation, and sometimes even fear. Every year, the first time I put a poem up on the board in one of my classes, I feel the room temperature drop. There’s a snapping anxiety in the air. Oh God no. It’s a poem.

I’ve talked to others who teach poetry, and so far as I can tell that experience is nearly universal. I’ve learned that many students approach poems as a sort of cipher or secret code, like we’re all Indiana Jones. If we pull the wrong lever or select the wrong cup or misinterpret that one line, it’ll mean sudden and certain death.

It makes me a little sad. Poetry has been the major vehicle for telling stories for much of human history. Novels weren’t invented until a few centuries ago. Literacy did not become widespread until 200 years ago, and even then only in certain places. Poems, recited or written, were a source of entertainment, how we learned about ourselves and our history, how we communicated ideas and values. They have been a fundamental part of who we are and what we know about ourselves for so long.

It’s a minor tragedy that we can be so afraid of them. I’m not exactly sure when or how that happened. I think it has a bit to do with how intentionally opaque Modernist poetry can be, and a lot to do with many high school English teachers (some of mine included) telling students that each poem has one (probably hidden) meaning, and if they don’t get it right, they’ll fail this essay.

It makes me wonder how a high school English teacher would deal with a Lorca poem, or by extension, a Cohen song. In English or in Spanish, I don’t think there’s a code to crack. Just a lot of desiccated doves. Or stuffed pigeons. In a forest.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college.