A secret chord that David played

My mini-column for last week’s New York Times Magazine is on poetry and song. King David viewed them as natural companions, but these days they’re seen as distinct, unrelated arts.

Accepting Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Letters recently, musician and poet Leonard Cohen implicitly took David’s view. He spoke of learning a progression of six flamenco chords from a mysterious young Spaniard who soon killed himself. “It was those six chords,” Cohen said, “it was that guitar pattern that has been the basis of all my songs and all my music… Everything that you have found favorable in my work comes from this place. Everything. Everything that you have found favorable in my songs, in my poetry [is] inspired by this soil.”

And he expressed unease over the honor. “Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.”

Related: Christopher Ricks, Jonathan Lethem, and Lucinda Williams on the case for Dylan as poet; PEN New England’s new prize for excellence in song lyrics, judged by Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Paul Muldoon, and others; The Village Voice’s jokey list of contenders for the award; and, courtesy of my friend Michael Taeckens, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. And, just for fun, Roger Miller and Dave Hickey on Hank Williams’ hooked-up verse.


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