Rhyme at the End of Democracy: Leonard Cohen's Futures


Image by Michelle Jia

by Harris Feinsod

A Democracy of Unrhymed Poetry

Walt Whitman never claimed that the use of rhyme in poetry was undemocratic, but he did claim that the democratic exercises of the citizenry were “unrhymed.” In the preface to Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman concludes a passage of praise for the common people by celebrating their power to appoint an executive: “the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry.” Understanding the plebeian multitude as a great poem in itself, Whitman argues: “the poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme.” Rhyme marshals, as a military regiments its soldiers into phalanxes. Poems, by contrast, assemble freely. Without stricture, the language of a democratic poem chooses the terms of its association. In 1856, Whitman composed a campaign-trail treatise entitled “The Eighteenth Presidency!: Voice of Walt Whitman to each Young Man in the Nation, North, South, East and West.” In it, he points out that the six million “mechanics, farmers, sailors, &c” so far outnumber bourgeois and slaveholding classes that they will inevitably stumble their way into the personnel of the government. Ideally, then, the office of the president involved its citizenry in lubricating the humdrum machinery of self-government. It did not condone the investiture of the State’s mystifying, king-making power.

We live now in powerfully un-Whitmanian times, when “the terrible significance of our elections” no longer strikes us as unrhymed poetry. “Drone more years!” said one of my friends in celebration of Obama’s 2012 victory. That kind of despair now looks like a golden pasture of optimism as the future sinks deeper into the undrained swamps of racial hatred, widening inequality, narcissistic self-interest, kleptocracy, unaccountable police violence, xenophobic revanche, environmental rapacity, and constitutional crisis. As the poet Jerome Rothenberg wrote in the late 1980s, “Today the cruel majority vote to enlarge the darkness.”[1] An austerity of democratic feeling attends the certain erosion of liberal democratic norms, and the uncertain outlook for federal republicanism itself. Futurity shrinks into feelings of fear and fatigue. Fatuousness rules over the present.

Where rhymeless discourses of free association do not safeguard democratic feeling, I doubt that the schematics of rhyme do much better. But, as linked structures of anticipation, few poets have considered the relation between rhyme and democracy with greater anti-Whitmanian insight than Leonard Cohen, who died not un-coincidentally on November 7, 2016. For the rare hour of the day in which there is little to do but to wait, here is a small tribute to his thinking on the matter.

A Democracy of Expectations

The revival of Leonard Cohen’s career from a Reagan-era slump owed at least in part to the inclusion of “Everybody Knows” on the soundtrack to the film Pump Up the Volume (1990), which described a rigged system to slumpy, slack, world-weary young suburbanites who found resources in Cohen’s music that their Boomer parents had not. Yet Cohen’s renewed success solidified with The Future (1992), an album that channeled the energies of a post-Cold War expansion of liberal democracy into a darkly optimistic vision of futurity pegged to the Clinton ascendancy. “Everybody Knows” reported that the fix was in as it ground all manner of anticipations to a halt, but every song on The Future (1992) elaborates some new structure of expectation. Here we find fidelity (“Always”) and erotic expectation (“Waiting for the Miracle”), messianic expectation (“The Future”) and redemptive expectation (“Anthem”). Above all, we find the kind of universalizing political expectation (“Democracy”) which stoked the 1990s dream of the end of history: “It’s coming from a hole in the air / From those nights in Tiananmen square.”

In those years, Cohen admitted in television interviews that he feared a rise of extremism, a growing feeling of dangerous hospitability to “the extremist position” which ends in his song’s decree “I’ve seen the future, brother: / It is murder.” Even so, democracy constituted for him a form of faith—the greatest of the faiths invented by the secularizing West. In this way, “regardless of how ironic we’ve trained ourselves to be about America,” he affirmed that “our blessings can be summoned for America; somehow we understand that it is there the great experiment is taking place.”[2]

As if directly redressing Whitman, Cohen’s “Democracy” opens with a snappy military snare drum rudiment, and from its first couplet it privileges the figure of rhyme as the very figure of democratic expectation. Although Cohen lushly textures the “Democracy” of the early 1990s with synths and back-up vocals, he enforces a stanzaic regimentation throughout the song’s six verses, which all follow the same rhyme scheme AABBACDEDD. The “D” rhymes repeat from stanza to stanza. Here’s the second verse:

It’s coming through a crack in the wall,
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming . . . to the U.S.A.

Here, in the mood of mock prophecy, Cohen threads together intoxicated reverie and religious orthodoxy, only to reject them in favor of vernacular soul lyrics, car commercials, and national Jeremiad. He builds this stanza on a flimsy architecture of monosyllabic end rhymes. In the second half of the stanza, the long a sound of U.S.A. (for America, but so much else), becomes an absorptive, compulsively expectant sound image that contains irony, sentiment, empathy, crass commercialism, and even trans-racial identification. Indeed, it is the same long a sound that rhymes internally through the line “the holy places where the races meet”). Cohen’s rhymes structure democracy not as a realized achievement but as a mode of expectation, not unlike a stray remark he made about it in an interview once: “I think, as Chesterton said about religion, that it’s a great idea—too bad nobody has tried it.”[3]

The poet-scholar Susan Stewart affirms that rhyme itself engenders structures of expectation and margins of creative freedom: “Artistic freedom reaches its apogee when intention approaches the rich cognitive moment on the brink of realized structure.”[4] She elaborates: “whatever freedom the will might possess is available at this point of possibility without resolution.” Rhyming joins other verbal practices that render most fully resonant this moment of cognitive brinksmanship. Stewart therefore critiques the free-versifiers of modernism, such as Richard Aldington, who made their poetic careers out of casting aspersions on rhyme as merely a “formal device and a kind of restraint.” For Stewart, rhyme never slips into schoolroom fetters. Rather, it stokes cognitive liberty: “Far from a constraint, rhyme endows us with certain freedoms–among them: the vernacular, including the locality of the poem itself, released from the standard; the monolingual in dialogue with the multilingual; sound opened up by vision, and sound released from meaning entirely; expectation released into surprise; and pattern drawn from the oblivion of time.”[5]

Although Cohen often submitted himself “to the anvil of rhythm and rhyme” in his songs, he loved to stage himself as a novice practitioner. In fact, the music video to “Democracy” opens with an image of Cohen in sunglasses while reading Random House’s Rhyming Dictionary, suggesting that the bright light of rhyme is not a matter of inspiration, but that it bounces indirectly to the senses through the act of reading. Cohen reverentially observes himself in this act of self-tutelage, just as Democracy comes “through a crack in the wall” on a “visionary flood of alcohol.”



The Future is full of cracks in walls—the Berlin Wall, most famously. These walls dramatize the seepage of democratic light into his songs. But “Democracy” largely draws its sense of America’s “range / and the machinery for change” (more long a) out of the Random House Rhyming Dictionary’s options for “U.S.A.”: gay, bay, day, pray, away, say, way, sway, array, decay, and two cross-lingual borrowings (Chevrolet and bouquet). Within this “machinery for change,” other internal rhymes work their ways in and out, but the song’s engine (the “battered heart / of Chevrolet”) relies on that foundational visit to the Rhyming Dictionary. Every repetition of the hook “Democracy is coming …. to the U.S.A.” splits the delivery with a long caesura, drawing out a moment of expectation that grows increasingly familiar with each return. This compulsive, paradoxical return to the scene of expectation thaws the frosty irony of the hook. “Democracy is coming” becomes the figure of “ironized conviction.” This is the structure of a deferred faith as it is summoned in prayer.

Unlike democracy, rhyme’s mode of expectation invites a belief in inevitable and rapid fulfillment. Rhyme unfulfilled precipitates apocalyptic feeling, as in Cohen’s “The Future,” where fratricide hangs in the balance of a half-rhyme: “I’ve seen the future brother: / It is murder.” When Cohen writes “things are going to slide in all directions,” he evokes a political structure of feeling as bleak as Yeats’s “the center cannot hold,” but for Cohen the decentering has to do specifically with the eschewing of rhyme or metrical regularity as the safeguard of expectation: “Won’t be nothing / Nothing you can measure anymore.”

By contrast, in “Democracy,” the insistence of rhyme—it’s ability to grow flowers in impoverished soil—is one of the few wards against the depredations of mass media or political apathy that the song otherwise describes as hopeless:

But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet

Of course, we don’t need rhyme. We need healthy institutions, norms, and rights. But perhaps rhyme is a training ground for the range of democratic feelings that can seep between fear, fatigue and fatuousness. As Cohen was recording The Future, he often drove the streets of Los Angeles with “Waiting for the Miracle” playing in his Honda. “I like to see,” he remarked in an interview on French television, “how the song stands up in the street. I like to drive with it on. And sometimes I come up beside people at a stop sign or a stoplight and I play it loud. I like to see if they turn and are interested in any way, you know? I like to hear it with traffic, with city noise.”[6] In 1993, television host Jools Holland asked Cohen if he was an “optimist.” He replied: “You know everybody’s kind of hanging on to their broken orange crate in the flood, and when you pass someone else, you know to declare yourself an optimist or a pessimist or pro-abortion or against abortion, or a conservative or a liberal, you know these descriptions are obsolete in the face of the catastrophe that everybody’s really dealing with.”[7] “Democracy” is a damaged float in the catastrophe, and to it clings a bit of broken expectation.

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[1] Jerome Rothenberg, “Poem for the Cruel Majority,” A Paradise of Poets: New Poems and Translations (New York: New Directions, 1999): 16.

[2] Barbara Gowdy and Leonard Cohen, “TV Interview: November 19, 1992, OTV (Ontario, Canada),” in Jeff Burger, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014): 294.

[3] Ibid, 294

[4] Susan Stewart, “Rhyme and Freedom,” in The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 30

[5] Ibid, 48.

[6] “Leonard Cohen: Exclusif,” (5 January, 1992):

[7] “Leonard Cohen,” Later with Jools Holland (1993):

About the Author:

Harris Feinsod is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. His work focuses on 20th and 21st century literature of the hemispheric Americas, modern poetry and poetics, and maritime cultural history, especially in the age of the steamship. His first book is The Poetry of the Americas from Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2017).