Image result for rolling stones two thousand light years from home

These two acts, Leonard Cohen and the Stones, facing off in a Round One contest in the Song bracket, represent that era in popular Western music when singers with poor singing voices became immensely successful because of catchy melodies and beats, but also because of good poetry.

This is where poetry went—into music—when it was killed off by the Writing Programs in the mid-century, disappearing on the “any scribble can be poetry” prose-train of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell-teaching-and-drinking-at-Iowa. Poetry, ever resourceful, escaped into popular music and flourished on the lips of Frank Sinatra, Syd Barrett, Arthur Lee, Donovan Leitch and Marc Bolan.

Leonard Cohen, a small, tone deaf man with a two note singing range, became one of the greatest and respected pop singers of all time. He was a poet above all else.

As with Bob Dylan, female singers with lovely voices, like Judy Collins and Joan Baez, swooped in to create sweetness out of Cohen’s songs and words. Poetry transcends musical sweetness, however, for poetry is the music itself. Shhh. Don’t tell this to the modern “poets.”

Bob Dylan was a gigantic influence in the mid-60s—that wonderful window of intellectual and poetic ferment, extolled today by Camille Paglia, pitiful dinosaur! But it’s true, the 60’s was an amazing time for poetry, such that Dionysian, phenomenally successful, rhythm and blues acts like the Beatles and Stones chucked their blues for invention, jumping on the cool bandwagon of Dylan’s poetry.

Ironically, Dylan wasn’t really that great as a poet—far more facile than great, but definitely good—but he absorbed folk and protest poetry in a highly authentic and skilled manner, and pushed it into the rock mainstream in a manic, overdone, hyperbolic, LSD, sort of way in 1965, just when the zeitgeist was waiting for this to happen, apparently, and poetry sprung up everywhere in the music business, as amateur poets, often better than Dylan himself, began to infuse poetry unapologetically into the immediacy of their extremely popular music, which already had a boomer audience of millions hanging on their every word.

So this battle represents that: one of the lyrics is from the 1967 Rolling Stones, when these English white boys, exploiting “black” music, returned to their own “roots” of “white” English “poetry.”

“Two Thousand Light Years From Home” by the Rolling Stones  is the first great “lonely outer space” symphonic rock song, which no doubt influenced what is arguably the best songs ever produced by David Bowie and Elton John—“Space Oddity” and “Rocket Man.”

“Bound for a star by an ocean” is beautiful poetry—by the Rolling Stones! Sure, why not. Their large audience at that time, not yet fully crushed by corporate, dumbed down, entertainment, wanted and expected poetry. It was the 60’s, remember. Poetry’s revenge.

Leonard Cohen’s entry is from a later composition, “Anthem,” (from the 90s, from Leonard Cohen as a wise old man—Cohen established himself in the 60s as a romantic Dylan and Donovan type singer-songwriter).

Bells are cracked, and everything is broken, and that’s how the light gets in.

Cohen’s lyric is too clever, too precious, too abstractly sentimental in its—yes—scientific profundity—breakage is the key to progress and spirituality—Cohen would absolutely win if scientific wisdom were the sole criterion.

But “you’re two hundred light years from home” is more fully poetic, as true poets will understand.

The Rolling Stones advance.



  1. Mr. Woo said,

    March 16, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    I backed Cohen in this round. Abstractly sentimental is spot on, but from those lips we drew the hallelujah.

    This reminds me of last years competition, where I preferred Mary Angela Douglas’ line, “The larks cry out and not with music.”, to Chumki Sharma’s “After every rain I leave the place for something called home.”

    I can see how both The Stones’ and Sharma’s lines are more fully poetic, more pleasing, even possessing a healing quality of some sort, while Cohen’s and Douglas’ lines having a piercing or breaking quality.

    I’m having difficulty articulating the question, so bare with me, but do you think a poet, in making a good or great poem, does the piercing/breaking business privately, on themselves, and that in turn lets the poetic light come forth to create lines/poems like Sharma’s and The Stones’, which do not have that piercing/breaking quality, but instead sooth the soul?

    And I suppose the logical follow up to that is to ask, do you think it’s a mistake, bad taste, as a poet to try to “break open” the reader with a poem?

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 16, 2017 at 8:04 pm

      Hi Woo,

      To answer briefly: I think ‘breaking’ belongs to analysis and science.

      Poetry belongs more to ‘unity’ and the soothing, or elevating of the soul. Discord or breaking is a great aid to musical and poetic unity, true, but synthesis, not analysis, is the ultimate activity of poetry.

      “The larks cry out and not with music” expresses a ‘breaking’ idea (the discord of the larks!) but there is unity in the line, or the expression, itself. “The larks” “cry out” “not with music” is all of one piece, belongs to one concentrated, beautiful idea. The expression itself is poetic, is unified.

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