I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries

I have not lingered in European monasteries

and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights

who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;

I have not parted the grasses

or purposefully left them thatched.


I have not released my mind to wander and wait

in those great distances

between the snowy mountains and the fishermen,

like a moon,

or a shell beneath the moving water.


I have not held my breath

so that I might hear the breathing of God,

or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,

or starved for visions.

Although I have watched him often

I have not become the heron,

leaving my body on the shore,

and I have not become the luminous trout,

leaving my body in the air.


I have not worshipped wounds and relics,

or combs of iron,

or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.


I have not been unhappy for ten thousand years.

During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.

My favourite cooks prepare my meals,

my body cleans and repairs itself,

and all my work goes well.

Dive in
  1. Most of this poem is about what the speaker hasn’t done. What connects these activities? Can you link them to what he mentions that he does do at the end of the poem? Do any of them intrigue you?
  2. Why would the speaker present himself in this way? Does he strike you as self-satisfied or frustrated? Ambitious or obnoxious? Young or old? Does he want us to agree with his decisions or challenge them?
  3. You might know that Cohen was well-known as a musician as well as a poet. How does the structure of this poem resemble a song? Are there verses? Is there a chorus? If you were to write music to accompany this poem, would it be fast or slow? Upbeat or dark? Electronica or cellos?
  4. Cohen was Jewish, but explored numerous spiritual practices throughout his life, especially Buddhism. How does this poem consider spiritual matters? What might the speaker be seeking? Inner peace? Holiness? God? Truth? In what other ways might he try to elevate his existence?
  5. This poem is in free verse (no rhyme or meter), but there is a structure to it defined by the repetition of “I have not…” Recitation tip: try out a different tone for each sentence. Be dismissive in one, wistful for another, curious about another, joking about another. Which tone suits each pursuit that the speaker hasn’t done? 
  6. Write a poem listing a number of things you haven’t done but might like to do. What connects them? What does that connection tell you about yourself?




Useful links:

  1. Leonard Cohen briefly defines poetry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSaMGHB4Vok
  2. A longer, snarkier interview from 1966, with former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yta36Ry8UFc
  3. A documentary about Cohen’s spiritual explorations at the Mount Baldy Zen Center outside of Los Angeles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=HJuJQI0RMiw
  4. A 90-minute memorial concert for Leonard Cohen in 2017, with everyone in it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSmvvUNTtTc
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Bibliographical info

Leonard Cohen, “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries” from Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. Copyright © 1993 by Leonard Cohen. Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.

Source: The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English (Oxford University Press, 1983).

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