The Spice-Box of Earth (1961)

© Copyright Viking Press
© Copyright Viking Press

Modern artists are often concerned with the creative process itself. Consider Leonard Cohen’s 1961 collection The Spice-Box of Earth, which reflects this concern through the lyric poem “A Kite Is a Victim”. All four stanzas of the latter begin with a trope in which “kite” is the tenor but the word “kite” itself is the vehicle to another trope that relates to the central theme of the piece: poetry. In short, every word Cohen uses serves to support a metaphor for his craft.

The first stanza is about the loss of freedom. It begins with a personification in which the tenor is “kite” and the vehicle is “victim”. Attributing human characteristics to the kite, the speaker equates its relationship with its owner to that of a slave with his or her master: “gentle enough to call you master”. This notion of slavery, or loss of freedom, is repeated at the end of the stanza. In the simile “it lives/ like a desperate trained falcon”, the tenor “kite” is compared to a bird of prey because it majestically flies “in the high sweet air”. However, it can be hauled “down to tame” because it is a victim, a slave.

The second stanza describes the kite as unique and precious. In its first line, it personifies the tenor “kite” and associates it with “a fish”, the vehicle. The fish is rare and valuable because it is “caught/ in a pool where no fish come”. It is played with “carefully and long” because, like that of catching a rare fish, the experience of playing with a kite is not only precious but also fragile and ephemeral: “and hope he won’t give up,/ or the wind die down”.

The third stanza speaks of emotional attachment. Its first trope is a metaphor in which the tenor “kite” is compared to the vehicle “the last poem you’ve written”. It states that like a poem, a kite is still attached to its owner after it is launched: “so you give it to the wind,/ but you don’t let it go”. The attachment ends when “someone finds you [the owner] / something else to do” because the owner’s interests swerves to another activity, and he or she releases the kite.

The final stanza is about work and hope. It begins with a metaphor. The tenor is “kite”, and the vehicle is “contract of glory”. The trope’s statement is that when a person flies a kite, he or she does so with the promise of finding beauty in the sky as a result of it. However, as much as the term “glory” inspires hope, the use of the word “contract” implies an obligation. This obligation is addressed in the trope “you make friends with the field/ the river and the wind”. The latter personification has as its tenor “the field/ the river and the wind” and as its vehicle “make friends”. It states that the owner must get familiarized with the terrain in order to properly fly the kite.

Of course, Leonard Cohen’s “A Kite Is a Victim” is not truly about flying kites. The notion of flying a kite is the vehicle to a more elaborate metaphor that relates to the central theme of the poem: poetry itself. The trope that most directly addresses the central theme is the principal metaphor of the third stanza: “A kite is the last poem you’ve written”. This is made apparent by the use of the article “the.” In all the other tropes beginning with the epistrophe “A kite is,” the vehicle is preceded by the indefinite article “a”. The definite article used in the third stanza isolates the trope and indicates that its meaning is more specific. Though, in the context of the stanza, “poem” is the vehicle to a metaphor that has “kite” as its tenor, those two terms are also part of a larger, central metaphor in which “poem” is the tenor and “kite” is the vehicle.

Using “kite” as a vehicle, each stanza exposes a different aspect of poetry. The first stanza is about taming and the loss of freedom. The same way a kite is an object that soars in the sky but is chained to its owner, a poem reaches depths beyond physical human capacity and yet remains limited by its author. Its abstract beauty is subdued and made concrete through writing: “you can always haul it down/ to tame it in your drawer”.

The second stanza addresses the unique and precious nature of a poem. Much like the owner plays with the kite, the author works on a poem “carefully and long”. The hope that it “won’t give up/ or the wind die down” is a metaphor for the poet’s fear of losing his or her inspiration.

The third stanza speaks of emotional attachment. The poem is given “to the wind”. “The wind” is the vehicle to a metaphor that has the public as its implied tenor. Like a flying kite, the poem becomes public and out of reach, but the author does not relinquish control over it until he or she is presented another project or “something else to do”.

Finally, the fourth stanza addresses work and hope. The same way the owner wishes his kite to create something beautiful in the sky, the poet wishes his poem to achieve “glory” in the world. However, this necessitates a large amount a work: the owner of the kite must get familiarized with the terrain; the author must get familiarized with the themes of the poem. He or she must work “the whole cold night before/ […] to make you worthy lyric and pure”.

The central theme of “A Kite Is a Victim” is poetry itself. Leonard Cohen uses a kite as the vehicle to a central metaphor about the poem. Isolating this central trope through the use of an epistrophe at the beginning of each stanza, he exposes four different aspects of poetry: the taming of free ideas, the unique and precious nature of a poem, the author’s emotional attachment to his or her work, and the obligation of work and hope. These notions are proper to all works of art, including this very poem and the collection to which it belongs. In short, Leonard Cohen’s The Spice-Box of Earth is a kite.

Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."