‘What I’m Doing Here’ by Leonard Cohen is a two stanza poem that is divided into one set of fourteen lines and one set of eight. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, nor do they conform to a consistent metrical pattern. But, there is a great deal of repetition in their endings, and within the lines themselves.
For example, the first two lines both end with the word “lie”. Then, lines three and four ends with the word “love”. There is also a call and response element to the poem, especially in the first part of the first stanza. The speaker makes a statement about the world and then answers it with one about himself.
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Summary of What I’m Doing Here
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there are a few things he doesn’t know about the world. First, that he doesn’t “know if the world has lied”. But, he does know that he has. Second, that he doesn’t “know if the world has conspired against love”. But again, he has.
He also says that living in an “atmosphere of torture” does not excuse the fact that he has “tortured”. The speaker is unable to take comfort in the fact that other people have tortured as well. He also says that he does not blame the hateful nature of the world for his own hate. He says that “without the mushroom cloud” he “still…would have hated”. The next lines continue the same way of thinking.
He adds that he “would have done the same things / even if there were no death”. The poem concludes with the speaker saying that he knows the rest of the world is going to come to the same conclusion he has. He just has to wait.
You can read the full poem here.
Cohen makes use of half or slant rhymes in these endings as well. Lines six, seven, eight, and twelve are all half-rhymes due to their similarity in consonant endings. There are also other examples of consonance, or the repetition of consonant sounds, and assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, in the text. For example, the words “comfort” and “torture” in lines five and six make use of the same “o” and “r” sounds. The same can be said about the vowel sounds in “cloud” and “without” in line seven.
Alliteration is another technique a reader should look for in ‘What I’m Doing Here.’ It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. A good example is line three of the second stanza with the words “mirrors” and “movies”.
Anaphora is perhaps the most obvious technique at work in this poem. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In the first stanza, eight of the fourteen lines begin with “I” and of those eight, two begin with “I do not know if the…” Then, in the second stanza, “like” begins three of the seven lines.
Analysis of What I’m Doing Here
I do not know if the world has lied
I have lied
The atmosphere of torture is no comfort
I have tortured
In the first stanza of ‘What I’m Doing Here’ the speaker begins by making a number of statements about what he knows, doesn’t know, and what he has done. He is comparing the state of the larger world to his own morality. For example, he says that he doesn’t “know if the world has lied”. But, he does know that he has. He goes on to say that he doesn’t “know if the world has conspired against love”. But again, he has.
Through these comparisons, the speaker is explaining to the reader that no matter the precedent set by the wider population, he is responsible for his own actions. He does not feel as though he should blame the moral state of humankind for his own choices.
Lines five and six make this way of looking at his own life all the clearer. He says that living in an “atmosphere of torture” does not excuse the fact that he has “tortured”. The speaker is unable to take comfort in the fact that other people have tortured as well. It doesn’t make any difference.
Even without the mushroom cloud
still I would have hated
under the cold tap of facts
I refuse the universal alibi
In the next lines, he goes into more detail in regard to how he sees himself in the world. The speaker does not blame the hateful nature of the world for his own hate. He says that “without the mushroom cloud” he “still…would have hated”. In these lines, the mushroom cloud is a symbol of mass hatred of one particular group. Its presence is hatred in action. He doesn’t need to see it or be part of the group to hate. He has his own which came into being independent without help from the rest of the world, or at least those most like him.
The next lines continue the same way of thinking. He adds that he “would have done the same things / even if there were no death”. Through these lines, he states that the choice he made would’ve been made all the same even if he thought he wasn’t going to die. This alludes to the speaker’s somewhat nihilistic perspective on life. He was acting because he knew that he’d eventually die, and nothing mattered in the end. But, he knows that even if he wasn’t going to die, he’d still do the same things.
In the last three lines, the speaker declares that he is not going to accept the “universal alibi”. This is likely a reference to humanity’s habit of attributing their actions to a larger human sense of being. It is related to saying something like, “I’m only human, I can’t help it”.
Like an empty telephone booth passed at night
for each one of you to confess
In the second stanza, the speaker states that he is waiting for “each one of you to confess”. This period of waiting is related to a few more ephemeral images. These include “an empty telephone booth” and “mirrors in a movie palace”. These features of the world are unnecessary and are usually passed by or “consulted / only on the way out”. They wait quietly and unobtrusively. The speaker is waiting like these items do, for someone to stop and look, and then for everyone to come to the same conclusions he has.