Some writers mythologize, raising everyday life to levels of cosmic significance, finding awful natural cycles in happenstance, wisdom in emotional upheaval. Others de-mythologize.... more
A poet and a priest walk into a bar
In the 1960s Leonard Cohen was just about the coolest guy around. A young poet who lived the Bohemian lifestyle associated with the poets of popular fiction, who spoke like a man of profound mysteries, who wrote both hopefully and cynically of love and of the mystical in the mundane. And a folksinger to boot. You know how people were always saying Bob Dylan was the poet of pop music? Well, Leonard Cohen was a singer-songwriter in the same class who really was a poet.
His writing managed to be both critically acclaimed and accessible to the public, especially to the romantic young who took it to their hearts.
The really strange thing is that as he's grown older, appearing as a gaunt grey-haired gentleman in stylish suits and fedoras, writing more cynically and with more conventional religiosity, he has retained his image as one very cool dude.
He has also become a Canadian literary icon, although his reputation as a poet and as a songwriter is vast and international. Perhaps "icon" is the wrong word, for Cohen is not so much a representative of a Canadian sensibility as a living mythology in that country. No one's ever quite sure what he is: poet, performer, novelist, philosopher, satyr, monk, con artist....
We're never certain he hasn't been putting us on, that his works have not been just a private language he occasionally makes public to tease us. Yet we continue to hum his songs and quote his poems as if they mean something to us.
Cohen was born in Montreal to a wealthy Westmount family, but has divided his life among that city, Greece, Nashville and Los Angeles where he is associated with a Zen Buddhist community.
While attending McGill University he formed a country-western trio and started writing poetry. He was still an undergraduate when his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) was published. The mix of hushed sacred tones and offhand vulgarity, expressed with occasionally breathtakingly beautiful imagery and sly humour drew local attention. Only 400 copies of Let Us Compare Mythologies were printed in 1956, although it was reprinted several times in the following decade as Cohen became famous.
It was his second collection, The Spice Box of Earth (1961), that won him international recognition, particularly after it was published in the United States a few years later. This book continued in the seductively confessional vein of the first, although to slightly lesser effect in my opinion, and also introduced a concern with Jewish traditions.
After attending Columbia University in New York briefly, Cohen travelled in Europe and settled on the Greek island of Hydra where he stayed on and off for seven years. His next collection of poetry, Flowers For Hitler (1964), was controversial, as the title might indicate, and was followed by Parasites of Heaven (1966). All these early books of poetry are difficult to find now, as the most popular poems have been republished in selected and collected works.
However in this period he also produced two novels, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), which were applauded by critics and have continued to be popular sellers over the years despite (or perhaps because of) their experimental styles and crude sexuality. Beautiful Losers, a densely scatological work in the stream-of-consciousness vein, is considered by some to be his masterpiece.
But instead of sticking with his highly successful novel-writing, Cohen switched to song-writing, releasing the album Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967 which made him somewhat of a folk-pop star with such sadly sung compositions as "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy" and "So Long, Marianne." He also continued producing poetry, his Selected Poems (1968) winning the Governor-General's Award, Canada's highest literary honour—which he turned down.
By 1972 however he seemed out of poetic ideas with the publication of The Energy of Slaves, a seemingly meandering mess of whatever trivial thoughts happened to pass through his head when he put pen to paper. One of the repeated themes of this book is his acknowledgment that he's washed up as a poet. Nonetheless he continued to put out new collections every few years, including Death of a Lady's Man (1978), which was also a song album, and Book of Mercy (1984), which presents psalms in prose form. Altogether over these latter years he's had a diverse output ranging from "anti-poem" cynicism to rich, religion-tinged lyricism.
New musical albums have also continued to be released over the years, including such classic songs as "Bird on a Wire", "Ain't No Cure for Love", "First We Take Manhattan", "Closing Time" and "Hallelujah", cementing his position as one of the world's most important songwriters.
In 1993 the two careers came together with the publication of Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. That year he was also awarded the Governor General's Performing Arts Award. This time he accepted.
Since then he's come out a five-year monastic reclusion, suffered bankruptcy, sued and been sued, gone on a highly successful world concert tour, published best-selling books of new poems and drawings, released hit albums, and seen his songs rise up the charts, including a time when three versions of "Hallelujah" were on the British top forty, including the number one and two spots. How cool is that for a guy in his seventies.