One of the most tragic events of 2016 – and that, believe me, is saying something – was surely the passing of Leonard Cohen. Best known for his musical career, with his excellent final album You Want It Darker being released only a few weeks before his death, it may come as a surprise to some that Cohen in fact began his artistic life as a poet. But then, perhaps it is not so surprising after all – Cohen’s music is nothing if not poetic, and I for one see little reason to draw a line between the two. As such, this article will pay tribute to all the poetic work of Leonard Cohen, whether it be written for page or for song.
the work of Leonard Cohen is practically a case study in poetry as a method of self-rationalisation
Throughout his career Leonard Cohen produced poetry in abundance, releasing his first volume, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. This was eleven years before he began his musical career, in 1967; in the intervening period, Cohen had produced another anthology, Flowers for Hitler (1964), alongside two novels. Eventually, Cohen decided that music would be a more pertinent way to communicate his work; his written output was henceforth more sporadic, and he did not publish another anthology until 1978. His musical work, meanwhile, went from strength to strength.
Yet clearly poetry was Cohen’s first love, and it’s no leap to suggest that he had an eye for it. Poetry has always been a prominent means of self-expression, and for Cohen it was something a little more along the lines of self-examination. His deconstruction of his own identity through his poetry was shrewd and unforgiving. In his own words, from Bird on the Wire, ‘I have tried in my way to be free’: poetry was his method of choice. Poetry was to Cohen an ultimately cathartic practice – at least in theory – and to this end he does not hold back, and he does not pull punches. The work of Leonard Cohen is practically a case study in poetry as a method of self-rationalisation, and the frank glimpses we are afforded into Cohen’s self are both potent and distinctly emotional. Reading and listening through Cohen’s artistic output is a little like undertaking a character study, and the reader is brought into his life on an emotional level. For example his last anthology, The Book of Longing (2006), is largely retrospective. Cohen describes his journey in the titular poem Book of Longing as such:
I followed the course
From chaos to art
Desire the horse
Depression the cart
…his constant faith in love, and in humanity.
An earlier work, The Cuckold’s Song, is a prime example of the honesty which gives Cohen’s poetry its power. Opening with an insistence that ‘If this looks like a poem/I might as well warn you at the beginning/that it’s not meant to be one’, Cohen rationalises aspects of his own love life with trademark bluntness – ‘I repeat: the important thing was to cuckold Leonard Cohen.’ The wonderful thing about Cohen’s poetry is that he retains his aptitude for the art even when undertaking brutal self-examination; for a piece which professes not to be a poem, The Cuckold’s Song certainly concludes in a poetic fashion:
The fact is I’m turning to gold, turning to gold.
It’s a long process, they say,
it happens in stages.
This is to inform you that I’ve already turned to clay.
I believe that the honesty of Leonard Cohen is why his art remains appealing. His subject matter tended to come from a darker place within himself, and was never treated with undue levity. Depression, loss, tragedy, cynicism – these are all hallmarks of Cohen’s work. But there is also an ever-present kernel of hope, a light in that darkness. Where Cohen’s poetry is of love, it may often be of misfortune, and where it is of humanity, it is often of corruption – yet beneath that, there remains an ever-present belief. Leonard Cohen was, fundamentally, a man of faith. I refer not only to his religious background (present as it is in his work), but more to his constant faith in love, and in humanity. Throughout the doubt and the sadness, there flows within Leonard Cohen’s poetry an undercurrent of hope. From Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in.
Hope – hope against all odds – is the true message of Leonard Cohen, and his ability to convey such personality and emotion with honest clarity is something that I believe will prove timeless. This article has been my own small personal tribute to Leonard Cohen, and I hope I have done his poetry some justice. May his art continue to be enjoyed, and may his unique voice continue to rumble forth from our speakers for ages hence.
Nor is this a mourning-song
but only a naming of this mountain
on which I walk
fragrant, dark, and softly white
under the pale of mist.
I name this mountain after him.
– Leonard Cohen, ‘There Are Some Men’.