Leonard Cohen's Literary Work Was as Essential as His Music

Leonard Cohen's musical catalog was robust and full of classics—but his literary work was no less essential to understanding his art.

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Nov 11 2016, 10:35pm

Photo courtesy of Rama/Wikicommons

When I received the news yesterday that Leonard Cohen has passed at the age of 82, I knew the protocol: wax nostalgic, dig through his archives. But while many people posted their favorite tracks on YouTube, I investigated his literary oeuvre.

Unlike some songwriters who have been dubbed poets of their generations, Cohen penned exceptional verses without an instrument at hand. By the time he released his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, he had already published four poetry collections and two novels. His transition into music could be compared to a great songwriter's foray into visual art or acting, only this wasn't mere dabbling—Cohen was applying a celebrated a gift for words to a new medium.

As a student at McGill University, Cohen's ability for poetry was noticed and nourished by his professors, Canadian poets Irving Layton and Louis Dudek, who helped steer the young poet from youthful depictions of trysts towards more mature imagery. "I told him that his sex life was no longer a secret," the latter recalled in a 1970 interview with the Winnepeg Free Press. Cohen, he recalled, went away "giggling," but the next day returned with the head-turning poem, "Sparrows." His precocious talent was unmistakable:

But what shall I tell you of migrations
when in this empty sky
the precise ghosts of departed summer birds
still trace old signs

The poem was later awarded a literary prize by McGill, who also funded Cohen's first collection, 1957's Let Us Compare Mythologies. By his second book, 1961's The Spice-Box of Earth, Cohen had acquired both a major publisher and an audience; one critic hailed Cohen as "probably the best young poet in English Canada right now," and The Spice-Box of Earth was later nominated for Canada's prestigious E.J. Pratt Medal for Poetry. He lost to another young poet: Margaret Atwood.

In his late 20s, Cohen decamped to the Greek Island of Hydra, where, supposedly hopped up on amphetamines, he produced a substantial body of written work, including his most famous collection, Flowers for Hitler (1964). During this week's events, I couldn't help but recall lines from one of its poems, "Millennium":

I phoned my grandmother.
She is suffering from arthritis.
'Keep well,' I said, 'don't mind the pain.'
'You neither,' she said.
Hours later I wondered
did she mean
don't mind my pain
or don't mind her pain?

The lyrics for Cohen's earliest songs also originated during his Hydra period—including "Suzanne," written to his then-lover Suzanne Verdel. Even without the bucolic guitar chords and choral backing, every line aches with beauty:

And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you've always been her lover

While at Hydra, Cohen also produced two novels—the second of which, 1966's Beautiful Losers, is arguably the great unknown success of Cohen's prolific output. He referred to this grand and complex postmodern novel of Canadian history and sexual liberation as "The Bhagavad Gita of 1965," but it was a commercial flop upon its release in 1966.

The critics were kinder. A reviewer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cited it as "one of the most radical and extraordinary works of fiction ever published in Canada." Fellow Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, in his monograph of Cohen published in 1970, cited Beautiful Losers as the greatest influence in his own move from poetry to prose. Personally, I'd call it no less than the great postmodern Canadian novel Pynchon never wrote.

It's debatable whether Cohen would have embarked on a music career had his literary career taken off. Although he never wrote another novel, he published several books of poetry up through the 80s, afterwards releasing only one more book of poetry, Book of Longing, in 2006 after Cohen had returned from a period of inactivity while he lived in a Buddhist monastery.

In 2012, the Spanish government awarded Cohen a Princess of Asturias Award in acknowledgement not of his obvious contributions to music, but to literature. It would be his only major recognition as a writer, which is why there may never be a more pertinent time to discover this body of work from such a gifted artist. "A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility," he wrote in Beautiful Losers. By Cohen's definition, he's already canonized.

Follow Michael Barron on Twitter.

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