Leonard Cohen, poet, novelist, songwriter (b at Montréal, Qué 21 Sept 1934). Cohen was one of the most influential and popular 1960s Canadian writers and his songs gained him an international reputation.
Leonard Cohen, poet, novelist, songwriter (b at Montréal, Qué 21 Sept 1934). Cohen was one of the most influential and popular 1960s Canadian writers and his songs gained him an international reputation. He came from a wealthy Westmount family, and Montréal's atmosphere is pervasive in his writings, though he has also lived for extended periods in Greece and California, where he is associated with a Zen Buddhist community in Los Angeles. He attended McGill and Columbia universities but has spent most of his life as a full-time writer and performer. His first book of poetry, Let us Compare Mythologies, appeared in 1956.
Cohen's first major creative period was the early to mid-1960s, the highlights being, in poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) and Flowers for Hitler (1964), and in fiction, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). His first record, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, was issued in 1968. He won a Governor General's Award for his Selected Poems (1968) but declined it. His literary work in the 1970s was sporadic and hesitant: The Energy of Slaves (1972) is made up of "anti-poems," rejecting his own stance and stature as a poet, while Death of a Lady's Man (1978) was divided between original poems and a set of commentaries, often bitter and ironical, supplementing them. Book of Mercy (1984) reaffirmed the richness of his language, and reintroduced a tone of religious awe and veneration.
Cohen's recordings continued to be of a high quality, especially Songs of Love and Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Lady's Man (released in 1977 and featuring the elaborate production of Phil Spector) and Recent Songs (1979). In the mid-1980s, his career revived spectacularly, with a series of major albums: Various Positions (1985), I'm Your Man (1988), and The Future (1992). He conducted extensive concert tours of Europe and North America in 1988 and 1993 which resulted in a new album, Cohen Live: Leonard Cohen in Concert (1994). A number of other live albums followed, including as set from earlier in his career (Live at the Isle of Wight, 1970, released in 2009) along with the studio recordings Ten New Songs (2001), Dear Heather (2004) and Old Ideas (2012). In the meantime, renewed interest in his work had been shown by other artists covering his songs, notably Jennifer Warnes's Famous Blue Raincoat (1986) and the tribute albums I'm Your Fan (1991) and Tower of Song (1995). Cohen's pop anthem Halleluja was given a powerful interpretation by k.d. lang on her 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel and later performed by her to mezmerized audiences at the 2005 Juno awards in Winnipeg and at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
A major volume of collected writing, Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs appeared in 1993. In the same year, Cohen was awarded the Governor General's Performing Arts Award, and the first academic conference devoted completely to his work took place in Red Deer, Alta. In 1994, his 60th birthday was marked by the publication of a Festschrift, Take This Waltz: A Celebration of Leonard Cohen. Cohen's work has been widely translated; he is especially popular in France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Although his musical career has taken the foreground, Leonard Cohen has continued to write poetry. Book of Longing, released in 2007, is a collection of poems written over a five year period during which he lived in a Zen monastery in Southern California, and during sojourns in Los Angeles, Montréal and Mumbai.
In addition to the Governor General's Performing Arts Award (declined), Cohen was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame and made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1991 (elevated to Companion in 2003). He was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 and received the Glenn Gould Prize for lifetime achievement in the arts in 2012. At the 2013 Junos in Regina, Cohen won the award for Artist of the Year as well as for Songwriter of the Year for his album 2012 album Old Ideas.
Although the popular conception is of Cohen as a romantic love poet - author of the lovely lyrics of The Spice-Box of Earth - his imaginative vision can also be dark and despairing. As a Jew, Cohen has always been acutely aware of the Holocaust, and images of the Nazi genocide permeate and condition his work. Poetry, religion, sex, death, beauty and power form an interlocked pattern, heightened by the sensuousness of his language, and also emphasized by a wild, outrageous and black sense of humour. Cohen celebrates the destruction of the self and the abnegation of power.
The harshness of this vision reaches its peak in Beautiful Losers, itself an extraordinary novel which is by turns historical and surreal, religious and obscene, comic and ecstatic; it remains the most radical (and beautiful) experimental novel ever published in Canada. The songs tend to be gentler, less absolute in their vision. Even in such bleakly apocalyptic statements as "The Future," the pessimism of Cohen's vision is mitigated by his delight in making music. If Beautiful Losers is Cohen's masterpiece, perhaps the most concise statement he has ever made of his central vision occurs in the last verse of his song "The Window," from Recent Songs:
Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendour
In the arms of the High Holy One
For the Holy One dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter's death
Oh bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh
Only Leonard Cohen could conceive of the process of the Word being made Flesh as a stutter - and only Cohen could bless that insight.
See also Leonard Cohen.
Stephen Scobie, Leonard Cohen (1978); Ira Nadel, Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art (1994); Leonard Cohen, The yrics of Leonard Cohen (2009).