With April known as National Poetry Month, there is no better way to celebrate than to honor the legacy of one of Canada’s most prolific poets: Leonard Cohen.
While most know Cohen as a musician, beyond the songs is a collection of written works – primarily poetry – that have had an impact just as much as his music. His first book, Let Us Compare Mythologieswas published when he was just 22 years old and contained works written from the age of 15 to 20. He dedicated the book to his father.
“He’s fearless about experimenting with different language and wasn’t afraid to be challenging and people really responded to that,” says Lesley Fletcher, the executive director of the League of Canadian Poets. Fletcher says his work was initially “difficult” for people to embrace and quotes Let Us Compare Mythologies as her favorite Cohen work.
Cohen’s written work wasn’t enough to sustain an artistic career and so he turned to music, which earned him wider recognition. He gained popularity with the song Hallelujahwhich was released on the album Various Positions in 1984 and has been covered by artists including kd lang, Rufus Wainwright and Allison Crowe.
In addition to Cohen’s greatest hits and popular books, there are plenty of lesser-known poems and songs that deserve to be remembered just as much as his hits. His work was often honest, relaxing and real, making it feel very intimate. To that end, it’s fitting that Cohen is honoured, as the League of Canadian Poets announced that this year’s theme for poetry month is intimacy.
We asked Canadians from across the arts to highlight some of their favorite poems or songs from Cohen that further build upon his already poignant legacy and that many may not know of.
GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKEformer poet laureate of Toronto (2012 to 2015), author and playwright
“There was one poem that always haunted me. The poem I’m referring to is For EJP. I was a graduate student of English before I realized who EJP was and that was Edwin John Pratt, Canada’s most lionized poet of the 1920s to the 1960s. Pratt, from Newfoundland, originally ended up as a professor of English at the University of Toronto at Victoria College and had a huge influence on English Canadian poetry of the mid-20th century.”
MATTI FRIEDMANauthor of Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai
“If It Be Your Willfrom Various Positions, the 1984 album that his American label thought wasn’t good enough to release. You can’t really describe the song as anything but a prayer – an expression of Cohen’s deeply religious soul, and of a personal dialogue he conducted with God throughout his life. Biblical echoes, gorgeous turns of phrase, a mesmerizing melody: The song really has everything. If It Be Your Will embodies the Leonard Cohen vantage point on life: in the gutter but looking up. It’s like floating down a lazy river at the waterpark in the middle of the night.”
KAIT PINDER, assistant professor of English at Acadia University
“I would recommend On Hearing a Name Long Unspoken. This poem is from Cohen’s 1964 collection, Flowers for Hitler, which deals with the trauma of the Holocaust and its legacy in 1960s Canada. In this book Cohen describes himself as a ‘front-line writer’ trying to understand totalitarianism, and the poems aim to critique his readers’ complacency in the violence of the world wars, anti-Semitism and colonialism. In On Hearing a Name Long Unspoken, Cohen asks his readers to consider how atrocities ‘that sound of other places’ also ‘happened here.’ He wants us to remember the lives of real people, to remember where people have found solidarity and protection, as well as how they have been oppressed because he is concerned that the stories that are told about the past will make it feel distant and unreal. ”
ANDREW MOSKERpresident and chief executive officer of the National Music Center
“The Partisan is a strong poem on its own, and an equally strong song. I love the universality and timelessness of the story, which could apply to any culture, as well as the blending of both English and French in the verses and choruses. Cohen’s music is deceptively simple – slow to medium tempos are fused with rich lyrical narratives that are emotionally deep. His ability to speak and sing interchangeably is unique to him and used to such great effect. It feels as though he is quietly whispering to you with no one else in the room when he’s performing. His music possesses the rare quality of having a timeless universality about it, striking right to the heart.”
“True Love Leaves No Tracesoff the Death of A Ladies’ Man album, is a song I come back to time and time again. It’s based on a poem from an earlier book that was called As The Mist Leaves No Scar and later turned that into a song with Phil Spector for this album, and it’s I think it’s one of the greatest. I think the thing that appealed to me when I first discovered his music was it seemed both deeply wise and also self-effacing. And that to be able to walk two separate, parallel paths like that was a uniquely Leonard Cohen skill.”
Cohen’s fearless and honest approach to writing earned him recognition when he never sought it. He was a writer and storyteller but not for the purpose of fame.
When Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, he left behind a collection of works that reaches far beyond Canada’s borders. Musicians including Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Neil Young had all taken inspiration from him in their own careers.
Cohen’s gravesite remains quiet, humble and without fanfare – an accurate representation of the man who mastered poetry and music for more than 60 years of his life.
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