Leonard Cohen: Profane Poet and Sacred Singer.


Honesty is key. It allows for the building of trust something we, as humans, can barely survive without. Honesty in art be it literature, music or film is the cornerstone of what makes art so powerful. We attach our deepest feelings to art that is honest. We let these artists into our lives and we share with them our hopes and our dreams, our fears and our nightmares. They may not know it but when we listen to their albums, read their books, or look at their paintings we feel closer to them. Their honesty allows us to be more honest with ourselves and the world around us. Trust is established and built upon. Over fourteen albums, ten collections of poetry, and two novels over a seven-decade career Leonard Cohen was one of the most honest artists of the twentieth Century.

Beside me as I type this is Cohen’s 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing. Both the title and the author’s name are stylised to look like they are written in crayon. The cover art displays an awkwardly drawn bird. One smudged yellow foot is shorter than the other. Its beak looks like a fountain pen nib. It also appears that the artist gave up on colouring in the small bird’s head. It’s a bad drawing but it’s an honest one. Almost every poem in Book of Longing is accompanied by one of Cohen’s drawings. Some, like the bird, are bad while others are intensely sexual while others still border on the incomprehensibly abstract. But they are all honest and that is what matters.

In 2006, a decade before his death, Leonard Cohen was old. One thing the book makes clear is that the ageing process leaves a great deal of time for contemplation. Our bones weaken, our skin sags and our muscles atrophy but, if we are lucky, our minds remain sharp. Cohen’s clearly did. Book of Longing took twenty years to get right. Poems from his time in Montreal, Mumbai, and Mt. Baldy in L. A are all collected within its pages. They are the writings of a man very much grounded in life and all the experiences it can offer from the sensual to the sad to the sacred.

I followed the course
From chaos to art
Desire the horse
Depression the cart

  • The Book of Longing

Much of what Cohen wrote dealt with the themes of love in all its forms as well as life and death. Book of Longing and his last album You Want It Darker are ten years apart but the themes in both stretch out across time to connect. Throughout a seventy-year career Cohen never seemed in any hurry to stop writing poems or songs. According to his son Adam Cohen he was writing in his final days right up to the fall that eventually killed him. However, the poems in Book of Longing deal greatly with ageing and its effects on a person’s mind, memories, and body. You Want It Darker seeks to find meaning in the inevitable. Everyone imagines something when considering the unavoidable spectre of death. Be it heaven, hell or just an infinite nothingness everyone likes to believe that when it all ends there’s an infinite epilogue. You Want It Darker is Leonard Cohen’s own personal epilogue.

In the lead up to the release of his last album Cohen gave a series of interviews. In one with The New Yorker he stated “I am ready to die.” He later retracted this when he said “I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever…” Even when facing something most people tend to scream and hide from Cohen addressed death with a sly, sardonic sense of humour. The album itself ruminates seriously and sardonically on death with the chorus of the first song You Want It Darker being the declaration of “I’m ready my Lord.” Just like David Bowie with his last album Blackstar Leonard Cohen knew exactly what he was doing. He left the stage with a sombre bow and a cheeky wink. Most people can only dream of leaving their earthly trappings behind in such a manner.

Hineni, Hineni
(Hebrew devotion to God)

  • You Want It Darker.

Cohen was honest about death just as he was honest about love. Love in Cohen’s poetry and songs took on many forms. From the sensual to the erotic to the tender. Throughout his life, Cohen was a noted lothario. A confirmed ladies’ man – with hundreds of long-term relationships, one-night stands and passionate affairs behind him – Leonard Cohen was honest about love’s trials and tribulations in his work. He was never unfair or demeaning. Even his most erotically charged words came with a sweet tenderness. His most famous partners were often regarded as his muses by the media and despite being accomplished women the media weren’t wrong either. Such classics like the romantic Suzanne, the sexually charged Hallelujah and the sombre So Long, Marianne. So Long, Marianne was inspired by Cohen’s girlfriend Marianne Ihlen. The two were together for most of the 1960s and when Ihlen died of leukaemia in July 2016 Cohen wrote her a letter that included the line: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” Whether Cohen knew how close he was remains irrelevant. The fact is he knew just like he always did.

need your hand
to pull me out
need your juices
on my snout

need to see
I never saw
your need for me
your longing raw

  • Need the Speed.

Leonard Cohen died on the seventh of November 2016. He had been suffering from cancer and had been mostly confined to his home the last few months of his life. His body was frail and confined to a chair or a bed a great deal of the time. Yet, his mind and his spirit were free. How else could he have written one of the most personal, spiritual, and sardonic albums of his career. For months, he sat with death resting just at his shoulder. But instead of begging and pleading like a great many do he turned to his old friend and said: “C’mon old pal, how about a little longer?” To which death replied: “You’ve treated me honestly down the years’ friend, it’s only right I do the same.” That’s what it’s like in my head anyway and I believe that anyone who could sing and write so frankly about death should be able to talk to it frankly as well. Cohen’s legacy is as honest as the stone tablets the ten commandments were carved on. It’s as truthful as the rock that forms mountains and at the end isn’t that we all want? An honest life.

I’m leavin’ the table,
I’m outta the game.

  • Leaving the Table.

Words: Andrew Carroll


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