How we remember Leonard Cohen
Memorializing the artist who resists enshrinement
The death of Leonard Cohen was not a tragedy. He was eighty-two and loved ones were near. He’d been working at a gallop, producing three albums over his last six years—three of his finest, as it happens. He’d recovered from financial ruin by touring the world, selling out colossal venues, performing long enough some nights to rival Bruce Springsteen. And, as always, he’d been writing—“blackening pages,” exercising the vocation that had occupied him since his youth and won him accolades since the publication of his first book of poetry in 1956. So no tragedy, yet Cohen’s fall through the mirror was nonetheless devastating to many. Perhaps because Cohen’s work possesses a highly particular ability to mirror the experience of those who respond to it. One could argue that much of Cohen’s art was self-absorbed, yet it nevertheless seemed to speak directly, intimately, to us, as though by examining his own inner life with such unflinching rigour he’d gained access to some collective psychic well.
Perhaps the poignancy of Cohen’s death was heightened by its lateness, by the duration of its anticipation. That this artist who had long held mortality, apocalypse, and suicide as muses should finally surrender to the void generates a wonder that enhances grief. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have commented on the sepulchral arc of Cohen’s final record, You Want It Darker—released less than three weeks before his death—as though he hadn’t been reporting from astride the grave for much of his sixty-year career.
This same twilight tenor permeates The Flame, a volume of previously unpublished or uncollected poems, as well as lyrics, illustrations, material gathered from his vast trove of notebooks, a brief electronic correspondence with poet Peter Dale Scott, and a transcript of Cohen’s acceptance address for the Prince of Asturias Award. There is more than enough excellent work in this book to justify one’s interest, but upon closer inspection, The Flame, with its smorgasbord construction, inevitably begins to resemble a memorial, particularly when regarded as adjacent to a wave of recent enterprises offering various positions on Cohen’s legacy. Cohen died in November 2016, and the intervening years have seen the unveiling of projects such as the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s expansive exhibit Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything and Art of Time Ensemble’s concert series A Singer Must Die. Memorializing Cohen is a prospect both complicated and fraught, more so than in most cases, given that everything in Cohen resists enshrinement—he was only ever valedictorian in jest. Can artistic integrity be maintained in a mausoleum? How does a publisher or curator render posthumous material as though the subject were still alive, and keep the vitality of the existing work from being sodden by sentiment?
Though the poems in The Flame are only intermittently dated, it’s clear that many were developed over several decades. Some of the themes are Cohen-perennial: a predilection for love in retrospect or at long distance; the struggle to balance the dictates of art, faith, and desire; freedom as aspirational rather than realizable. In “Winter on Mount Baldy,” Cohen describes a miserable monastic existence that no one present is willing to abandon. In “Crazy to Love You,” he writes of “The gates of commitment unwired/ And nobody trying to leave.” In “Dimensions of Love” he writes, “longing kneels down/ like a calf/ in the straw of amazement.”
Cohen’s poems pay respect to beloved artists, such as fellow art-music troubadour Tom Waits, flamenco singer Enrique Morente, and Cohen’s hero, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Elsewhere Cohen offers a playful takedown of Kanye West and “the great bogus shift of bullshit culture,” and pays homage to an anti-depressant. He writes of getting older, claiming to feel “curiously peaceful/ behind the apparent turbulence/ of litigation and advancing age.” He repeatedly expresses the desire to leave his house in order and muster strength in the face of fading health: “I pray for courage/ At the end/ To see death coming/ As a friend.”
The prose poem “The Indian Girl,” dating back to 1980—1978’s Death of a Lady’s Man is also heavy on prose poems—is one of The Flame’s strongest pieces. Its narrative, describing a secret tryst that preceded an untimely death, is rich in incident and captivating detail: desire can be blessedly impersonal and a kettle can converse with a canary. The poem, presumably autobiographical, prompts one to wonder if Cohen shouldn’t have considered writing a memoir. No doubt he would have said that his entire body of work constitutes all the memoir he had in him.
Wonderful as many of its poems are, however, The Flame prompts questions regarding the routes by which Cohen’s work reached its fullest fruition. In his foreword, Adam Cohen suggests that writing was his father’s only solace, “his truest purpose.” But writing to what end? The Flame also contains a great deal of material that, like so many of Cohen’s poems, seems to have been apprehended en route to becoming song. Was music the final draft of most of Cohen’s poetry? As far back as 1970, Michael Ondaatje claimed in his monograph Leonard Cohen that “even [Cohen’s] earliest poetry contained the basic structures and the qualities of song.” So many of the poems, the later ones especially, favour short lines, rhyme, and meter. So many are rhythmically propulsive, with stanzas beginning with the word “and.”
The tonal differences between the poems and the songs can be striking, so let us compare mythologies. Cohen’s poems can be profoundly cruel, sordid, and defeated, with no grotesque aspect of the self left un-scrutinized; the collections can be at times excessive, even maximalist or tautological in their thematic intensity—and I’m thinking of two of Cohen’s very best collections, Death of a Lady’s Man, with its prism-like verso commentaries and steady refrain of marital disintegration and rage, and 1984’s Book of Mercy, with its myriad petitions to a creator. The songs, by contrast, are often spare, elegant, and exhilaratingly precise in word choice and melodic structure. The songs are riddled with darkness, yet they are most often uplifting in their grace and warmth, their humbleness and impassioned delivery, their playful line-readings and sense of devotion. It is not for nothing that Cohen’s later albums came to embrace rhythm and blues and gospel above all other genres: he aspired to spiritual communion through groove and vernacular, and I never witnessed a concert in which this communion wasn’t achieved.
In Cohen’s late work we repeatedly see song-craft eclipse poetry, largely through painstaking reduction, such as can be heard in the delicate spacing of vocals and guitar in “Crazy to Love You.” Like Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” “Banjo” imbues a single enigmatic object with siren-like doom: “It’s coming for me darling/ No matter where I go.” Some lyrics to “Born in Chains”—“I was alone on the road/ Your Love was so confusing”—border on cliché, yet Cohen’s cadences, with their cooed vowels, elevate them to something prayerful. Likewise, “On the Level” features throwaway lines—“They ought to give my heart a medal/ For letting go of you”—that become utterly stirring in the context of a soul ballad.
Cohen and editors Robert Faggen and Alexandra Pleshoyano were right to include lyrics in The Flame. Lyrics to familiar songs tend to look dead on the page without the architecture of music. Yet Cohen’s printed lyrics create fresh sparks. One can hear his voice in every reading, yet new meanings emerge by taking time with these words that the sweep of music doesn’t allow.
That said, not everything contained in these pages burns so brightly. The volume’s overall power is diminished by its too-delicate treatment of the deceased’s effects: In a culture increasingly saturated with declarations of grief over the loss of popular icons, this sort of posthumous publication could do with a ruthless edit.
Which brings us to The Flame’s final two major components: the illustrations—what Cohen himself has referred to as “Acceptable Decorations”—and the notebooks. Cohen’s illustrations, which also decorated his previous volume, 2006’s Book of Longing, are mostly self-portraits and aren’t objectionable per se; rather, they are an unnecessary supplement diluting the impact of the text by occupying valuable white space. Blank regions can feel vital to a poem’s visual power and are in keeping with the fetish for the Spartan frequently declared by Cohen, that long-time denizen of anonymous hotel rooms. As he writes in The Flame’s “Homage to Rosengarten,” “I love the bare walls.”
The notebook selections, alas, are also a disservice to the author, who, according to the editorial note, signed off on the premise but was not involved in the final selection. In Book of Longing, Cohen—who could go as long as nine years without releasing a studio album—wrote, “We don’t need Art that often…A little goes a long way.” This advice is not heeded here. Presented as a hundred-page-long monolithic scroll, the notebook selections largely read as meandering and formless. I’m as eager as anyone to discover diamonds in the rough, but no one needs verses like “I never got the girl I wanted/ did you, Jack?” or “To lead a private life/ like a pirate with his knife.” Nor is any reader enriched by encountering Cohen’s attempt to rhyme “Harvard” with “garbage.” It is in no way disheartening to discover that these verses wound up in Cohen’s notebooks—this is what notebooks are for—but they seem very distant from a state fit for publication.
The curatorial approach of Robert Faggen and Alexandra Pleshoyano appears to suffer from the perils of reverence. There are many repeated lines in the reproduced notebook poem-fragments, but they sometimes read as the work of a poet attempting to get at something through repetition, rather than that of a poet intending to use repetition as a device. Faggen and Pleshoyano’s editorial note explains that Cohen’s notebooks feature numerous revisions yet do not make explicit which version was Cohen’s preference. Thus we are subjected to countless lines in which an alternate word is placed in parentheses. Could Faggen and Pleshoyano not have made a call between “slave” and “work”? “My” and “the”? “Her” and “you”? In some cases, they explain, a word was simply illegible—so why bother reproducing it at all?
I don’t want to lay blame on the editors exclusively; Cohen, after all, was a complicated craftsman: yes, he spent years composing “Hallelujah,” but as far back as 1964’s Flowers for Hitler he began to show an intermittent disregard for economy in his poetry that rarely affected his music. It is because of my admiration for his work, whose peaks are so frequently the products of a minimalist aesthetic, that I demand less, not more.
There are, of course, nuggets in the notebooks, stray phrases that stop you in your tracks, sometimes with allusions to events far beyond the purview of Cohen’s direct experience.
I agree, it’s getting worse
and they’re stacking up the chairs
that’s what comes from choosing life
above the enemies’ prayers
Or this, the notebook section’s closing stanza:
Didn’t he live
on an island in
the Mediterranean sea
with a mandate from God
to enter the dark
The perils of reverence: this is not, to be sure, a new element in the Cohen cosmology. Every Cohen fan has encountered umpteen numbingly tasteful renditions of “Hallelujah.” For every Roberta Flack doing “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” there are legions of Billy Joels doing “Light as the Breeze.” Cohen’s art is a renewable resource; what it requires from those seeking to interpret it is ownership, ingestion, individual understanding.
There was, thankfully, more Flack and Joel in the tellingly titled A Singer Must Die, three nights of tributes to Cohen, staged last February at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre by the Toronto-based group Art of Time Ensemble, and featuring a slate of poets, writers, and musicians. Lou Reed also received the deluxe homage from Art of Time after his death—must a singer actually die to get such an engaged reading of his work? The evenings featured stories, poems and, of course, songs, their character often departing radically from Cohen’s recordings. The shows seemed to value ephemerality over posterity: the best performers, most especially Gregory Hoskins, played the room, not the archive. The performance took Cohen’s universal, metaphor-driven sentiments regarding the exhausting effects of negotiating love and made them entirely personal. Rather than merely sing Cohen’s praises, some participants chose to speak of Cohen’s vulnerabilities, such as Barbara Gowdy, who recalled the day she interviewed Cohen—and the evening she declined an invitation to hook up.
There were, likewise, moments of brilliant reinvention in A Crack in Everything, the sprawling exhibition, taking up much of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, which closed earlier this year. The show featured the work of dozens of artists from diverse disciplines, so there was far too much, but the highlights, all of them installations, were truly remarkable, from the modest but lovely Ear on a Worm, Tacita Dean’s 16-mm film depicting a bird on a wire, to the delightfully interactive Poetry Machine, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s customized Wurlitzer, programmed so that each key plays a different Cohen recitation.
MAC’s pièce de résistance, though, was Candice Breitz’s I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen). The first room of the installation featured a large screen on which the Shaar Hashomayim men’s choir sings all the back-up vocal parts to Cohen’s 1988 album of the same name; the second features a circle of eighteen tall, isolated screens, each featuring a male Cohen fan of a certain vintage—Cohen was fifty-four at the time of I’m Your Man’s release, and I’m guessing Breitz’s subjects are all that age or older—singing the lead parts from I’m Your Man in time with the choir. No musical accompaniment is heard, only the fascinating, humorous and very beautiful intermingling of crisp choral work and amateurs sharing their heartfelt living-room renditions of songs that clearly resonate with them on a longstanding personal level. In keeping with Cohen’s singular capacity to elicit deep identification, Breitz’s brilliant construction dissolves the frontiers between private and public reception: this is about how an artist’s work actually lives in the world, even—or especially—in his absence.
The most eloquent of all posthumous Cohen considerations—the farthest thing from The Flame’s unessential notebooks—comes from filmmaker James Benning and is a kind of situating of memory itself. Benning’s film is forty-five minutes long and composed of a single fixed shot of a vast rural landscape. Occupying the middle distance are a pair of oil drums, a jerry can, tires. In one foreground corner a patch of tall yellowed grass makes for an impressionistic cloud. Telephone poles recede toward a haze-obscured sierra. Unseen aircraft and birds create an undulating drone. Time passes. Occasionally a rustling sound alerts us to a presence behind the camera—he’s waiting for the miracle. And then it happens: the sun sets in three seconds and the night lasts two minutes. Screams of astonishment echo from a distant campground. The eclipse ends, calm resumes, and then comes the film’s sole non-diegetic element: we hear Cohen’s “Love Itself” play out in its entirely.
L. Cohen, which screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, was made in memory of its namesake, but it honours the stark integrity of Cohen’s work with no concessions to the aggrandizement of mourning. The film is a silent poem, a document of remembering in real time. We are granted languor to truly notice things, enough to feel boredom and amazement, fleetingness and the possibility of some understanding we didn’t possess before. In the lyrics to “Love Itself,” Cohen puts it best: “In streams of light I clearly saw/ The dust you seldom see/ Out of which the nameless makes/ A name for one like me.”