|LOUIS DUDEK WAS COHEN'S EARLY MENTOR, AND MY FRIEND|
There was never a time when I did not know about Leonard Cohen. I was born in 1966, and he had been famous (in Canada) as one of our best poets even before then; by 1967, he was world-famous, arguably Canada's most-beloved figure ever on the world stage, and he kept on being so, up until his death yesterday. My mother was a huge fan, and his music and poetry (less so his prose) was always in my childhood.
Since I was born in Montreal (as was he), and shared his passion for debating and writing (less so, strumming guitars), he was never far from my thought - indeed, as a teenager trying to write poetry, and wondering if such a role was feasible for a Montrealer, Cohen showed the way (along with Irving Layton, and Louis Dudek, his mentors, later both mine as well). Mostly, like most Canadian poets, my affections were of the love-hate kind. He was the absentee father, who rarely did or said anything to promote younger poets from his homeland, even while laying the ground for their muted successes - no one was as famous as he, and his very presence always somewhat invalidated the idea that "lousy little poets" could in fact compete with a major recording artist's career of movie star girlfriends, and homes in LA.
But Cohen was a driving influence in my life - I honeymooned on Hydra, and I lived for a decade around the corner from his apartment (flat) in the same district of Montreal, off The Main. I ate in the same delis, and drank in some of the same clubs and cafes. I knew many of his closest friends, and some of his lovers; oddly, I never met the man myself. I could have on many occasions, but somehow never did. He was often at the same restaurants or parties within minutes of my arriving, just disappeared.
I did write to him and receive a kind message once; and I also published some of his poetry. At various times, in various reviews I wrote, I adopted, suitably, various positions on his work and career, and ultimate canonical status. It is my opinion that Montreal Jewish Anglophone modernist poetry and prose is the greatest single contribution Canada has ever made to global culture - starting with AM Klein, who is Canada's major English-language poet. Cohen was influenced by this rich, intelligent tradition, and took it to heart; he never sought to move beyond its tents or styles, albeit later in song.
Cohen is a master lyricist - and a master of the lyric poem. He was always a neo-formalist, fond of rhyme and the well-turned couplet and quatrain. He clearly was more influenced by Blake and Auden, than by Eliot. Although his fusion of sexual and religious energies is akin to that of Dylan Thomas, or Donne, his language was always lucid. He was rarely if ever complex; and he was witty; you suspect he read Larkin.
Cohen is not a lightweight poet - he is one of Canada's best. But as a singer-songwriter, infused with an awareness of poetry, he is second only to Bob Dylan, and, with Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Morrissey, Elvis Costello, and Springsteen and John Lennon, one of a handful of poet-writers to charm their way into the great tower of song. However, his mastery of a personal style in terms of dress, simple production values, and focus on wisdom and wry satire, made him as a sum larger than his parts - and he became Canada's finest export.
Cohen is universally admired by younger musicians, and by many poets. Only in certain grumpy and austerely fastidious poetry circles, in arrogant academia, have I encountered limited love for the man's work.
I suspect Cohen was a charming, funny, and pleasant man to work with - but he was not a creator of movements. It may be he was often humbled, depressive, and aware of his many intellectual limitations, and so refrained from doing more. I wonder if his being by-passed by the Nobel was a final cruel blow. It is arguable he was the more literary singer-songwriter, and the poetic equal of Bob Dylan.
The death of Cohen is a tragedy for the cultured world that could always look forward to another bleak, deeply-humane and humorous take on the human condition. His life was stylish, enigmatic, nomadic, and somewhat mysterious. Cohen was both an everyman, and an elitist. This was his ultimate recipe - you could imagine seeing him in the café near you - but you also knew his dining companion would be more intriguing than yours... I once saw him dining with the PM of Canada, Trudeau senior... himself aware of life's bounty.
His songs will last, because they are rather artfully produced to sound timelessly minimalist. His message was barely hopeful, but limned with the need for a spiritual post-carnal dialogue, and this sort of secular drive for transcendence in a breaking world, gnostic and subdued, may be the only post-Holocaust sublime he felt was possible. We can surely use such hopeful pessimism more than ever today.