Leonard Cohen: Poet, Novelist, Musician
PostedFebruary 20, 2014
Leonard Cohen, the critically acclaimed and widely popular singer/songwriter of such hits as "Suzanne," "Hallelujah," and "Ain’t No Cure for Love," first entered the artistic arena as a teenager through poetry. At McGill University, in his hometown of Montreal, Cohen discovered a local "boho-literary" haven for young poets, and there he penned his first poems.
It didn't take long for Cohen's talent to be recognized. In 1956, while still an undergraduate, his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published by the McGill Poetry Series. It was followed by a well-received second volume of poems in 1961, The Spice Box of Earth. However, just as Cohen's poetry began gaining attention in international literary circles, he was already changing genres. In the midst of work on a third book of poems—1964’s contentious Flowers for Hitler—the poet turned his attention to writing novels.
His seven-year stay on the Greek island of Hydra resulted in two celebrated novels: The Favorite Game, a portrait of a young Jewish artist in Montreal; and Beautiful Losers, which was so provocative and original that it earned Cohen an unabashed comparison to James Joyce by a Boston Globe reviewer. A little more than a year after the publication of Beautiful Losers, Cohen once again switched genres, this time turning to music. Songs of Leonard Cohen, his first album, was released in 1967, containing the classic "Suzanne."
Cohen followed his first record with several more, releasing six albums (including a greatest hits collection) within ten years. His music effectively catapulted him into the mainstream through the notable albums Songs of Love and Hate, Death of a Ladies’ Man, and I’m Your Man. However, what continues to be most compelling about his prolific discography is that the lyric poignancy that drives his music also drives his poetry and prose—Death of a Ladies' Man, after all, is also the title of one of Cohen's books of poetry.
The successful blending of poetry, fiction, and music is made most clear in Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, published in 1993, which gathered more than two hundred of Cohen's poems (some previously unpublished), several novel excerpts, and almost sixty song lyrics.
While it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines. After nine books of poetry and more than fifteen music releases, Cohen seamlessly reinstituted that ancient notion of the lyric as belonging to both verse and song.