David McCooey, Deakin University
Just weeks after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, that other great literary songwriter, Leonard Cohen, has died at the age of 82. When Dylan’s Nobel was announced, a number of commentators claimed that Cohen would have been a more appropriate choice. One can see why.
Cohen’s long career has shown him to be a master songwriter, producing wry, literate, and melancholy lyrics for 50 years. Cohen also began in the literary field, producing four collections of poems and two novels before his debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
In fact, Cohen’s literary career made him an unlikely success in the music scene of the late 1960s, as did other factors. He had an haute-bourgeois background (being the son of a well-off, well-connected Jewish business family in Montreal); he had wanted as a child to attend a military school; and he had a BA from McGill, and had begun a higher degree at Columbia (the university, not the record label).
Most of all, he was not young. When Songs of Leonard Cohen was released, Cohen was 33 years old, having spent the previous decade building, with mixed success, his literary reputation.
While Cohen continued sporadically to produce books after 1967, his musical career is what he is best known for. But there is a notable continuity between Cohen’s poems and his song lyrics.
The themes, tone, and style of Cohen’s songs were already largely in place in his early poetry. His poems, like his songs, eschew complexity when it comes to form and word choice, and they focus — like the songs — on eroticism, death and loss, and redemption.