Remembering a Canadian poet, songwriter

When Leonard Cohen said, “I’m your man,” it was as if he was speaking to every ear listening. The Canadian music and literary icon was everybody’s man.

News of Cohen’s passing at the age of 82 last week reverberated – media outlets, politicians, celebrities and fans immediately poured out lyrics and tributes of Cohen. In the days that followed his funeral service in Montreal on Nov. 10, stories continued to surface, speaking of Cohen’s influence, impact and legacy.

Fans may not have known Leonard Cohen personally, yet his death – much like his body of work – was experienced on a personal level, said Mark Rayner, who teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS).

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“I had listened to (Bob) Dylan. I had heard poetry sung before but not like Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen really spoke to me on a much deeper level. He writes in a way that’s compassionate and human and in a way that engages people,” Rayner said.

“He was my guiding influence in on how to think about love, and this whole thing with relationships and what this mystery is about. It’s his interest in love as this sort of central thesis. It’s what makes us redeemable as a species – the fact we have this capacity.”

Cohen was a go-to Canadian composer, even though he transcended his Canadian-ness, Rayner added. A citizen of the world, Cohen was accessible to everyone. It’s why so many have appropriated him. It’s why so many were personally affected by his death.

“When I was in Ireland the first time, I ended up on this little island called Cape Clear. There was only one pub. I spent all night there. There was a guitar getting passed around; there was a bottle of whiskey getting passed around. I was probably 22-23 and I played every single Leonard Cohen song I knew,” Rayner said.

“They were like, ‘That’s Canadian music?’ We had a lot of whiskey, and I played Famous Blue Raincoat and we all cried. That’s not me; that was Leonard Cohen.”

Indeed, Cohen was a citizen of the world. He was an ambassador, echoed English and Writing Studies professor David Bentley.

“He speaks to a lot of people on a very personal level. He speaks intimately to people in his songs. And I suppose that makes people feel as if he’s already inside them, that he’s part of them,” noted Bentley, best known for his foundational work in Canadian literature and the Canadian Poetry Project.

“When I was studying abroad in England, he was enormously popular in Europe – but he wasn’t that popular in Canada as far as I could tell at that time. But everyone in England knew about Leonard Cohen in the same way everyone knew about Pierre Trudeau. He was a kind of ambassador. He was a simply wonderful, renowned Canadian singer. One reveled in that.”

Bentley recalled his first foray into Cohen’s work, The Spice-Box of Earth, an early collection of poetry.

“I was an undergrad at the University of Victoria where there was no Canadian literature being taught at all. Hardly any Canadians in the department. One really had to forage for oneself to find Canadian writing. I found The Spice-Box of Earth and it just blew me away. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is being written here in Canada by a young Canadian poet.’ I found it beautiful and playful at the same time and it spoke to me,” he said.

One particular poem, For Anne, still echoes for Bentley and is worthy of note for its finesse and distinct Cohen style.

With Annie gone,
whose eyes to compare
with the morning sun?

Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone.

“This is only six lines long and yet it evokes the Petrarchan convention of comparing women’s eyes to the sun. But it’s also undercutting it at the same time. It speaks to the way poetry is written. What’s not to love? That’s one of many of his poems that stuck with me,” Bentley noted.

“He’s calling the reader, playing with the reader; the reader doesn’t know whether to take this seriously or whether it’s a joke. He reveled in being that enigmatic, mystical person,” he continued.

“There was a move from playfulness to sombreness. His last album was almost elegiac, singing about his own departure, like a swan song. But I don’t think the playfulness ever disappeared. And the somberness was there, at the beginning, too.”

When the world discovered Hallelujah, at first an obscure song that almost didn’t see the light of day, it was heartening, added Norma Coates, who teaches in both FIMS and The Don Wright Faculty of Music. It’s since been covered by every hackneyed artist. But really, it is the first modern hymn, she said.

“His work was just so atmospheric and honest. Honestly, I think the wrong North American got the Nobel Prize. When you dig into Cohen’s words, they really are poetry. They resonate. Cohen’s work is more human than Dylan’s – it is so much easier to identify with. His songs were confessional and very personal and easy to relate to,” Coates said.

“Whenever a musical figure dies, we listen to their music a lot right after. As an American, I’m disheartened. His music is just perfect for this moment. It seems to be the right tone for this moment,” she added.

“My first big intro to him was (the soundtrack for the film) McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I exhort anyone who hasn’t seen it to do so. It’s a sad but simple tale with Cohen’s music.”