Authors: Leonard Cohen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Canadian-born songwriter, poet, and folksinger

September 21, 1934

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

November 10, 2016

Los Angeles, California

Biography

Leonard Norman Cohen, known as a poet, songwriter, and performer, was born in Montreal in 1934, the son of Nathan Cohen and Marsha Klinitsky Cohen. His father was a clothing manufacturer, and the Cohens lived in the upper-middle-class community of Westmount. Following his graduation from McGill University in 1955, Cohen moved to New York City to pursue graduate studies at Columbia University. He soon returned to Montreal, however, where he began to give public readings. Cohen’s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, the first volume in the McGill Poetry Series, was published in 1956. This small volume brought a new and important voice to the Canadian literary scene. As the title suggests, the poems interweave Christian, Jewish, and classical mythologies.

An older Canadian poet, Irving Layton, was a mentor and friend to Cohen, but Cohen’s most significant early influence was the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Cohen approached poetry differently than his contemporary Canadian writers did, using the worlds of religion and mythology as his aesthetic foundation. Many poems throughout his career have centered on characters involved in personal quests for self-understanding, often self-destructing in the process. Others address the joys, problems, and pain of sexuality and intimate relationships.

Leonard Cohen

ext-link-type="db-image"

xlink:href="cwa-14519810002012-150691.jpg"/>

By Rama (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Canadian singer Leonard Cohen in Trouville-sur-Mer (Normandy, France) on January 26, 1988.

ext-link-type="db-image"

xlink:href="cwa-14519810002012-150692.jpg"/>

By Roland Godefroy (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s Cohen began traveling, first visiting Cuba in 1961, then proceeding to Europe. He lived for a time in London, then traveled to the small Greek island of Hydra. He loved the island immediately, and he bought an inexpensive house there. He spent much of the early 1960s living on Hydra. Later in the decade he also lived in New York and near Nashville, Tennessee, regularly returning to Montreal and, when possible, Hydra, for visits. Ever restless, Cohen has lived a number of places; in the 1980s and early 1990s he largely divided his time between Los Angeles and Montreal.

In 1961, with the publication of The Spice-Box of Earth, Cohen had his first popular success. He effectively captured the prevailing attitude of the time, and The Spice-Box of Earth is considered by many to be one of the most popular collections of poetry published by a Canadian author. The popular and critical success of The Spice-Box of Earth brought international attention to Cohen, and he received a grant to write the novel that became The Favorite Game, telling the story of a Canadian Jewish boy who comes to terms with his drive to become a poet.

Cohen’s poetic tone changed with Flowers for Hitler in 1964; a number of the volume’s poems have a harsh and sarcastic tone. This collection expanded on Cohen’s theme of disillusionment brought about by individuals’ losing whatever innocence they might have had, a concept continued in Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers. Cohen’s next book of poetry was not well received, but Selected Poems, 1956–1968, returned him to both popular and critical appreciation. It was translated into a dozen languages and sold impressively in the United States. For this collection he was named a recipient of the Canadian Governor General’s Award; he declined the award, creating some ill will.

Cohen continued to publish poetry—the 1984 volume Book of Mercy is particularly noteworthy—but by the time Selected Poems appeared, his life was already changing significantly—he was becoming better known as a songwriter and singer than as a poet. He had written songs for many years, and in 1966 and 1967 Judy Collins recorded five of them. Cohen’s literary career was eclipsed by his new role as recording artist and performer. Cohen’s audience has always been limited in size, but he became an influential figure in the worlds of folk, rock, and country music. Many songwriters and performers have expressed their admiration for Cohen’s work. Cohen’s second album, Songs from a Room (1969), and the much later I’m Your Man (1988) are probably his most popular albums. Several of his songs have been covered by other artists, including “Suzanne,”“Bird on the Wire” (sometimes recorded by others as “Bird on a Wire”) “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Hallelujah.” He released several albums and CDs in the 2000s and 2010s, including Ten New Songs (2001), Dear Heather (2004), Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014), and You Want It Darker (2016), as well as the three-CD, one-DVD set, Live in Dublin (2014).

At various times Cohen’s struggles with his personal demons led him to use drugs, prescription and otherwise, to attempt to overcome depression, but they also turned him in more positive directions. He first encountered Zen Buddhism in the late 1960s, and throughout the ensuing decades he would return to it for solace. He studied with a teacher named Roshi and in the mid-1990s spent time living at a Zen monastery at Mt. Baldy, near Los Angeles.

Cohen’s relationships with, and feelings about, women have been central to both his life and his work. He met Marianne Ihlen on Hydra, and they were together from the early 1960s until 1968. He then began a relationship with Suzanne Elrod (not the “Suzanne” of his well-known song), and they had two children, Adam Cohen and Lorca Cohen. By the mid-1970s things were going badly, and Cohen and Elrod split up in 1978. Dominique Issermann was with him in the 1980s and helped pull him from depression. In the early 1990s he was involved with actor Rebecca DeMornay.

The Canadian arts community eventually forgave Cohen his refusal of the 1968 Governor General’s Award, and in 1991 he was both inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame (roughly the Canadian equivalent of receiving a Grammy achievement award) and named an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 1993 he was named a recipient of a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, which he accepted. In 2008 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Cohen died on November 10, 2016, at his home in Los Angeles, California. He was eighty-two years old.

Author Works Poetry: Let Us Compare Mythologies, 1956 The Spice-Box of Earth, 1961 Flowers for Hitler, 1964 Parasites of Heaven, 1966 Selected Poems, 1956–1968, 1968 The Energy of Slaves, 1972 Credo, 1977 Death of a Lady’s Man, 1978 Book of Mercy, 1984 Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, 1993 Dance Me to the End of Love, 1995 God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot, 2000 Book of Longing, 2006 Long Fiction: The Favorite Game, 1963 Beautiful Losers, 1966 Nonfiction: Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, 2014 (Jeff Burger, editor) Bibliography Devlin, Jim. In Every Style of Passion: The Works of Leonard Cohen. London: Omnibus, 1996. A biography and critical guide. Gehr, Richard. “Leonard Cohen Dead at 82.” Rolling Stone, 10 Nov. 2016, ww.rollingstone.com/music/news/leonard-cohen-dead-at-82-w449792. Accessed 5 May. 2017. Cohen’s obituary. Hutcheon, Linda. Leonard Cohen and His Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1992. Gives a brief biography, an analysis of artistic influences, an assessment of his work, an overview of critical response, and a bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. Nadel, Ira B. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. New York: Pantheon, 1996. A biography that pays more attention to Cohen’s literary work than most music-based studies. Rasky, Harry. The Song of Leonard Cohen: Portrait of a Poet, a Friend, and a Film. New York: Mosaic Press, 2001. A memoir of making a documentary film on Cohen’s 1979 tour. Rohter, Larry. “Leonard Cohen, Epic and Enigmatic Songwriter, Is Dead at 82.” The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/obituaries/leonard-cohen-dies.html. Accessed 5 May. 2017. Cohen’s obituary. Scobie, Stephen, ed. Intricate Preparations: Writing Leonard Cohen. Toronto: ECW Press, 2000. A collection of articles on Cohen’s poetry. Sheppard, David. Leonard Cohen. New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 2000. A short biography that gives more weight to Cohen’s musical career, but does offer an assessment of his poetry as well. Siemerling, Winfried. Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Works of Leonard Cohen, Herbert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Borssard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Considers Cohen as a novelist.

Categories: Authors