Leonard Cohen’s genius: poem, lyric and song

Reuben Brown 26 February 2020


When Bob Dylan became the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 some hailed the move as innovative, others lamented it as a nostalgic nod to a man past his musical and poetic prime. I have no qualms about giving the award to a figure best known for their music rather than their poetry; but they gave it to the wrong one. It was Leonard Cohen, more so than anyone in the last century (including Dylan), who broke down the barriers between the two art forms.

Poetry and music are not one and the same. Fans and critics are often too quick to laude a songwriter’s work as poetry rather than astute and clever song writing. Contemporary songs are set in a constricted space, usually between three to four minutes. A poet can convey deep emotion across several pages or just a few lines. Meaning is also core to poetry, which although not absent in all music is not central to its creation. Cohen recognized this subtle difference between poetry and music, articulating that there ‘is a certain density of feeling that a poem can support that a song can’t; as a lyric has to move more swiftly from heart to heart’.

That being said music can and should be poetic. When awarding Dylan the award, the Chief of the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature, Sara Davis, pointed out that ‘if you look back 2,500 years or so, you discover Homer and Sappho, they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, that were meant to be performed, often with instruments’. Similarly, in medieval Europe a ‘lyric’ was simply a poem which was often set to music.

Cohen was a poet before he was a musician. As a student at McGill University he won the Chester MacNagathen Literary Competition for the poems “Sparrows” and “Thoughts of a Landsman”. In the early 1960s Cohen published two collections of poetry: ‘Spice Box of the Earth’ and ‘Flowers for Hitler’. He also ventured into the novel form with The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). In their review of Beautiful Losers, the Boston Globe declared that “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name Cohen”.

It wasn’t until 1967, under the encouragement of Judy Collins, that Cohen decided to turn his hand at music and performing. He originally wrote Suzanne’(now one of his most popular songs) as a poem. Collins helped convince Leonard that his writing was not just poetry but also music. She successfully recorded Suzanne in 1966 and he released it as his debut single a year later. Suzanne, perhaps more than any other of Leonard Cohen’s songs, showcases his ability to combine music and poetry in order to profoundly convey complex ideas, emotions and narratives:

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them

But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open

Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

Suzanne’s brilliance is that the melodies and rhythm of the music do not dilute the meaning or power of the words. They are just as beautifully read as they are heard. The song describes Cohen’s spiritual connection with his friend’s then girlfriend Suzanne Verdal but also deals with his own struggles with faith, religion and depression. In 2011 he was awarded the Prince Asturias Award for literature and the Panel rightly contended that Cohen had created “imagery in which poetry and music are melded into an unchanging worth” and his poems as well as songs explored “with depth and beauty the major questions concerning humanity.”

Central to Cohen’s ability as a songwriter and a poet is his emotional authenticity. The depth of meaning in his music is far superior to that of the majority of song writers. In his acceptance speech for the Asturias Award Cohen warned that a writer “should never lament casually and that if one is to express the inevitable defeat that awaits us all it must be done in the strict confines of dignity and beauty”. This is one of the reasons why Cohen, unlike Dylan, didn’t feel the need to radically innovate either lyrically or thematically as his career progressed.

Cohen, far more than Dylan, practiced and mastered song writing as a form of literary skill. In a now famous meeting between the two in Paris, Dylan asked his fellow songwriter how long it had taken him to write ‘Hallelujah’. Embarrassed that it had taken him seven years, Cohen lied saying that it had only taken him ‘a couple’. He then asked Dylan how long it had taken him to write one of his favourite songs of his ‘I and I’; Dylan replied ‘fourteen minutes’. The length of time it takes a writer to write is not necessarily a sign of his or her skill; but the story does provide an insight into Cohen’s painstaking attention to detail, something his songs have in common with the best poetry.

Leonard Cohen probably wouldn’t have liked this article; he was deeply conflicted about accepting awards for poetry. He protested that poetry is an art form over which nobody can command. He felt like a ‘charlatan’ accepting a prize for such a subject. I would tend to agree, but if the Nobel Prize was going to be awarded to a songwriter, then the late Leonard Cohen should have been at the top of the list.