Study Guide

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

In the 1960’s 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 1960’s 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 1980’s and early 1990’s 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...

(The entire section is 889 words.)

Leonard Cohen Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Leonard Norman Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal, Canada, to a middle-class Jewish clothing store owner, Nathan Cohen, and his wife, Marsha Kinitsky Cohen. His childhood was privileged, although he lost his father when he was just nine. Even at that age, the boy accepted death matter-of-factly, as an unfortunate part of life. He attended a Jewish high school and graduated from McGill University in 1955. He enrolled in Columbia University, but after a short while returned to Montreal to write a book (unpublished) and to read his poetry in coffeehouses.

He published his first poetry collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, when he was just twenty-one. It was republished as a facsimile edition in 2007 by Ecco Press. His second poetry collection, The Spice-Box of Earth, was well received and earned him notice among Canadian poets. He visited Cuba in 1961 and later traveled in Europe. He eventually settled on the isle of Hydra in Greece, in what he called “creative seclusion,” a stay broken up by returns to Montreal to renew his “neurotic affiliations.” In 1969, he met Suzanne Elrod (not the “Suzanne” of his poetry), with whom he had two children.

In the 1960’s, Cohen began to blend his poetry with music, releasing the album Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. The 1970’s were a productive time for Cohen, who became a popular singer-songwriter and continued to publish works of poetry, including The Energy of Slaves and Death of a Lady’s Man, a mixture of prose and poetry whose title was adapted from that of Death of a Ladies’ Man, an album released in 1977. In the 1980’s, he published Book of Mercy, which contained prayers, meditations, and psalms, and...

(The entire section is 718 words.)