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...
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