Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 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, and “Bird on a Wire” is one of his songs most recorded by others.
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 1960’s, and throughout the ensuing decades he would return to it for solace. He studied with a teacher named Roshi and in the mid-1990’s 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 1960’s until 1968. He then began a relationship with Suzanne Elrod (not the “Suzanne” of his well-known song), and they had two children, Adam and Lorca. By the mid-1970’s things were going badly, and Cohen and Elrod split up in 1978. Dominique Issermann was with him in the 1980’s and helped pull him from depression. In the early 1990’s he was involved with actress 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. This time he accepted.