LEONARD COHEN 1934-2016
“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash”
I have written too many obituaries. Eulogies for people I loved. The last grace and compliment as we say goodbye. When a life touches yours it’s not just that it bruises the soul. It’s a debt and these must be repaid, no matter how poorly.
For me, Leonard Cohen was an inspiration, a guide, a mentor and a friend I never met. That, in brief, is what poets are. They speak for us because they speak to us. Poets trade in common truths. This is how they reach us. And so, poets unite us through our shared humanity.
Cohen is a profoundly spiritual poet by which I mean not that he was some fatuous hippy or a 20th century mystic rather that, in a world increasingly superficial and secular where a cynical dismissal of the sacred is easily fashionable , he dared to write and sing of the eternal and the carnal together. He explored and praised our frailty. He examined the darkness into which we fall and the ladders by which we can climb out.
While the pop and folk singers of the sixties were warbling about love and freedom, Leonard Cohen’s rasping voice talked of the flawed human effort to grasp a state of grace that must elude us, “I have tried, in my way, to be free”. And that effort put clearly in its place by being shared with drunks!
Always dapper, everyone who knew him testified to a man who was courteous, self effacing and generous. He chose to live in a drab part of New York and later in a modest apartment above his daughter and grandchild. He regretted admitting that Chelsea Hotel No.2 was written about Janis Joplin. Doing so was ungentlemanly.
I saw him perform some years ago on the world tour that brought him out of self imposed exile. He was magnificent. No theatrics, just a band of magnificent musicians he was clearly proud to be working with and who felt the same way. Every song was presented as if it were as new and as important as when he first wrote it.
Leonard Cohen was unquestionably one of the greatest modern poets sitting comfortably alongside Eliot or Auden. He wrote the most covered song in Halleluiah and, less often recognised, was the author of two novels. The autobiographical “Favourite Game” brought immediate recognition but it was indicative that he chose to start performing his poetry as song in order to make up for the lack of income it brought in book form. Few, if any, ‘stars’ are that honest and modest about how they came to our attention.
Of the many poets who have accompanied me through the decades of my life, the two I turn to most often were Leonard Cohen and Dylan Thomas. Not surprising then that they should have written to examine our meaning and our worth, that their work should be disparaged in their lifetime and that they should have exposed the inspiration that drives all human enterprise.
I woke this morning to find I’d lost a constancy but then “there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.