Leonard Cohen: A Monster of Love
Although I didn’t meet Leonard until 1966, his words and imagination and poetic vision were with me for a long time, as with probably a number of young women who first read his slim volumes of poetry in the mid-Fifties. At the time, Canadian literature really didn’t exist, but some of us became aware that two young men–one named Raymond Souster, and another Leonard Cohen, both from Montreal-were writing things that could really touch us. Apart from the fact that he mentioned places like Sherbrooke Street and snow, there was the throbbing romanticism of Leonard who, from his picture on the back of the cover, looked close enough to our age to make us throb as well.
And so it was that we tried to invite him to come to speak to us at St. Hilda’s College (the Women’s residence of the Anglican College at the University of Toronto, Trinity College). Somehow we couldn’t get to him, and although we had so much wanted him to come to our monthly Literary Association meeting, itjust didn’t seem to work out. As Program Director for the Lit, as it was called, I had already committed to memory several of the poems, including the one with the lines “I heard of a man / who says words so beautifully / that if he only speaks their name / women give themselves to him.” The idea that, in our English language and today in 1958, we could actually have someone who thought such things, much less wrote about them, was dizzying. I wanted him to come to our chaste residence and speak our names.
So I didn’t meet Leonard Cohen in 1958, and my romances had to take other forms. I have often wondered what would have happened if he had come to us and brought us his unique visitation, not only of words but of spirit. Probably a couple of us wouldn’t have lived our lives the way we decided to live them in the sixties and we might have learned to cultivate our deepest feelings and imagination in a more meaningful way than what was possible for proper, upper-middle-class girls of the late Fifties. He spoke to us; he kept us awake at night when we thought about his poetry. Unfortunately, he did not come to save us from middle-class ruin; we had to wait for his subtle undermining of our values in his songs.
So I was to wait until 1966, the first year I had a television programme and was interviewing full-time. This year coincided with the publication of Leonard’s second novel, Beautiful Losers, which threw me into a complete daze. Its connection of the erotic with the prophetic was so astonishing that naturally it could not be understood in a purely Canadian context. This is a novel that requires the world as its audience, even though it is very particular in its detail about English- and French-Canadians and the first Native Canadian saint, Catherine Tekakwitha. It was two years before Pierre Elliot Trudeau startled us all into becoming our Prime Minister, but in some way it was part of the same zeitgeist, the same rush of intense emotion and meaning infusing public and private life, which we as Canadians have not known since. I believe that Leonard pre-figured this in literature and that in many ways Trudeau simply embodied what was already imaginatively real through Leonard’s novel.
I remember the opening party given by the dynamic and committed Jack McClelland, at which everyone got ostentatiously drunk and said extravagant (and for Canada) daring things about the linking of sex and art. There for the first time I saw Leonard Cohen in the flesh: the dark eyes, the diffident manner and the sudden, childlike smile.
And then, just at the height of the reception of the novel, Leonard decided that he would not write poetry anymore but
would become a singer. It was considered at the time to he risible. Many were the articles written that, although Leonard had no voice, he was going to attempt to be a singer. And thus it was that he appeared for the first time on my CBC programme, Take 30. He appeared with a small pop group called Stormy Clovers, whose lead singer was an angelic, blonde girl child, herself the child of literati. Leonard appeared on the programme and in dress rehearsal, sang Traveller, which we timed out to be seventeen minutes long. The director, Cynthia Scott, came down to the floor to explain that we couldn’t play a song that long (this was live television in those days) and Leonard, with the extreme politeness and sorrowful elegance which still marks his comportment, agreed to pull a verse. Also I remember he played “Suzanne” and “So Long Marianne.” I of course was his undying fan and loved the tunes immediately. But there were grumbles elsewhere in the studio.
Interviewing him afterwards, I was so overcome by my admiration for him and by the years I had waited to meet him that it was not one of my finer moments professionally. I had reason to view the tape a few years ago, and thought myself ridiculous and my questions incredibly pompous. Or have styles changed since 1966? All I know is that I said to him rather portentously, “And so you now want to sing instead of write poetry?” The camera picked up his lambent eyes focusing on me mournfully as he answered, “Well, I think the time is over when poets should sit on marble
stairs with black capes.”
Years later I reminded him of this exchange and he laughed and said it was a toss-up as to which of us had been the more pompous. Happily, despite the fact of my inept questions and complete inability to deeply understand as opposed to react to his magical presence, we became friends of sorts. It is not a friendship of constant contact, but one that has seen all the years go by, and even with infrequent meetings, has had a deep and profound impact on me.
Although I really have to say it now: Leonard Cohen performs a priestly function. When I told him this once in Montreal, he took me to the entrance of the Jewish Cemetery at Outremont and showed me where his family are buried because they are Cohens, and of course Cohens are the hereditary priests of Israelites. I believe this to be the secret basis of his long-lasting appeal to two generations of people who love words and who can also laugh at them. Occasionally we have met in strange places like The Café Flore in Paris or on a street outside a sandwich shop in Toronto. Or once near 42nd St. in New York. Sometimes I wondered if Leonard was really there, or if I wished him into being at those particular moments. It doesn’t really matter. Magic is what he is.
And the magic he has summed up himself in Beautiful Losers:
Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to
the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the
angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle
the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous
and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love
the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of
the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such
balancing monsters of love.
(Beautiful Losers, 1966, McClelland
& Stewart Ltd., Toronto, p. 101)
Text is taken from the book, “Take This Walz, A Celebration of Leonard Cohen.” Edited by Michael Fournier and Ken Norris, published by The Muses Company, Ste. Anne de Belleview, Quebec, 1994.