Register Saturday | June 23 | 2018

Canadian Idol

Why we need to take down the portraits, turn down the music and start reading Leonard Cohen

It's a sunny Saturday in Toronto and a world-famous superstar has brought downtown traffic to a standstill. Effortlessly urbane in a lean charcoal suit, he strolls to the centre of a makeshift soundstage, smiles and clears his throat. As the sound of his gravelly baritone fills the spring air, a sprawling crowd of fans breathes out a collective sigh of awe.

It is Leonard Cohen's first public performance in thirteen years.

At seventy-one, the iconic Cohen still exudes charismatic cool. Although this May 13 event at Toronto's flagship Indigo bookstore is billed as a tribute concert, Cohen indulges his fans by reading selections from Book of Longing, his recently released collection of poetry, and singing two of his most celebrated songs-"So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye"-with Ron Sexsmith and the Barenaked Ladies' Steven Page. For three-thousand spellbound spectators, the performance is a face-to-face encounter with a living legend.

Fast-forward a week. Book of Longingis at the top of the Globe and Mail's hardcover fiction bestseller list, the first volume of poetry ever to occupy this lofty position. The book now lies on coffee tables and nightstands across the country. Here and there, a curious reader leafs through it, glancing at Cohen's sketched self-portraits and stopping to smile at characteristic carnal Cohenisms ("my enormous hard-on," "her nipples rose like bread.") Studying the collection more closely, the reader is touched by Cohen's reflections on aging, interpreting Book of Longing-as many reviewers have-as a maturing man's lament for the carefree days of his youth.

Try as the intrepid reader might, however, it is virtually impossible to read Book of Longing as the work of a poet. Rather, it is the work of Leonard Cohen, quintessential Montrealer and notorious ladies' man, who bedded Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel and can occasionally be seen ambling through Parc Mont-Royal on a Sunday afternoon.

For decades, Canada has venerated Cohen as its patron saint of all things soulful and romantic, transforming him into a celebrity of poster-boy-like proportions. "Leonard Cohen is part of the DNA of being a Canadian," remarks T. F. Rigelhof, a Montreal writer who contributes to the Globe's Books section and teaches Cohen's The Favourite Gameto teenagers at Dawson College. "Very few people achieve the kind of iconic celebrity he has achieved." Rigelhof is not the first to draw a comparison between Cohen and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The irony of this idolatry? In both his life and work, Cohen deliberately attempts to deconstruct his stardom. He is, after all, a man who recently spent five years living in a Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles (where Zen monks gave him the Dharma name Jikan, or "Silent One") and titled a 1978 collection of poetry Death of a Lady's Man. "Cohen has never taken himself as seriously as people take him," says Rigelhof.

Book of Longing is Cohen's latest-and perhaps last-attempt to erode the power of his renowned reputation. He spends poem after poem sardonically mocking his celebrity, using self-deprecation to draw attention to the disconnect between his writing and fame. As he writes in one poem:

I must have been working out
because I don't remember
how I got these muscles;
and this serene expression:
I must have done my time
Reflecting on the bullshit.

Moreover, Cohen laces the collection with suggestions that his work would have benefited from a posthumous discovery, saving it from the relentless shadow of the Cohen personality cult:

Go little book
And hide

...

A fluke
Has made you prominent
You were meant
To be discovered
Later

Self-conscious deconstruction aside, Canada long ago dubbed Cohen a national luminary and is not about to give him up. Robert Lecker, a professor of Canadian literature at McGill, reflects that Cohen's celebrity has been buttressed by his work in the music industry: "One of the problems is that Cohen's musical career came to overshadow his writing. A lot of people don't even know that he's a poet."

Once upon a time, Cohen's repute was grounded entirely in his writing. He released his first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956, while enrolled as an undergrad at McGill. Over the following decade, Cohen gradually garnered recognition in literary circles for his poetry and novels. But as the folk music craze picked up steam in the United States, Cohen moved south to try his hand at singing. He was discovered at the Newport Folk Festival by a Columbia Records rep, and spent the late sixties and early seventies releasing a string of albums and touring the US, Canada, and Europe. Though Cohen continued to steadily produce poetry collections, his popularity as a singer slowly but surely surpassed his literary renown.

The pre-eminence of Cohen's reputation as a musical icon was made evident in a recent CBC radio interview, in which Shelagh Rogers repeatedly referred to Cohen as a songwriter. Cohen resisted the title, drawing attention to his literary achievements: "I never thought of myself as a songwriter. I thought of myself as a writer, as a novelist." When Rogers persisted, employing the label later in the conversation, Cohen again shied away: "Songwriter doesn't occur to me in the morning.... I reluctantly award myself that title. I never describe myself to myself that way."

But though Cohen may not define himself as a musician, this public perception remains paramount. Virtually every major Book of Longing review references the author's musical career in its opening paragraph and earlier this year, Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame.

Cohen's success in the music industry is surely not a negative development-the problem is that we've come to blindly worship Cohen-as-musician, preventing his writing from receiving the attention it deserves. Cohen's songs are, after all, undeniably easier to swallow than his literature, which contains themes that are difficult for us to deal with. His texts are especially tough for women. Although female characters figure prominently in works like Beautiful Losers, Cohen denies his women a voice, instead portraying them as pretty props ornamenting the lives of dynamic, hyper-masculine heroes.

Cohen's idiosyncratic religion-a distinctive combination of Judaism and Buddhism-also proves problematic for the reader. Harsh Holocaust imagery underlies Beautiful Losers and Zen beliefs subtly colour poems in the new collection, but if we aren't equipped with the knowledge to grasp these themes, we fail to truly comprehend Cohen's writing. Because readers and critics would rather avoid tackling such weighty matters, Cohen's writing is largely ignored.

"There has been a serious lack of criticism," says Lecker. "Looking over his history, the output of criticism has been extremely low in relation to his reputation ... Cohen's writing has remained largely impenetrable, largely because critics are not equipped to deal with his Jewish heritage, which counts for a lot more than we're willing to recognize."

Instead of reckoning with Cohen's distinctiveness, Canada has fashioned him into-as Cohen himself writes in "The Mist of Pornography"-"that lover / whom you wanted." Though writing is a central facet of Cohen's identity, we find his books distastefully controversial and complex, unbecoming of a creative heartthrob. Ultimately, because the portrait of the artist as soulful troubadour is infinitely more appealing than the messy, depressed, introspective Cohen we get in his writing, we've learned to leave his literature by the wayside.

The reason for our selective approach to Cohen-worship is simple: Leonard Cohen is Canada's coolest celebrity. He is our premier sex symbol, an artist whose face sets hearts aflutter worldwide; Margaret Atwood, Anne Murray and William Shatner have got nothing on him. Canada's struggle to define a national identity is infamous, and by shelving his books, appropriating his image, and presenting him as consummate Canadian icon, we are able to parade the heartbreakingly hip Cohen about as our nation's global cultural ambassador without having to engage in any of the reasoned analysis that his often litigious writing demands.

And it's not that Cohen is completely uncomfortable with this model of celebrity. He aggressively sought fame, and after a devastating debacle in which a former lover and manager embezzled the majority of his accumulated wealth, he has returned from hiding to cash in. But because Cohen has regularly asserted that he is foremost a self-effacing poet and not a musical celebrity to be idolized, his own ambitions at economic success don't explain or justify why we've consistently recoiled from his literature in recent years.

It's time to return to Cohen's writing. His poetry and novels are by no means easy, but they are difficult because they are defiantly different. In an era partial to ironic detachment, Cohen pours out poignant sentimentalisms. In a country that has fostered a discreet, rural literary tradition, Cohen creates unapologetically brash and urban works. For its singularity, if nothing else, it is writing worth reading. And though we won't be able to approach Leonard Cohen's work without seeing his famous face before us, he just might forgive us if we honestly answer the question he poses to us in "Titles," a poem from Book of Longing:

I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for a while
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
even though
I could barely carry a tune
For many years
I was known as a Monk
I shaved my head and wore robes
And got up very early
I hated everyone
but I acted generously
and no one found me out
My reputation
as a Ladies' Man was a joke
It caused me to laugh bitterly
through the ten thousand nights
I spent alone

...

and now Gentle Reader
in what name
in whose name
do you come
to idle with me
in these luxurious
and dwindling realms
of Aimless Privacy?