By Tim Kalinowski
Leonard Cohen died two weeks ago at age 82. I had been writing late into Thursday night that week not watching the news feeds, (that was the day the news broke, though he had really died on the Monday). My mother sent me a concerned text because she knew I was a devout student of the man and his work. “Did you hear Leonard Cohen died?” she sent. The bottom dropped out of my stomach, and I quickly checked my smart phone to confirm the news online. It was true.
I sent back to her: “I thought he would live forever,” and I quoted these lines from his beautiful poem For EJP. “I once believed that a single line from a Chinese poem could change forever how blossoms fell, and that the moon itself rose on the grief of concise, weeping men to journey over cups of wine.”
Over the last week I have been reading post after post about Leonard Cohen, and peoples’ thoughts and feelings about how his work touched their lives. Most had first heard of Leonard through his songs; at 18 years-old I only knew him though a parody done of him on Royal Canadian Air Farce and one odd, late night appearance on the Ralph Benmergui Show of all places.
I first seriously encountered his music through a cover album the next year while doing the Katimavik program. The music did not appeal, but the lyrics were magical. I bought “Stranger Music,” a collection of his entire written works which especially delved into his three early books of poetry, before he switched over to music in the late 1960s. I also bought his famous “Best of” collection of his early songs at about the same time. I was hooked.
To most in Canada, Leonard Cohen is known as the guy who wrote the oft-covered “Hallelujah.” But he was much more than that; he once turned down a Governor General’s Award for his literary endeavours. Of all the great Canadian poets to emerge in Canada in the early 1960s, (Ondaatje, Atwood, Musgrave, Acorn, Birney, Pratt and Layton), Cohen stood head and shoulders above them. He was one of Canada’s greatest poets. When he moved over into song, he became one of the world’s greatest poets; and arguably the most influential poet of the latter half of the 20th century.
Although saddened by his death, I was not devastated. He lived an extraordinary life and left a body of work which speaks for itself. His songs are amazing, but I will always be more drawn toward his poetry. He once wrote in his poem “A Kite is a Victim”
“A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool;
because it lives
like a desperate trained falcon
in the high sweet air,
and you can always haul it down
to tame it in your drawer.”
The kite here is much like Cohen himself— a man who danced in the stratosphere and floated amid the music of the spheres while always, in the end, bringing it right back down to earth.