Less than two weeks ago, the world lost a legend.
Leonard Cohen graced the art scene with his revolutionary ideas on identity, sexuality, self-discovery, and politics. On November 7, he left us with only his influence, imprinted on every page of his novels, in every stanza of his poetry, and every note of his music.
Born on September 21, 1934 in Westmount, Quebec, Cohen belongs to the growing body of gifted Canadian artists. Like many artists, Cohen was a wanderer. He moved between Quebec, the United States, and Greece. Cohen settled in Los Angeles, where he died peacefully in his home. Cohen was 82 years old.
The experimental singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist paved the way for later musicians and writers. Cohen published his first novel, The Favourite Game, in 1963. In a self-reflexive, semi-autobiographical story, a young man gains purpose and identity through the act of writing. I first picked up this novel at a used book store several years ago. Standing between the dusty shelves of forgotten books, I flipped to a random page and started to read. I felt inspired while reading those first few lines, although I was too young at the time to grasp the significance of the novel.
Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers, tells a convoluted, multi-dimensional tale that rotates between scenes of Aboriginality and the thriving counter-culture of the 1960s, including sex, drugs, and public protests. The novel brims with every kind of commentary: social, political, historical, sexual, and religious. In 1966, the time of the novel’s publication, Beautiful Losers was received as highly controversial, owing to its graphic depictions of sex and masturbation. The content of this novel was scandalous, yet important. Cohen redefined social barriers and opened the gates to a new kind of artistic conversation.
Cohen was a catalyst for change. The Spice-Box of Earth, Cohen’s second collection of poems, raises issues of religion, sexuality, and self-awareness. His language flows with sensuality and promise. All the while, Cohen’s words are respectful. His voice lacks judgment. Cohen humbly expresses ideas as he sees them, encouraging a dialogue with his audience about prevalent issues.
Cohen’s words echo shamelessly across the pages and in our ears. One of my favourite songs by Cohen is the title track of I’m Your Man. Released in 1988, I’m Your Man is Cohen’s eighth studio album. Rhythmically, “I’m Your Man” captures a contemporary jazz sound. The composition includes trumpet, keyboard, strings, and Cohen’s deep, resonant voice— “gravelly,” as critics describe it. Lyrically, this piece encapsulates Cohen’s humility and poeticism.
Throughout his career, Cohen donated thousands of documents to the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, located within Robarts Library at St. George. The collection includes early manuscripts of his novels and collections, handwritten notes, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, transcripts of interviews, fan mail, sketches, old envelopes, and posters.
The collection also includes a sealed box of letters between Cohen and his family and friends. He instructed the library to open the box only after his death. However, Cohen requested that the contents of the box remain private until the deaths of his correspondents.
The Cohen collection includes several boxes of the relics listed above. I sat in silence at a small desk in the Reading Room for almost two hours, yet I only made it through two boxes. I began with a box of letters dated in the early 1960s. In one letter, Cohen writes to a friend, stating that he spent all his savings on a house in Hydra, Greece. As his letters progress throughout the 1960s, you can trace his residence in Greece. In a letter dated in 1962, Cohen writes to a friend in Montreal and tells them about his mother’s extended visit. Cohen explains feeling trapped in his home. He writes to several more friends and relatives, discussing his mother’s visit in detail.
On March 27, 1960, Cohen writes to the Canadian publishing company, McClelland and Stewart, thanking them for the upcoming publication of his poetry collection, The Spice-Box of Earth. In one passage of the letter, Cohen advises them to avoid “delicate fonts.” He requests his poems to be published in a large, black font that stands out on the page. Cohen wanted his words to be loud and unmistakable.
In a later letter, Cohen muses over titles for an upcoming poetry collection. It was fascinating to trace Cohen’s creative process. He remarked that if he couldn’t devise a better title, he would settle on the name suggested by the publisher, “Wandering Fire.” I wrote down the name and searched for it online when I got home. It doesn’t exist. I suppose Cohen managed to create a better title.
Cohen’s handwritten notes and early manuscripts were among the most humbling pieces in the collection. One double-sided page includes Cohen’s first draft for a piece of writing, according to the label on the folder. Yet, I couldn’t decipher Cohen’s illegible scrawl. I imagined him writing the words down in a frenzy, trying to record his ideas before the thought had passed.
I also discovered sketches that Cohen had drawn in pen. Some were self-portraits, while others depicted the faces of women, most likely his partners. The boxes also contained black-and-white photographs of Cohen among family and friends. One image depicts Cohen standing on a dock in Hydra, smiling with his hands in his pockets.
One of my favourite pieces in the collection was a poster for a Cohen show. The year was unspecified. A small cardboard rectangle promised poetry and jazz from Cohen and the Lenny Breau Trio at the Manitoba Theatre. Admission was $1.
Even in Cohen’s letters and correspondences, there is a distinct wit and musicality to his writing. His talents were not purely reserved for the public gaze.
Most of Cohen’s collection is available upon request at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.