Many a singer-songwriter who first rose to prominence in the 1960s has taken the label of “poet,” usually applied by adoring fans, no doubt to the objection of a fair few serious poetry enthusiasts. But who among them could deny Leonard Cohen’s status as a poet? Though best known as a musician, Cohen has also racked up indisputable writerly credentials, having published not just the novels Beautiful Losers and The Favorite Game but many books of poetry including Death of a Lady’s Man, Let Us Compare Mythologies, and Flowers for Hitler. Some of them include not just poems written as poems but song lyrics — or perhaps works that began as songs but became poems. Surely his albums contain songs that began as poems. Those interested in figuring out Cohen’s simultaneous development as a poet and songwriter would do well to listen to his early poetry readings, like that of “Prayer for Messiah” at the top of the post.
Just above, you can hear Cohen reading several more poems in the hallowed halls of New York’s 92nd Street Y in February 1966. Below, you can watch a television clip from that same year in which the famously Canadian Cohen appears (naturally) on the CBC in a segment “considering the poetic mind.”
He reads more of his verse and offers a bit of insight into his attitude toward the legacy of his own art — specifically, that he pays no attention to its legacy at all. Perhaps that more than anything allows him the freedom to move as necessary between fields of creative textual endeavor, retaining his inimitable sensibility no matter what shape his work takes at the end of the day. And, in any case, at least for my money, if pieces of his more mature work like “First We Take Manhattan” don’t transcend their form, what does?
You can read a piece where Pico Iyer reflects on Cohen’s 92nd Y poetry readings here.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.