Young Leonard Cohen Reads His Poetry in 1966 (Before His Days as a Musician Began)

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.

Related Content:

Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen: The Poet-Musician Featured in a 1965 Documentary

The Poetry of Leonard Cohen Illustrated by Two Short Films

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.

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  • David Maloney says:

    Love his voice and to hear it change over time. He read one of his pieces on NPR and I put some music to it. It worked out quite well. Great poem.

  • Silvia Meiertal says:

    Vad kan jag säga. Jag vet, att han är poet, många uppskattar honom mest som poet.

  • Gabrielle Gelly says:

    My three year old granddaughter is bravely fighting Neuroblastoma Cancer in a hospital in Australia and dear Leonard Cohen gets me through each day with his poetry and his songs.

    When things are really bad I shut myself in a room with a photo of my little munchkin and listen to Leonard singing while I sew or paint, it’s always good medicine.

    Thanks Leonard Cohen for your support in awful times and in a good times they are both relevant to life today.
    Gabrielle Gelly

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