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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Comments (3)
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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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