Leonard Cohen’s Last Work, The Flame Gets Published: Discover His Final Poems, Drawings, Lyrics & More

It’s a per­verse irony or an apt metaphor: Leonard Cohen is best known for a song that took him five years to write, and that went almost unheard on its debut, in part because the head of Columbia’s music divi­sion, Wal­ter Yet­nikoff, refused to release Cohen’s 1985 album Var­i­ous Posi­tions in the U.S. “Leonard, we know you’re great,” said Yet­nikoff, “We just don’t know if you’re any good.” It might have been Cohen’s sum­ma­tion of life itself.

It wasn’t until Jeff Buckley’s elec­tric gospel cov­er in 1994 (itself a take on John Cale’s ver­sion) that “Hal­lelu­jah” became the mas­sive hit it is, hav­ing now been cov­ered by over 300 artists. Cana­di­an mag­a­zine Maclean’s has called the song “pop music’s clos­est thing to a sacred text.” One can imag­ine Cohen look­ing deep into the eyes of those who think that “Hal­lelu­jah” is a hymn of praise and say­ing, “you don’t real­ly care for music, do ya?”

With the trap­pings and imagery of gospel, and a sleazy synth-dri­ven groove, it tells a sto­ry of being tied to a chair and over­pow­ered, kept at an emo­tion­al dis­tance, learn­ing how to “shoot some­body who out­drew ya.” Love, sings Cohen sings in his lounge-lizard voice, “is not a vic­to­ry march… It’s not some­body who’s seen the light.” If you’re look­ing to Leonard Cohen for redemp­tion, best look else­where.

Used in film and tele­vi­sion for moments of epiphany, tri­umph, grief, and relief, “Hal­lelu­jah,” like all of Cohen’s work, makes pro­fane and prophet­ic utter­ances in which beau­ty and ugli­ness always coex­ist, in a painful arrange­ment no one gets clear of. Cohen will not let us choose between dark­ness and light. We must take both.

In the last years of his life, he brought his trag­ic vision to a remark­able cli­max in his final, 2016 album, You Want it Dark­er. Last month, the final act in his mag­is­te­r­i­al career pre­miered in the form of The Flame. The book is “a col­lec­tion of poems, lyrics, draw­ings, and pages from his note­books,” writes The Paris Review, who quote from Cohen’s son Adam’s for­ward: “This vol­ume con­tains my father’s final efforts as a poet…. It was what he was stay­ing alive to do, his sole breath­ing pur­pose at the end.”

Cohen did not leave words of hope behind. One of his last poems issues forth an enig­mat­ic and ter­ri­fy­ing prophe­cy, ham­mer­ing away at the con­ceits of human pow­er.


What is com­ing

ten mil­lion peo­ple

in the street can­not stop

What is com­ing

the Amer­i­can Armed Forces

can­not con­trol

the Pres­i­dent

of the Unit­ed States

            and his coun­selors

can­not con­ceive



            or direct


you do

or refrain from doing

will bring us

to the same place

the place we don’t know


your anger against the war

your hor­ror of death

your calm strate­gies

your bold plans

to rearrange

            the mid­dle east

to over­throw the dol­lar

to estab­lish

            the 4th Reich

to live for­ev­er

to silence the Jews

to order the cos­mos

to tidy up your life

to improve reli­gion

they count for noth­ing


you have no under­stand­ing

of the con­se­quences

of what you do

oh and one more thing

you aren’t going to like

what comes after


But The Flame is not all jere­mi­ad. In some ways it’s a turn from the grim, orac­u­lar voice of “You Want it Dark­er” and to a more inti­mate, at times quo­tid­i­an and con­fes­sion­al, Cohen. “All sides of the man are present” in this book of poems and sketch­es writes Scott Tim­berg at The Guardian. “Was he, in the end, a musi­cian or a poet? A grave philoso­pher or a grim sort of come­di­an? A cos­mopoli­tan lady’s man or a pro­found, ascetic seek­er? Jew or Bud­dhist? Hedo­nist or her­mit?” Yes.

Cohen’s work, his son says, “was a man­date from God.” The writ­ing of his final poems “was all pri­vate.” “My father was very inter­est­ed in pre­serv­ing the mag­ic of his process. And more­over, not demys­ti­fy­ing it. Speak­ing of any of this is a trans­gres­sion.”

How­ev­er else we inter­pret Leonard Cohen’s theo-myth­ic-philo­soph­i­cal incan­ta­tions, he made a few things clear. What he meant by “God” was deep­er and dark­er than what most peo­ple do. And to triv­i­al­ize the mys­ter­ies of life and love and death and song, to pre­tend we under­stand them, he sug­gests, is a grave and trag­ic, but per­haps inevitable, mis­take. “You want it dark­er,” he sang at the end. “We kill the flame.”

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mal­colm Glad­well on Why Genius Takes Time: A Look at the Mak­ing of Elvis Costello’s “Depor­tee” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Hal­lelu­jah!: You Can Stream Every Leonard Cohen Album in a 22-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist (1967–2016)

Say Good­bye to Leonard Cohen Through Some of His Best-Loved Songs: “Hal­lelu­jah,” “Suzanne” and 235 Oth­er Tracks

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

How Leonard Cohen Wrote a Love Song

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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