Ruth Wisse writes of Leonard Cohen’s “silken” lyrics that “drew us toward pain”

This is a condensed version of My Life Without Leonard Cohen by literary scholar Ruth R. Wisse, first published in Commentary Magazine Oct. 1, 1995. These excerpts are reprinted with the author’s consent.

leonard cohen doorI met Leonard Cohen in 1954 when I was a student in Great Writings of European Literature. I believe it was Louis Dudek who introduced me to Leonard; certainly it was because of Leonard that I began to call my teacher Louis. Leonard did not treat his teacher with my kind of deference but more like a colleague, on equal terms.

Louis seemed to prefer it that way. He had decided to launch the McGill Poetry Series with a volume of Leonard Cohen’s verse, to be published while its author was still in college. Since no one had enough money for the project, Louis adopted the stratagem of selling advance subscriptions, at $1 a book.

Even at that age, Leonard had an awkward grace that women found appealing and men unthreatening. He cultivated the lean and hungry look of someone who feeds on himself, but the corner of his mouth was always playing around some quip, some clever remark, to let you know that he did not take himself all that seriously. Caveat emptor, he warned the audience, his elegant way of saying: stay cool.

Once Leonard started recording for the big companies and doing European tours, he used to say that he had gotten caught between two critical establishments, the literary people accusing him of selling out because he was making money in the rock world, the rock critics suggesting that he did not know or care enough about music, “that my tunes are very limited, as though I couldn’t work in an augmented chord if I thought it was needed.” One would have thought the opposite—that stardom protected Leonard from the insularity of the poetry world, while his higher literary standards won him the awe of music critics accustomed to thinner gruel.

He was already celebrated by the time I knew him at college…he bore the trace of a wound, the aura of a lover, the mantle of the artist.

They (the poems) were hauntingly elegant, as though a noble son had fallen in among tradesfolk while retaining the language of a softer ancestry… Never obscuring his Jewish origins, this priest of poetry was simultaneously also privy to the sacred teachings of other poet-gods and their anointed singers — Greeks, Romans, and Christians.

Leonard enlarged my sense of the here and now. His poems were heavy with loss in a way that made the present more valuable, the small experience more fragile and precious. I think I remember each and every time I spent with him, as if the moment itself were a poem I had to learn by heart.

He was clever, shrewd, even a little sly, with a satirist’s critical intelligence…. In Leonard’s presence I always felt alert as though I had joined a hunter on the trail. No one else I knew took so much license in speaking the truth.

About this hunger for literature, Leonard Cohen was to write a few years later that Canadians were “desperate for a Keats.” Not true in my case. I was desperate for a Cohen. I bet on him as a racehorse, prayed for him as for an angel. His confidence and his talent were such that I accorded to him the highest hopes, certain that he would become the guardian truth-teller of my generation. He knew the heart’s stubborn way of drawing you toward pain. Sometimes in the evening, putting on music — not Mozart, but Cohen — so sweet a sorrow I could have drifted out the open window on a moonbeam to join his legion of war-torn lovers…

Leonard turned our awkward and dangerously prolonged adolescence into a languorous, almost enviable, season of longing…. This was at once the gift and limitation of his verse. He remained the voice of our teens, deepening with the years…

He concentrated programmatically on the first-person singular and cultivated an attitude of philosophical indifference, as though by opposing politics altogether he could avoid having to take sides.

I often wince at my burlap prose beside Cohen’s silken lyrics. But then, I also have regrets about him, who cast himself as love’s solitary survivor so that he would not have to bear the weight of his and my lonely community, or of the tattered culture that belongs to us all.

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