A Self-Portrait of the Artist as an Aged Man
By Shoshana Olidort
OCTOBER 2, 2018
AMONG THE SUNDRY ITEMS decorating the refrigerator door in our modest, Stanford student housing unit is a ticket from a Leonard Cohen concert in Barclays Center, Brooklyn, dated December 20, 2012. I’m not sure how the ticket survived multiple moves (including one across country with two small kids in tow), and I’m not sure who put it up on the fridge, or when, but when I notice it, every so often, in passing, I think of that unforgettable night, when, for four surreal hours, I sat along with thousands of others, a rapt audience entranced by the magic of a man by then quite old, even sickly, who saw himself, and was seen by so many, as a modern-day prophet.
In a 2002 diary entry that appears in the newly released, posthumous collection The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings, Cohen writes, “I swear / strive to complete / before it’s too late / some mission from G-d / I can’t even locate.” Though we tend to think of self-proclaimed prophets as egomaniacs, Cohen’s work evinces a different kind of prophetic stance, one marked by humility and an eagerness to carry out someone else’s bidding, to fulfill a mission he “can’t even locate.”
Cohen, who started out as a poet and published four books of poetry and a novel before launching his musical career in the 1960s, spent the months leading up to his death in November 2016 completing what he knew would be his final manuscript. While the quality of the poetry in this book is sometimes uneven, it’s clear that Cohen remained sharp until the very end, and the book, a kind of farewell tribute by the poet-prophet, offers ample evidence of his abiding sense of humor. To wit, these excerpts from a diary entry included in the book: “I think, therefore I am / right up there with / Mary had a Little Lamb,” and, “I don’t care much for the movie / but the popcorn is unsurpassed.”
But as a whole this volume’s register is one of pathos, the kind expressed in “My Career,” which reads: “So little to say / So urgent / to say it.” This sense of urgency, combined with an awareness of the fact that, despite a lifetime devoted to the written (and spoken) word, there was “so little to say,” runs through this book. These two seemingly contradictory sentiments come together in Cohen’s words and images, his simple black illustrations, many of them self-portraits of the aged singer, providing a visual commentary on the accompanying texts.
The passage of time is another recurring motif in this book, but Cohen’s is no simple reflection on the past. In “School Days,” Cohen writes, “I never think about The Past / but sometimes / The Past thinks about me / and sits down / ever so lightly on my face—” One can’t help but marvel at the poet’s brilliant maneuvering here. In the first instance, his use of the capitalized term “The Past” calls upon a sense of the past as rigid and unchangeable. But Cohen surprises us in this totally unexpected way when he subverts that very rigidity by showing us how the past can be turned into a thing apart, which may sit with us — even on us — “ever so lightly,” but need not rule our lives.
Toward the end of his life, Cohen’s songs, already dark, grew darker. Cohen’s preoccupation with mortality is brought into sharp relief in songs like “You Want It Darker,” whose lyrics (along with those from his final three albums) are included in this book. Approaching death, the song’s narrator lays out his cards: “If you are the dealer / I’m out of the game / If you are the healer / it means I’m broken and lame…” The song’s refrain, “Hineni Hineni / I’m ready, my Lord,” is a reference to Genesis with its stories of submission to an omnipotent and all-knowing God, whose call to Adam, Cain, Abraham, Moses, among other key figures in the Hebrew bible, elicits the response “Hineni,” meaning literally “here I am.”
Just weeks before he died, Cohen emailed the poet Peter Dale Scott, who had recently sent him a copy of his collection of poems, Walking on Darkness, with the inscription: “If you want it darker / This book is not for you / I have always wanted it lighter / And I think God does too.” What ensued was an email exchange about darkness, which is included in this book. Responding to Scott’s inscription, Cohen writes: “who says ’i’ want it darker? / who says the ’you’ is me? […] he will make it darker / he will make it light / according to his torah / which leonard did not write.” Here, the self-effacing prophet defers to God and the Torah that, while Leonard might transmit, “leonard did not write,” and which he “can’t even locate.”
More than his musical or poetic talent, what endeared Cohen to fans was an earnestness so rarely seen among the famous. While Oscar Wilde may have been onto something when he famously asserted that “[a]ll bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” it would be ludicrous to conclude from this that genuine feeling necessarily begets bad poetry. Cohen managed to communicate his earnestness through songs and poetry to a worldwide fanbase, and many tributes to the artist published after his death pointed to the way that his songs seemed to speak directly to his listeners.
In 2011, Cohen was awarded Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for literature. In his acceptance speech, which appears in full in this book, Cohen insisted, “Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers.” He went on to explain that he felt “somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command.”
Whether or not he could command his poetry, Cohen proved adept at commanding an audience. When a financial crisis (resulting from a manager swindling him of his life’s earnings) drove Cohen to conduct world tours in the final decade of his life, he rose to the occasion.
Watching him perform on that winter evening in Brooklyn, nearly six years ago, I was struck most of all by Cohen’s presence — prophet-like in his ubiquitous gray-black fedora, kneeling as if in deference to his audience.
“Since I no longer wish to explain myself / I have become a stone / Since I no longer long for anyone / I am not alone,” writes Cohen in another diary entry excerpted in this book. For Cohen, who never relished fame or fortune, prophecy was about transcendence. Though he claimed not to know the origins of his poetry nor to be able to locate his mission, what Cohen offered his many fans and followers was the opportunity to partake of the kind of spiritual experience that makes it possible for us to feel, if only for a moment, that we are not alone.
Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on poetry as a mode of performing identity through a consideration of five 20th-century Jewish women poets.