There’s been no shortage of singer-songwriters who have been considered poets by their fans: Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, Lou Reed, Rodriguez, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen are among the more obvious candidates. On the whole, their song lyrics — although some are vibrantly poetic — have trouble standing confidently alone without the carriage of music to support them. These artists are best described as song-writers rather than poets.

Leonard Cohen is the exception. His commitment to the craft of poetry long predated his song-writing career. The best of his poetry from Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) to The Flame (2018) — published posthumously — is worth serious consideration. His book sales number in the hundreds of thousands with the translations extending to nearly two dozen languages, but there has been remarkably little discussion about the qualities of the poems. Literary critics seem to assume they have few qualities. This is unfortunate. The best of Cohen’s poems combine brevity and sly comedy in a distinctive voice expressed in a conservative style born of his interest in non-Western poetic traditions.

Wit and humility

Cohen is portrayed as dour, but this is a superficial assessment. His wit was as prominent as his pessimism, and what makes his wit so endearing is that it’s usually linked to humility. Cohen invites us to laugh with him at himself. When Cohen wrote about his Japanese friend and Zen master Sasaki Roshi for whom Cohen acted as personal assistant for a number of years, it was his own incomprehension that he highlighted.

Roshi
I never really understood
what he said
but every now and then
I find myself
barking with the dog
or bending with the irises
or helping out
in other little ways

Again, Cohen, the famously cool, womanising musician, portrayed himself in a less than glorious moment in The Remote.

I often picture you
when I’m lying alone in
my room with my mouth
open and the remote
lost somewhere in the bed

The humility of Cohen was not a pose. In 1969, Cohen politely refused the Canadian Governor-General’s Award for Literature and gave his reason: his work at that early stage did not justify the accolade. In an interview he said,

One feels a sense of importance in one’s heart that is absolutely fatal to the writing of poetry. You can’t feel important and write well.

A good writer pours his energy into perfecting his work, not perfecting his self-image. Nearly four decades later Cohen was still aware that the struggle for inspiration and achievement continued. He treated this theme in Wish Me Luck.

a fresh spiderweb
billowing
like a spinnaker
across the open window
and here he is
the little master
sailing by
on a thread of milk
wish me luck
admiral
I haven’t written anything
in a long time

In the late 1990s, then in his 60s, Cohen did accept an important honour: a Certificate of Food Service. He attained it after attending a one-day hygiene and safety course. He needed the certificate to work in the Mt Baldy Zen Centre kitchen where he slung lentil stew into the one plastic bowl allowed to each person. The Mt Baldy experience was humbling, and bracing, as described in The Lovesick Monk.

I shaved my head
I put on robes
I sleep in the corner of a cabin
sixty-five hundred feet up a mountain
It’s dismal here
The only thing I don’t need
is a comb

Like Bukowksi’s poems, which he admired, Cohen’s poems are not epic; they are simple and accessible. Nobody needs an encyclopaedic knowledge of myths, psychology, history or politics to understand and enjoy them. Leonard Cohen achieved what every artist with credibility needs to achieve: to convey something of himself and his experience of the world. It’s what artists do: they get a vision out of their minds and into someone else’s mind.

Early in his adult life Cohen was helped to discover his poetic voice in the rigorous but informal poetry workshops organised by Irving Layton. Cohen quickly realised that his forte was short lyrical poetry, and thereafter he mostly wrote brief, direct poems, sometimes in free verse, sometimes in metered verse. Speaking of this formative period Cohen said,

I was always impressed with minimalism, even if we didn’t use that term. I like simple things, simple poetry, more than the decorative.

Rhythm and rhyme

There is, with this love of simplicity, an associated conservative strain to Cohen’s poetry. There is nothing experimental about it. Much of his poetry has basic rhythms and elementary rhymes. Perhaps this very simplicity invites critical indifference, but G.K. Chesterton defends the right of a poet to child-like simplicity and says it is unreasonable to expect poets “to put away childish things including the child’s pleasure in the mere sing-song of irrational rhyme. It may be hinted that when poets put away childish things they may put away poetry.”

An example of Cohen’s sing-song rhyme is The Flood, written when he visited Israel after the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

The flood it is gathering
Soon it will move
Across every valley
Against every roof
The body will drown
And the soul will break loose
I write all this down
But I don’t have the proof

Another reason Cohen’s poetry is popular is because it’s the sort of poetry many people want. This isn’t a reflection on the poverty of common taste nor does it mean that Cohen’s poetry is superficial. It does mean that many people do not always find the poetry they want in the work of more difficult poets. People want poetry that is understandable, that sings and swings.

Readers like rhyme because it’s everywhere in nature. We hear a kookaburra chuckle and its mate does not respond with the bleat of a sheep but with a corresponding chuckle. A wolf’s howl is answered by another, similar sounding howl. To be otherwise would be uncertain, unresolved, unreal. Rhythm likewise is everywhere in nature: in the tides, the seasons, the sunrise and sunset, the waxing and waning of the moon, in our heartbeat, breathing and sexuality, to name only a few.

Rhythm and rhyme are fundamental to life. Cohen embraced the longstanding poetic tradition that embraced these qualities. His traditionally-styled poetry doesn’t sit well with Modernist dogmatists.

Love and poetry

Love and poetry used to go together like love and marriage; but in our increasingly unchivalrous and unreasonable age poems celebrating love have become less common. This suggests another reason for Cohen’s popularity: he wrote many love poems. Sometimes this poetry leans towards the erotic and sometimes towards the Platonic, but love is a common theme.

It’s obvious that Cohen’s language is plain. But plain words can best convey direct truths in a striking way. Again Chesterton said, “The language of poetry is simpler than that of prose … and being simpler, it is also truer and being truer, it is also fiercer.”

Political realism is another quality of Cohen’s poetry. He didn’t join those who scorned the present order and tied their hopes to a Utopian future. He wrote in the first stanzas of All My News

I was not meant
to be renown
in the present
market town,

but in the future
some may find
what might be used
to change a mind

from slaughter
in the name of peace
to honouring
complexities

and thus influence
politics
with deeper balance
deeper checks.

And no one has
to be afraid
when on this Path
the deal is made.

There are no Manichean simplifications in Cohen’s politics; a Jew in a post-Shoah world, he was well aware that life is both tenuous and complex. Rule of law and functional government are not to be despised, even if imperfections persisted. He did not share the Left’s contempt for the United States and its influence or power. One of his shortest, haiku-like poems warns:

Oh and one more thing
you aren’t going to like
what comes after America

Plain words, wit and rhyme — together with a bitter truth that takes decades to discover — are all on display in the four lines of The Sorrows of the Elderly.

The old are kind.
The young are hot.
Love may be blind,
Desire is not.

Country-eastern

Any evaluation of Cohen’s poetry must note what he said when a music critic observed that his songs sounded Country-Western. Cohen answered the sound he wanted was Country-Eastern. This applies to his poetry as well as his music. He acknowledged his debt to Blake, Auden and Yeats, but it is the Spaniard Federico Lorca, the Greek Constantine Cavafy and the Persian poets Rumi and Attar who were his main influences. Each of these Mediterranean and Levantine poets wrote elegant, ornate poems. Cohen is unafraid to embrace their Eastern styles with the result that his poems often have a charming, old-fashioned quality. This is not impediment. Since when did any real poet allow fashion to dictate the course of his art?

Following Eastern rather than Western conventions, Cohen embellished his compilations The Book of Longing (2006) and The Flame (2018) with his own drawings. The practice of placing drawings and poetry together is, of course, a staple of Far-Eastern art. Mostly, Cohen’s drawings complement the poems quite effectively and add further wry humour to the book. Some critics may think the drawings distract from the poems but this may reveal a lack of careful discernment by the critic and not a lack of judgement by Cohen. Why not broaden poetry’s context and explore other ways to present the poems?

Deepening this debt to the East is Cohen’s consciousness of his Jewish heritage. Although he studied Zen Buddhism for 40 years and for five years lived in a Zen monastery, Cohen said he did not enter the monastery looking for a new religion but because the strict discipline brought order to his life and helped him cope with chronic depression. He remained linked to Judaism. The poetic books of Isaiah and Psalms were areas of deep study for him and provided a wealth of imagery and themes. I suspect few other poets writing in English today would nominate the Jewish scriptures as important poetic sources; a neglect that leaves our culture poorer.

Appreciating what Leonard Cohen tried to achieve rather than castigating him for what he didn’t achieve — and perhaps did not want to achieve — seems the right way to approach his work, or any artist’s work. Cohen brought a patient and committed craftsmanship to both his song lyrics and his poetry. He wrote intelligible poems that intrigue and delight multitudes of readers. He shared his condition of soul and his understanding of life — which, he knew, may be very little given the mystery of life — and he did this in his own voice. This is no small success, but he was humble about it. He wrote of the poetic vocation in Thousands.

Out of the thousands
who are known,
or who want to be known
as poets,
maybe one or two
are genuine
and the rest are fakes,
hanging around the sacred precincts
trying to look like the real thing.
Needless to say
I am one of the fakes
and this is my story.

Perhaps the sacred precincts of poetry — or of any art — are far larger and more accommodating than Cohen believed, with room for many gradations of talent, skill and style. Although some would-be poets hanging around may be fakes, sabotaging their own art with the relentless desire to shock, by scorning the very people who would be their audience or by following fashion, Leonard Cohen was not a fake. Although by no means a supremely gifted poet, he was — the limits of his talent admitted — the real thing.

© Gary Furnell. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Studio magazine.

Gary Furnell is a former librarian. His stories, essays and book reviews sometimes appear in Quadrant, The Chesterton Review, Studio, The Defendant and The Catholic Weekly. His new book The Hardest path...