On the death of a poet

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Canadian poet

Leonard Cohen passed away on Thursday. I was alone at home when I heard the news, and happened to be listening to his latest album, You Want It Darker. It was released less than three weeks ago, and I’ve listened to it dozens of times already. Critics are calling it one of his best. Many musicians have passed away this year, but Cohen’s death has been the only one I’ve felt compelled to comment on. I have no strong memories attached to the music of David Bowie, Merle Haggard or Prince, but a flood of memories come rushing back when I listen to the haunting music of Leonard Cohen.

I came into contact with Cohen’s music during my first year of university. I was one of the youngest students in my class, having graduated from high school the previous summer, and I was trying desperately to fit in with the older students – especially the older girls. At the end of one class, a group of girls were passing around an album. On the cover was an odd looking man who seemed to be the antithesis of all the insipid boy bands hitting the airwaves. That afternoon, I rushed to the music store and bought a copy. It was Cohen’s first album, simply titled Songs, released in 1967.

I had never heard anything like it before. There was so much life in his lyrics, and they spoke of the human condition in ways I had never experienced before. His songs were philosophical and yet relatable. They were melancholic without being self-indulgent. The music was stark and introspective.

That summer, I went hitchhiking for the first time. I packed my bag, caught the ferry, and headed to Salt Spring Island. I convinced a friend to come with me and together we held out our thumbs and waited. Three hippies in an old American sedan gave us our first ride. The passenger door wouldn’t close properly and we took turns holding it tight against the car. Five minutes into the drive, the hippies were passing around a carton of pineapple juice and reading poems from Cohen’s third collection of poetry, Flowers for Hitler, published in 1964. My friend and I joined in. We took a couple ‘hits’ of pineapple juice, read a poem, and passed it on. It was such a surreal moment, and I loved it.

Six years later I met my wife. She and I had different tastes in music. She spent her late-teens and early-twenties listening to alternative bands like Pearl Jam and Jane’s Addiction, while I listened to the folk musings of Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco. When I moved in with her, I had a large collection of albums and I wasn’t sure if I should include her small collection when I shelved mine alphabetically, or whether I should put hers at the end of the bookshelf, on their own. In the end, I decided to combine them all together and box up the repeats. Not surprisingly, there were few repeats. But there was one exception: Leonard Cohen. That evening, we drank red wine and listened to The Future, Cohen’s ninth studio album.

As I write this final paragraph, I have put Cohen’s first album on the turntable and I am thinking about my wife who is now halfway to the coast, driving in the dark. She sang “Suzanne” to our oldest son as a lullaby when he couldn’t get to sleep. While I sit at my desk, taking small sips of whiskey, I listen and remember. Like so many others, I am saddened by the news of his passing but am grateful for the poetry he gave the world. Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’s surrounded by women and drink, and mumbling poetry in his distinctive voice as he sits back with a cigarette between his fingers. We should all be so lucky.

Time: 9:27 p.m.

Place: My dimly lit office on a cold night