The Poetry of Leonard Cohen

While most people are familiar with Leonard Cohen as a musician, not everyone is as aware of his extensive literary career. If you are a Cohen fan, you may be interested to know that some of his most riveting work comes in the form of the written word. Cohen is one of the few artists who manages to straddle these two creative forms in such a prolific way.


Cohen’s first forays into writing came in the literary competitions at McGill university. He won the Chester MacNaghten prize for his poems “Sparrow” and “Thoughts on a Landsman” and went on to publish his first collection Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956.  This anthology consisted of poems written between the ages of 15 and 20. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Cohen spent a term in the law department at Columbia University. Cohen described this experience as “passion without flesh, love without climax.” He left New York and started working odd jobs to support himself whilst focusing on his writing. His next collection of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth was published in 1961. This book was the first of his work to receive critical recognition.


Cohen continued to write poetry and fiction throughout the 1960’s and published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964) and the novels The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). He also published another collection of poetry, Parasites of Heaven, in 1966. After this, Cohen began to publish less and focus more on his music. He published his next book of poetry, Death of a Lady’s Man, in 1978 and then went on to win the Canadian Authors Association Literacy award for his anthology, Book of Mercy in 1984. Since then, Cohen has published Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs in 2006 and after 10 years of delays, additions and rewritings, the Book of Longing dedicated to poet Irving Layton.


Cohen told an interviewer in 1998 that his writing process is “”like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it”. In 2011, Cohen received the Prince of Asturias Award for literature.


Here is Cohen’s opening poem from The Book of Longing (2006). A beautiful piece to introduce you to the poetry of the great Leonard Cohen.


The Book of Longing

I can’t make the hills

The system is shot

I’m living on pills

For which I thank G-d

I followed the course

From chaos to art

Desire the horse

Depression the cart

I sailed like a swan

I sank like a rock

But time is long gone

Past my laughing stock

My page was too white

My ink was too thin

The day wouldn’t write

What the night pencilled in

My animal howls

My angel’s upset

But I’m not allowed

A trace of regret

For someone will use

What I couldn’t be

My heart will be hers


She’ll step on the path

She’ll see what I mean

My will cut in half

And freedom between

For less than a second

Our lives will collide

The endless suspended

The door open wide

Then she will be born

To someone like you

What no one has done

She’ll continue to do

I know she is coming

I know she will look

And that is the longing

And this is the book


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