Leonard Cohen was born in Westmount in 1934, and his remains were interred on November 10th 2016 in the cemetery of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in which he had taken Bar Mitzvah in 1947. The cantor of that congregation sang on Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker. In his later years, as travel became more painful for the old chansonnier, Cohen would visit Montreal less and less frequently. But he once said that he had to return regularly to Montreal to renew his “neurotic affiliations” with the city of his birth, and he has done so one last time.
Take heart: Cohen’s years at McGill University were academically undistinguished. He found there, however, the mentorship of Louis Dudek, Canadian poet and a new young professor in the Department of English. Legend has it that, after reading a sheaf of the young Cohen’s poems, Dudek made him kneel in the corridor in the Arts Building and struck him with the manuscript on both shoulders—“knighting” him as of the fellowship of Canadian poets. Through Dudek Cohen was to meet his lifelong friend Irving Layton and thereafter to join the avant-garde literary circles of Montreal. And it was Dudek who created the “McGill Poetry Series,” at his own personal cost, in which Cohen’s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956.
Not long after, Columbia and New York, and then the island of Hydra in Greece, would call Cohen’s restless spirit away from the jazz clubs of downtown Montreal in which he was learning to perform his poems to musical accompaniment. He was acclaimed by Canadian poets and audiences for his second book of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), and denounced in Parliament for his second novel, Beautiful Losers (1966). When in the mid-sixties he chose to turn to the opportunities of income and fame that song-writing and singing could provide, scholars in Canada lost interest in him—a minor rejection compared with the millions of too-adoring fans he was soon dealing with on the world stage. It would take many years of fame, many years of depression and withdrawal and declining sales, many of the greatest songs written in the twentieth century, and one of the finest single books of literature produced in that century (Death of a Lady’s Man, 1978), before Cohen would receive again the attention of his alma mater. McGill granted him an honorary doctorate in 1992, not long after his album The Future forecast so much of what we face, without him now, in the 21st century. Only after the turn of our century did a significant body of criticism and scholarship develop around Cohen’s works—appraisal and appreciation that looks set to continue for decades.
Now the Captain he was dying
But the Captain wasn’t hurt
The silver bars were in my hand
I pinned them to my shirt.
You Want It Darker (2016)
Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen (Donald Brittain & Don Owen, 1965)
CBC interview with Adrienne Clarkson (1989)
“The Sparrows” and “Thoughts of a Landsman”
Cohen’s poetry won the Department’s Chester Macnaghten Prize in Creative Writing in 1955. Here are photographs of the original typescripts of his prize-winning submissions, “The Sparrows” and “Thoughts of a Landsman.” The typescripts are held in the McGill University Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections division.