My first exposure to Leonard Cohen was his video for “Closing Time.” As a preteen just starting to listen to rock music, I couldn’t fully understand why MuchMusic was sticking this video of an old man with a lukewarm voice in between my beloved videos by grunge bands. I chocked it up to Canadian content quotas. And then Kurt Cobain mentioned him in a song. There was something else about this figure I couldn’t begin to guess at.
When I started learning more about Canadian literature and poetry, Cohen still seemed apart somehow – his words were simple and true and accessible and painted with desperation and passion and unapologetic eroticism, different from other lines struggling over similes for national identity. As a poet and lyricist, Cohen was a creature borne of love and beauty and then orphaned; his inability to reconnect with those ideals drove his work.
A few years ago he described his role as a writer given the status he’d achieved, and any writer questioning themselves should keep it in mind:
“I always had the notion that I had a tiny garden to cultivate. I never thought I was really one of the big guys. My work – the work that was in front of me – was just to cultivate this tiny corner of the field that I thought I knew something about, which was something to do with self-investigation without self-indulgence. I never liked the latter too much as a mode. Pure confession I never felt was really interesting, but confession filtered through a tradition of skill and hard work is interesting to me. So that was my tiny corner, and I just started writing about the things that I thought I knew about, or that I wanted to find out about.”
I’ll miss Cohen’s spirit, which has been around in one way or another my entire life until today. It’s part of the sun and earth and drink and smoke now. He lives on in the closer look, that feeling that pulls at us to witness the flower opening. Now that I’m older, there’s more in those lyrics, more in that image of that man crooning crookedly and softly about love and sex and faith and dirty bars. It was there all along, and I’m still trying to figure out the mystery of it.
Tend your tiny garden.