LEONARD COHEN´S LOADS OF BOOKS
by Norman Warwick
In 1951, Cohen enrolled at McGill University, where he became president of the McGill Debating Union and won the Chester MacNaghten Literary Competition for the poems “Sparrows” and “Thoughts of a Landsman”. Cohen published his first poems in March 1954 in the magazine CIV/n. The issue also included poems by Cohen’s poet–professors (who were also on the editorial board) Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. Cohen graduated from McGill the following year with a B.A. degree. His literary influences during this time included William Butler Yeats, (left) Irving Layton (who taught political science at McGill and became both Cohen’s mentor and his friend), Walt Whitman, Federico García Lorca, and Henry Miller.
His first published book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published by Dudek as the first book in the McGill Poetry Series the year after Cohen’s graduation. The book contained poems written largely when Cohen was between the ages of 15 and 20, and Cohen dedicated the book to his late father. The well-known Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye wrote a review of the book in which he gave Cohen “restrained praise”.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Cohen spent a term in the McGill Faculty of Law and then a year (1956–1957) at the Columbia University School of General Studies. Cohen described his graduate school experience as “passion without flesh, love without climax”. Consequently, Cohen left New York and returned to Montreal in 1957, working various odd jobs and focusing on the writing of fiction and poetry, including the poems for his next book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), which was the first book that Cohen published through the Canadian publishing company McClelland & Stewart. Cohen’s first novella and early short stories were not published until 2022 (A Ballet of Lepers). His father’s will provided him with a modest trust income sufficient to allow him to pursue his literary ambitions for the time, and The Spice-Box of Earth was successful in helping to expand the audience for Cohen’s poetry, helping him reach out to the poetry scene in Canada, outside the confines of McGill University. The book also helped Cohen gain critical recognition as an important new voice in Canadian poetry. One of Cohen’s biographers, Ira Nadel, stated that “reaction to the finished book was enthusiastic and admiring….” The critic Robert Weaver found it powerful and declared that Cohen was ‘probably the best young poet in English Canada right now.’
Cohen continued to write poetry and fiction throughout the 1960s and preferred to live in quasi-reclusive circumstances after he bought a house on Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf. While living and writing on Hydra, Cohen published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novel The Favourite Game (1963), an autobiographical Bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing.
The 1966 novel Beautiful Losers received a good deal of attention from the Canadian press and stirred up controversy because of a number of sexually graphic passages. Regarding Beautiful Losers, the Boston Globe stated: “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.” In 1966 Cohen also published Parasites of Heaven, a book of poems. Both Beautiful Losers and Parasites of Heaven received mixed reviews and sold few copies
In 1966, CBC-TV producer Andrew Simon produced a local Montreal current affairs program, Seven on Six, and offered Cohen a position as host. “I decided I’m going to be a songwriter. I want to write songs,” Simon recalled Cohen telling him.
Subsequently, Cohen published less, with major gaps, concentrating more on recording songs. In 1978, he published his first book of poetry in many years, Death of a Lady’s Man (not to be confused with the album he released the previous year, the similarly titled Death of a Ladies’ Man). It was not until 1984 that Cohen published his next book of poems, Book of Mercy, which won him the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Poetry. The book contains 50 prose-poems, influenced by the Hebrew Bible and Zen writings. Cohen himself referred to the pieces as “prayers”. In 1993 Cohen published Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, and in 2006, after 10 years of delays, additions, and rewritings, Book of Longing. The Book of Longing is dedicated to the poet Irving Layton. Also, during the late 1990s and 2000s, many of Cohen’s new poems and lyrics were first published on the fan website The Leonard Cohen Files, including the original version of the poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (which Cohen later adapted for a song). Cohen’s writing process, as he told an interviewer in 1998, was “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.”
Cohen’s books have been translated into several languages.
My dad always used to say that ´when being offered a recommendation you should always consider the source. Well, there can be no better recommendation for a writer often named as the ´best in the world´ than one offered by another writer who vies for that same title. Ondaatje is a great fan of Leonard Cohen and has written glowingly of his work.
Michael Ondaatje (right) was born to a Burgher family of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese-Portuguese origin. He moved to England with his mother in 1954. After relocating to Canada in 1962, Ondaatje became a Canadian citizen. Ondaatje studied for a time at Bishops College School and Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, but moved to Toronto and received his BA from the University of Toronto and his MA from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and began teaching at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. In 1970 he settled in Toronto. From 1971 to 1988 he taught English Literature at York University and Glendon College in Toronto.
He and his wife, novelist and academic Linda Spalding, co-edit Brick, A Literary Journal, with Michael Redhill, Michael Helm, and Esta Spaldin
Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje’s work also encompasses memoir, poetry, and film.
Ondaatje has, since the 1960s, also been involved with Toronto’s influential Coach House Books, supporting the independent small press by working as a poetry editor.
In 1988 Michael Ondaatje was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC) and two years later became a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He has two children and is the brother of philanthropist, businessman, and author Christopher Ondaatje.
In 1992 he received the Man Booker Prize for his winning novel adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film, The English Patient.