‘So little to say / So urgent / to say it, is the whole of one poem by the late Leonard Cohen. The poem is called “My Career.” Like so much of Cohen’s work, the poem reifies a certain kind of humbleness — before the divine, the beautiful, the mystical. But the modesty may be a put-on, for in another poem, called “Kanye West Is Not Picasso,” the speaker asserts, with a fair amount of facetiousness, to be sure, that, while Kanye is no Picasso, “I am Picasso.” (In later lines, the speaker also claims, “I am the Kanye West of Kanye West,” and “I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is / When he shoves your ass off the stage / I am the real Kanye West.”)
“My Career” also puts front-and-center — indeed, it’s all front-and-center, only front-and-center — the mortal necessities Cohen heeded throughout his long and prolific career, the sense that time is ever, always, running out, that what little remains must be given shape and significance.
Mortality and its attendant urgencies are especially present in “The Flame,” the collection of poems, notebook jottings, lyrics and dashed-off but meticulous drawings that is Cohen’s last, as he knew it would be. “I am trying to finish / My shabby career / With a little truth / In the now and here,” he writes in “If I Took a Pill.” Of course Cohen’s career was far from shabby. In a New Yorker magazine profile, published not long before the artist’s death, on November 7, 2016 (the day, it has been noted in meaningful tones, before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency), David Remnick documented the respect Cohen commanded among fellow musicians; even Bob Dylan — cryptic, grudging Bob Dylan — spoke plainly about his admiration.
Cohen was a rare thing: the musician’s musician whose work resonated with civilians, an artist who spoke simply, clearly, who said no more than what needed to be said, but who also said no less. His work was a mirror held up to the self, but one that reflected more than the self. He could be a little cheesy, a little passé, but that only added to his considerable charm. He could be repetitive, but that was only because the things he was interested in, the things he wanted to describe, were worth returning to again and again. And again.
Cohen was 82 when he died, which is not, in the grand scheme of things, a tragedy. And yet how bereft one feels in browsing through “The Flame.” Sincerity is not a quality I generally set a lot of store by — at least not aesthetically — but Cohen wears his well. He is doing what he can, he is doing what he must, he is doing what he cannot not do. In his foreword to the collection, Cohen’s son Adam Cohen notes that his father, “before he was anything else, was a poet. He regarded this vocation… as his ‘mandate from G-d to enter the dark.” (The reverence suggested by that hyphen, Adam Cohen writes, points to the artist’s “reluctance to write out the divine name even in English… an old Jewish custom and… evidence of the fidelity he mixed with his freedom.”)
Writing, more than “religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money,” offered a chance at salvation, a succor, a way to see beyond. This from a man who could be devout (his paternal grandfather, Lyor Cohen, was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress); who spent years living with monks; who knew many a woman and took many a drug; who toured incessantly; who knew worldwide admiration, earned (and lost and earned again) a fortune.
Onstage and offstage, Cohen’s words resonated — go on resonating — and if they saved him, they saved others, too. “There’s a crack in everything,” insists the chorus of “Anthem.” “That’s how the light gets in.” “Blackening pages,” Cohen called the act of writing. But the way he did it, he could have called it “lightening pages,” too. Yes, it is trite to say that a song, a poem, saved someone. But couldn’t it?
On Cohen’s last album, “You Want It Darker,” the titular song expresses a willingness to “kill the flame.” But “The Flame” suggests that he wasn’t, even at the end — especially at the end — so willing. The poems get longer; they digress, spiral out, spill across. Cohen returns to his themes, re-engages obsessions that never got old, reworks his arguments: The flame destroys but also illuminates, and perhaps one is not possible without the other. There’s a crack in everything. It lets the light in. “Hineni / I’m ready, my Lord,” Cohen intones during the refrain and the conclusion of “You Want It Darker.” Here I am, Cohen says, and there he was, ready to grapple with what had come and what would.
Yevgeniya Traps is a contributing editor at the Forward.