by Ken Rolheiser
In memory of Leonard Cohen

“The day of his death was a dark cold day

The death of the poet is kept from his poems”
(from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden line 6 & 11)

Leonard Cohen was a rare poet, and we are left to ponder the impact of his gifts. Infrequently do we find someone who so successfully makes a living as a poet. And that may be a reflection of how little we value art in our lives.

Leonard Cohen touched our lives. As an English teacher I was privileged to share his poetry with students from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. He was popular with students and their parents. How did this happen?

The role of the poet is to entertain the people, to drive away their cares and to put them in touch with God. I borrow here from Shevchenko’s “Perebendia”. The poet tricks the people with his kobza, his music. But at night Perebendia sits on the grave mounds and communes with his God.
The grandson of a rabbi, Cohen grew up immersed in Jewish culture. “Basically he was born to be a rabbi,” says biographer Sylvie Simmons. Cohen was deeply spiritual. In his last album You Want It Darker he says, “Hineni, hineni” – “here I am”, I’m ready to act in service.
In his letter to a dying Marianne he says, “we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon… if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine,"

Of Jesus Cohen says, “Any guy who says 'Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek' has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity… A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion.”

Spiritual all his life, Cohen was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996 and spent some time in a monastery. The depth of his daily walk with God impacts us as well. He took his religion very seriously. As a result his readers are more in touch with the bible:

“Is there no Joab for tomorrow night
with his three darts
and a great heap of stone?”
(“Prayer for Sunset” Leonard Cohen)

The sun has set for Cohen, but the power of his poetry lives on. The raw sensuality of his lyrics appeals to us:
“My mouth on the dew of your thighs.
And I'll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss.
And I'll yield to the flood of your beauty” (from “Take this waltz”)

and a deeper silence
when the crickets

“Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my life to be free”

“When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness
says that you’ve sinned.”

There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in”

“I have tried in my way to be free”

“I did my best, it wasn’t much…I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come all this way to fool you.”

Cohen described writing poetry as “sacred mechanics”. As a wordsmith he gave proof to
Coleridge's dictum that poetry is the best words in the best order.

Cohen used his gift to praise God, even though his attempts sometimes seemed to him like “a cold and very lonely Hallelujah”. Saint and sinner, in the end Cohen stood before his God “with nothing on [his] tongue but Hallelujah”.

(584 words)