I think it was in 2007 when I bought a hardcover copy of Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. I knew he was one of Canada’s biggest cultural icons, but I was only familiar with his first novel, The Favorite Game, which I read in 2006. I didn’t know at the time that Book of Longing would become the single most influential work of poetry I’ve ever read. It was sometimes lyrical and sometimes prosaic, sometimes serious and sometimes sarcastic. It was earnest, romantic, sad, joyful, reflective, and revealing. The simplicity and honesty of his style arrested me.
Every now and then I take it off the shelf in search of inspiration or to invoke the feelings so powerfully brought to life in its pages. There are six or seven favorites which I always come back to. Over the following years I bought two more of his books: Let Us Compare Mythologies (his first book of poetry), and Book of Mercy (which is more like a prayer book then a collection of poetry). I also got into his music when he came out of retirement due to financial difficulty in his 70s and started putting out new albums: Popular Problems, Old Ideas, and now You Wanted It Darker.
The honesty and humility of his work instilled respect and admiration in me. Leonard Cohen was the one poet who I aspired to be like more than another author or musician I’d ever come across, so the news of his passing into the next life hit me pretty hard when I found out on Thursday night. I was at my desk scanning my Facebook feed when I saw a post saying that Leonard Cohen has died. I said, “No! This has to be fake. It can’t be true,” and immediately did a Twitter search for Leonard Cohen. Much to my dismay it was true. Many media outlets were reporting on it, and many fans were already voicing their condolences. I still couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. Of all the terrible, shitty things to happen this year, the passing of Leonard Cohen was the final suckerpunch dropping me to the mat. 2016 has truly been a terrible year.
I poured myself a glass of scotch on ice, took Book of Longing off the shelf once more, and spent an hour reading it. Leonard’s poetry has not lost its power over me and in the darkness of this grim news it became even more moving. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a few tears for Leonard that night. It felt as though I’d lost someone close to me; a relative or an old friend.
But Leonard lived a long and successful life, so I shouldn’t mourn him but instead celebrate his great life and achievements. His poetry and music touched the hearts of millions, transcended borders, and will last long after I’m gone from this world too. The power of his work shows in how people immediately formed a vigil at the doorstep of his house in Montreal. Even four days later when I visit people still come to pay homage and maybe leave something for the great poet: flowers, candles, missives, fedoras. I returned to Montreal primarily to collect more photos for Street Art Canada, but also to make the pilgrimage. It was the perfect time to come back, and I’m glad I did.
It amazed me to discover that he lived in a townhouse near St. Laurent and Mont Royal, right in front of Parc du Portugal. I lived in Montreal for three years and walked past this house hundreds of times not knowing that the man who gave me so much inspiration was right there within shouting distance. He was quite the man about town as well. People would often see him walking down the street, or at a café with his notebook and an espresso allongé. Most would leave him alone out of respect because he never wanted to be treated like a celebrity.
Now I think that during all those times when I was about town, walking these same streets, maybe I walked right passed him and didn’t even realize it. There may have been a time when I could have shaken hands with this great Canadian poet who is largely responsible for me pursuing poetry as more than just a simple hobby, but as an artform of poignant expression leaving an indelible mark on humanity.
If not for Leonard Cohen, I might not have pursued my career as a professional writer. I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his work and the impact that it had on me, so I of course I had to go to his house and join the other pilgrims. I may have never met him in life, but I’ll always hold him in my heart. Every time I walk by his house on St. Laurent, I’ll think of him. I’ll remember Leonard Cohen.