2005 The Nobel art of Cohen article by John Mullen

The Nobel Art of Cohen

John Mullan
Wednesday April 20, 2005
The Guardian

Suzanne takes you down

To her place by the river.

She gives you tea and oranges

That come all the way from China…

– Leonard Cohen

Many a Guardian reader can surely still hear the flat, irresistible voice of Leonard Cohen singing these lyrics. In the 1970s, earnest middle-class teenagers knew that here was a poet. That was the whole point of the notorious voice. You could hear that he wasn’t a singer. He was a poet, allowing some of his poems to become songs. You could even have the books on your shelf; he was a writer for years before his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967. Not just poetry. When he published his novel Beautiful Losers in 1966, the Boston Globe announced: “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in MontrĂ©al under the name of Cohen.” He was serious.

Now one of the best-known radio broadcasters on the CBC, the Canadian equivalent of the BBC, is leading a campaign to have MontrĂ©al’s own bard given this year’s Nobel prize for literature. Paul Kennedy, the Canadian version of Melvyn Bragg, first suggested Cohen as a laureate “almost as a joke”, but then “suddenly figured, in a sort of watershed moment – you know, this guy actually does deserve the Nobel prize”.

Kennedy is unfazed by the supposed imperviousness to outside pressure of the secretive Swedish Academy committee that chooses the winner. Next week his national radio programme, Ideas, will further promote his candidate. “He’s a universal poet in a way that I can’t think of anybody since maybe Homer – in the western tradition, anyway. And Homer, by the way, was a singer too.”

Now in his 70s, Cohen has attained what Dr Johnson called “the dignity of an ancient”. He has gone through the painful phases required of a proper poet. First there was gravel-voiced despair (“Like a bird on a wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir”). Next came mid-life libertinism (see New Skin for the Old Ceremony, and its paean to oral sex with Janis Joplin, Chelsea Hotel No 2). And then there was late-life religion, with 1984’s Various Positions, written after Cohen tried taking “theBodhisattva path, which is the path of service”. “Once you start dealing with sacred material, you’re gonna get creamed,” reflected Cohen. The true poet has to pay a price. Now is the time for his reward. How can the Nobel prize committee say no?

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