Leonard Cohen: A Poet Who Approached Life and Music With Dignity

By Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.
November 16, 2016 Updated: November 16, 2016

When Leonard Cohen passed away on Nov. 7 at age 82, the world lost one of its enduring living connections to the poet’s realm.  

Cohen’s natural charm, self-deprecating humour, and uncommon poetic talent quickly elevated him to legendary status among his peers and fans. A bard in the truest sense, he took his craft to new heights.

Cohen belonged to a bygone era, where men and women plundered the depths of the human experience to create their work. He was a master of his trade, a Michelangelo of language. On one song alone he laboured for five years. That was “Hallelujah.”

Such unhurried perfection and pursuit of the muse is rare today. With all of its frivolous distractions, the information age will have a difficult time producing another Leonard Cohen.

Cohen wrestled with the big questions and exposed them to the rest of us. He had a real old-world aura about him as a poet who approached life and music with dignity, resigned to his  humanness and its aspiration for transcendence. He spoke of the passions of the soul in a singular way with a solemn gravitas that yielded darkly beautiful work. Happy people just don’t write the way Cohen did.

Unlike his ’60s counterparts such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Cohen was foremost a poet. He was a poet who sang—not the other way around. His music was incidental and only existed to carry the weight of his words.

Surrounding himself with angelic backup singers, Cohen gave his baritone voice wings to reach anthemic heights. The chorus of “Hallelujah” borders on the rapture of Mozart or Mendelssohn in its transcendent quality.

It is telling of the universality of his songs that they could be sung with equal measure by Cohen at 30 and then 80 years of age. Most songs have their season and diminish with age, but Cohen’s have that rare, timeless quality reserved for the great works of art.

He was a master of his trade, a Michelangelo of language.

Final Act

After an extended absence from recording and performing, Cohen was forced from retirement for monetary reasons. He launched a comeback when in his seventies, performing for the biggest audiences of his career. And he kept on going, releasing new material and touring extensively, clearly energized by the feverish response of his fans.

His last performances were a mixture of old-world class, wit, and endurance. Not many 78-year-olds can play a three-hour set night after night. Far from a shadow of his past, he was a force onstage, delivering his work with focused intensity and a palpable humanity.

He wore his age with dignity and humility and it was perfect. Cohen, like his music, aged gracefully. In a world where youth is worshipped as king, he was a noble example of the elder statesman. He wore both the scars and badges of his 82 years with liveliness and humour, eager to poke good-natured fun at his legacy.

Cohen served as a reminder that age does not equal weakness. Having a perpetually unfinished body of work kept him spry and in total possession of his faculties. If Cohen’s approach to life provides any lesson it is this: we are at our best when we are fully engaged in our chosen trade, and if we can become masters of our craft that mastery will serve us well into our twilight years.

Leonard Cohen was a man who followed his muse all the way to his death. It is hard to imagine he had anything but a fulfilled life. And he earned it, his place in the tower of song.

Ryan Moffatt is a Vancouver-based arts reporter, musician, and pop-culture pundit.

Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.