Leonard Cohen – The Literary Years

Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist

A Leonard Cohen Primer1
The Not Too Big, Not Too Little Pyritic Book Of Leonard Cohen

Three Mundane But Useful Points About Leonard Cohen’s Life After Completing College and Before Becoming A Musician

  1. Before graduation from college, Cohen’s life was Montreal-centered, foreseeable, and typical of those in his cohort; after graduation, his life became cosmopolitan, unpredictable, and uniquely his own. Until graduation from McGill, the content of Leonard Cohen’s life may have been somewhat atypical (not every college graduate has published a volume of poetry, after all), but the progression of his life, dictated by the requirements and expectations of his family, his community, and the educational system, had been well within his cohort’s mainstream and, in fact, reasonably predictable.As we’ll see, that would soon change.The non-comatose reader may well observe at this juncture that most young men and women live lives in the mainstream until college graduation. Well, that’s why it’s a mundane point. On the other hand, most continue to live mainstream, predictable lives after graduation. Cohen did not.
  2. The necessity to earn money became and would continue to be a significant influence in Cohen’s life decisions. Again, it is hardly unusual for the end of college to mark the end of decision-making being made with little concern for finances. As an artist, Cohen’s approach to fiscal matters is atypical in that he is willing to address these issues directly and openly.The point, however, is that even at this early stage in his career, the necessity to earn a living has a direct impact on Cohen’s activities.This trend will continue throughout his life, up to and including the present. The current 2008 tour, for example, probably would not have been scheduled if Cohen hadn’t been defrauded of millions from his retirement savings.
  3. Leonard Cohen, long before he was a singer-songwriter, was a well-known, successful poet and novelist. And, he was not a rock poet, a folk poet, or any other kind of pop songwriters are today’s poets poet. Nope, Leonard Cohen was and is the kind of poet who has a grasp of the craft of writing prose and poetry, who knows a dactyl from a trochee, who understands how an elegiac couplet varies from the heroic couplet. He sold volumes of well-reviewed poetry and novels before anyone thought of paying to hear him sing anything other than square dance tunes.2

Betwixt McGill and Hydra

There are some discrepancies about the exact dates of events in this stage of Cohen’s life, but there is a general consensus about the nature of the events themselves.

Cohen spent a term in law school at McGill and then enrolled in the Master’s level General Studies Program at Columbia University from 1956 to 1957. Cohen himself describes entering Columbia as “something of a lark, since I had finished McGill only by supplemental examinations and getting bare passes.”3 At Columbia, he wrote poetry, started a short-lived literary magazine called The Phoenix, began and ended at least three different romances (a fellow student, a care worker at a nearby children’s summer camp, and the same camp’s nurse), and, a year later, dropped out.

He soon returned to Montreal where he worked at his uncle’s clothing company to pay off debts. He was also hired by the CBC as a radio journalist, held various office positions, and served as an elevator operator until he was fired because of his resistance to wearing the uniform.

The Career That Could Have Been

This motif, altering course and making decisions at least in part because of the necessity to earn money, will be repeated many times over Cohen’s career.

Throughout this period, Leonard Cohen continued to write poetry and fiction; he also gave poetry readings to the accompaniment of a jazz band at a place called Dunn’s Birdland, which was a room on top of Dunn’s delicatessen on St. Catherine Street in Montreal.

In fact, Cohen’s first professional recording took place in 1957 when he read eight poems from Let Us Compare Mythologies on the album, Six Montreal Poets. Cohen was by far the youngest of the six poets, among whom were his mentor, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, and F.R. Scott, arguably the best known Canadian poets of the time.

In 1959, Cohen was working in a factory in Montreal an hour away from his home while writing poetry and spending his evenings giving readings. He recounts what happened next:

… so [I was] sleeping very, very little and playing all night and working all day. Then I applied for and was awarded a grant by the Canada Council. A very generous grant at the time, it was about three grand, which was worth a lot in ’59, and also a ticket to visit the ancient capitals, because on the basis of Let Us Compare Mythologies, I said I wanted to visit Rome, Athens, Jerusalem. So, I had a round-trip ticket from Montreal to Tel Aviv. I went to England first, and I wrote the first draft of The Favorite Game, and I finished the book which later became Spice-Box Of Earth, and then I went to Greece with my guitar, and I finished another draft or two of The Favorite Game. Then I locked into this living style that would carry me through the next seven or eight years.

The Spice Box of Earth, Cohen’s second book of poetry, was published in 1961 to a chorus of critical acclaim, extending Cohen’s reputation as an up and coming poet from the cloistered McGill circle of literary figures  to an international audience.

The growth in celebrity – albeit celebrity limited to a well-circumscribed circle of poetry readers, academics, and literati – accelerated when The Spice Box of Earth was re-published in the United States a few years later.

But it was when Leonard Cohen settled down that his literary creativity and productivity blossomed.

For Leonard Cohen, “settling down” meant landing in a villa on a gorgeous Greek island.


The semi-official legend of Cohen’s move to Greece, as related by biographer Ira B. Nadel, is worth rehearsing here.

In March 1960, when he had completed his manuscripts, Cohen was free to consider his position in London, and he found it wanting. After having a wisdom tooth pulled one day, he wandered about the East End of London on yet another rainy afternoon and noticed a Bank of Greece sign on Bank Street. He entered and saw a teller with a deep tan wearing sunglasses, in protest against the dreary landscape. He asked the clerk what the weather was like in Greece. “Springtime” was the reply. Cohen made up his mind on the spot to depart, and within a day or so he was in Athens. “I said to myself that I should go somewhere completely different in order to see how they live,“ he later explained.

Arriving in Athens on 13 April 1960, Cohen then made the five hour trip to Hydra via ship where he found an island where electricity was just being introduced,4 where plumbing was primitive, and where transportation was dependent on walking or using animals.

Cohen was enamored of the place, purchasing a 200 year old, five story house in need of much repair for $1500 and joining the island’s colony of English-speaking artists.5

Leonard Cohen At Work In Hydra6

During his eight years living on Hydra, a period often interrupted by his trips to Montreal to earn money, Cohen completed the afore-mentioned “The Spice Box of Earth” and another volume of poetry, “Flowers for Hitler,” as well as two novels, “The Favorite Game” and “Beautiful Losers.”

The publication of these books earned Cohen distinction and praise (e.g., The Boston Globe anointed him the reincarnation of James Joyce) but little in the way of pecuniary gain.

Hello, Marianne

Hydra was also where Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen, then the girlfriend and later the wife of famous Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen. There is contention about who did what to whom when, but it is clear that for several years Cohen and Marianne were lovers, living together, along with Marianne’s young son, Axel, mostly in Hydra but also for periods of up to a year in Montreal7 and, according to some sources, for a period in Oslo.8

The above photo (from back cover of Songs From A Room) shows Marianne in the home she and Leonard Cohen shared in Hydra.

Marianne was, of course, the inspiration for So Long, Marianne.

Leonard Cohen So Long Marianne 1974 Live (Uploaded by lightning49)


As it turned out, Cohen was to say “so long” to Hydra, although he would return to the island later, before parting with Marianne.

Marianne and young Axel would accompany Leonard Cohen during his next transition, which would take him to a new location – New York – and a new way of life – writing and singing songs – in the company of Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and others, many of whom were denizens of the Chelsea Hotel.

And, long after Cohen and Marianne finally parted, they have remained loyal friends and fans of one another.


Previous Leonard Cohen Primer Posts:

  1. A Leonard Cohen Primer is a simple, easy to understand introduction to Leonard Cohen for anyone who has recently tuned in to his music and for fans who may have listened to the songs for some time and now  want to learn something about the singer-songwriter who produced them. The goal of this series of posts is to avoid both (1) overwhelming readers with details and tangents, however interesting those channels might be, and (2) omitting fundamental elements of Cohen’s life. []
  2. See the Buckskin Boys in Leonard Cohen – Boy Wonder []
  3. Ten or More Questions I Should Have Asked Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel []
  4. This was, in fact, the inspiration for Cohen’s Song, Like A Bird On A Wire. As Cohen himself has commented, “this song was written looking at a bird on a wire.” The wire was part of the then newly installed phone lines in Hydra. Elsewhere (The Song of Leonard Cohen: Portrait of a Poet, A Friendship & a Film by Harry Rasky, Mosaic Press (NY) February 27, 2001), however, Cohen elaborates,

    I began that song in Greece. The melody began a few of the lyrics, a few of the lines. And then it was still with me. I was in L.A. I was living in a Motel on the Sunset strip – it developed a little further. Then I made a recording of it which David Crosby produced. Ah I never finished that recording. And the song continued to develop. I made a recording of it in Nashville with Bob Johnson as producer. And apparently the lyrics still weren’t finished. I changed the lyrics and a different lyric appears in a record called “Live Songs”. And then the lyrics changed again somewhat in the most recent treatments of the song – so it’s continued being written for about eight or nine years.


  5. An especially evocative set of photos and descriptions of Cohen’s home in Hydra and of Cohen himself during his stay there are available at Leonard Cohen’s Hydra []
  6. Photo by Dominique Isserman []
  7. Marianne and Axel would accompany Cohen on some of his trips to Montreal and remain in Hydra during others []
  8. A moving 2005 interview with Marianne Ihlen about her relationship with Leonard Cohen and her perspective on how it came to be can be found at Marianne And Leonard []

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