Leonard Cohen & Louis Dudek
Louis Dudek, who reigned as Canada’s premier man of letters until his death in 1984, was Leonard Cohen’s Literature professor at McGill University. It was his McGill Poetry Series for Contact Press that published Leonard Cohen’s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies.
Cohen described Dudek as one of the most important people he met in college:1
[Interviewer:] What was the importance of the people you met in college?
[Leonard Cohen:] I met some very nice people, in particular, 3 men. Louis Dudek, Hugh McLennan, a Canadian author who died last year, and Irving Layton, who didn’t go to school with me but was a writer in town. We would organize parties or little get-togethers with women. Professors were always there; there were no barriers, no master/student relationships. They liked our girlfriends (laughs). They were in their 30s or 40s; they liked the people we brought to their parties.
[Interviewer:] Were those 3 men influential to your relationship with literature and poetry?
[Leonard Cohen:] The fraternal aspect was most important. They gave me friendship, their time, the feeling of belonging to some kind of community.2 It was like a period of mutual apprenticeship where we all read our poems to one another. Training was intense, rigorous, taken very seriously but the atmosphere was friendly. Once in awhile there were tears; someone would leave in a rage, we would argue but interest in the art of writing was at the center of our friendship. …
[Interviewer:] Did you consider your professors as people who you should learn from?
[Leonard Cohen:] … These men were so generous that they helped me to become secure with myself. Looking back, their generosity astounds me. … But as far as my work goes, I don’t think those men influenced me. I was touched by them. …
[Interviewer:] Was it a passion for the art of writing in general or particularly for the poetic form?
[Leonard Cohen:] For the poetic form, even if some of them wrote books or stories. What we would consider the most advanced form of human expression was poetry. Dudek has his own personal conception of poetry but he didn’t impose it upon his students. He couldn’t have. Those things have no weight, no value. There was nothing to gain. Not even publication. We would publish our own books ourselves with a stencil. Aside from the futile dreams of planetary domination of every poet, the ambition of our small group was limited: put out a few books, distribute them to a few bookstores. Our group was quite ferocious. When you read your work it was in your best interest to be ready to defend it! “Why that word? That’s shit!” (laughs)… That was our life, our life was poetry. Ideology had absolutely no importance. There was a type of aesthetic, never really defined: of confession, of modern language, of strong images, of authority in music. It was not at all academic. The poetry that they taught us in high school in Montreal, was a poetry made up of English influences that had nothing to do with our way of speaking. The academic establishment was still influenced by the romantic poetry of the 19th century, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth; only once in awhile did we look at Eliot or Arden, but even those were English or wrote in English rhythms. We were interested in creating a language closer to us, closer to our rhythms, that spoke to our own towns and our own lives.
The story that Louis Dudek, poet, literary critic, founder of Contact Press, a publisher of poetry, McGill Professor of Modern Poetry, and the man Robin Blaser called “Canada’s most important—that is to say, consequential modern voice,” knighted a kneeling Leonard Cohen “Poet” with one of Cohen’s manuscripts rolled-up into a suitable dubbing sword may be apocryphal,3 but it is nonetheless emblematic of both individuals.
Louis Dudek Enlightens Leonard Cohen About Self-Revelatory Poetry
Given the significance Leonard Cohen attributes to Louis Dudek, when I discovered a 1970 newspaper article, McGill Prof Calls Youth Cult Rotten, Crude by Ron Campbell (Winnipeg Free Press August 21, 1970) containing an anecdote Dudek told about an early interaction with Cohen, I planned to post the portion about that incident. On consideration, however, I realized that the tone and content of Dudek’s presentation reveal enough about his style and beliefs to warrant publishing the entire article.
The scans below are in posted in reading order. I have underlined the section focusing on Leonard Cohen. Clicking on the scans enlarges the images for easier reading.
Now, this Cohen-Dudek Poetry Moment does inevitably raise certain questions:
- Which Cohen poem betrayed the secrets of his sex life?
- Since when did Leonard Cohen have secrets about his sex life?
- Was Leonard Cohen’s giggling episode described by Dudek the inspiration for his “Laughing Lenny” nickname?
- Why did Dudek think it important to mention that Cohen came back the next day with a poem about sparrows?4
- Comme Un Guerrier by Christian Fevret (Throat Culture magazine, 1992). Found at Speaking Cohen. [↩]
- An indication that the friendship between Dudek and Cohen superceded the professor-student relationship comes from a fellow McGill student, Ruth R. Wisse, who wrote “I believe it was Louis who introduced me to Leonard; certainly it was because of Leonard that I began to call my teacher Louis. Still an undergraduate in the English department –and reputed to have failed his third try at then-compulsory Latin– Leonard did not treat his teacher with my kind of deference but more like a colleague, on equal terms. Louis seemed to prefer it that way. (Source: My Life Without Leonard Cohen By Ruth R. Wisse. Commentary, October 1, 1995. Found at Speaking Cohen.) [↩]
- Faculty Of Arts: McGill University Resolution On The Death Of Emeritus Professor Louis Dudek (3 May 2001) [↩]
- I suspect this was the poem about sparrows Cohen offered Dudek:
By Leonard Cohen (Let Us Compare Mythologies, 1956)
Catching winter in their carved nostrils
the traitor birds have deserted us,
leaving only the dullest brown sparrows
for spring negotiations.
I told you we were fools
to have them in our games,
but you replied:
They are only wind-up birds
who strut on scarlet feet
so haplelessly far
from our curled fingers.
I had moved to warn you,
but you only adjusted your hair
Their wings are made of glass and gold
and we are fortunate
not to hear them splintering
against the sun.
Now the hollow nests
sit like tumors or petrified blossoms
between the wire branches
and you, an innocent scientist,
question me on these brown sparrows:
whether we should plant our yards with breadcrumbs
or mark them with the black persistent crows
whom we hate and stone.
But what shall I tell you of migrations
when in this empty sky
the precise ghosts of departed summer birds
still trace old signs;
or of desperate flights
when the dimmest flutter of a colored wing
excites all our favorite streets
to delight in imaginary spring. [↩]