Canada lost one of its most iconic artists yesterday, as songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen passed away at age 82.
But what was it about the Montreal singer that struck Canadians so deeply?
LISTEN: Queens University English Professor Robert May on Leonard Cohen’s legacy
Robert May teaches English at Queens university in Toronto, and says he like many others was shocked to learn of Cohen’s passing — as the singer had just released a new album several weeks before.
“He’s not someone who publishes every chance he gets. He is very conservative, I think he holds a lot back. He makes sure everything is just right and as perfect as he can make it before he lets it out into the world. So when an event like a new album or a new book by Cohen comes along its a big deal,” he said.
But he says he wasn’t surprised at the public mourning. May says as one of Canada’s most celebrated artists, who’s been on the scene creating since the 1950’s, Cohen will leave a vacuum.
“He’s been part of Canada’s cultural landscape for such a very long time. And when a country loses someone like that, there’s going to be an outpouring of grief, because we’re never quite sure if someone like Cohen will ever be replaced,” he said.
But what was it about the man that broke through to so many Canadians? May says he played a key role in democratizing Canadian literature.
Before Cohen, he says Canadian poetry and literature were relegated to musty academia – so much so that people barely wanted to admit they existed.
“Leonard Cohen and his generation came along and sort of blew the doors off of that,” he says, writing about themes people actually cared about: love, mortality, sex, and spirituality.
But as celebrated as he was, there are still many – particularly in the younger generation – that don’t know Cohen’s body of work.
Where should they start, with an artist so prolific that his writing spans decades?
May suggests Stranger Music, an anthology of poetry that starts with work from Cohen’s first book published in 1956, while he was still a student at McGill, and runs up to the 1990’s including song lyrics.
“I think it’s an excellent collection of poetry and music that Cohen collected himself. There are even excerpts from two novels.”