Although he is now best known for his award-winning songwriting, Canadian musical artist Leonard Cohen had a successful career as a poet and novelist throughout the 1950s and 60s, before the release of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. Cohen published his first poems in 1954 as a student at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, a time during which his primary literary influences included William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, Federico García Lorca, and Henry Miller.
Published in 1956, Cohen’s first book of Poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, revealed his abiding interest “in mythology and magic [and exhibited] his almost magical control and modulation of verbal melody, his sensuous particularity, the empathetic reach of his imagination and his fascination with situations which mingle violence and tenderness to heighten the effect of both. We also see emerge for the first time the theme of the quest—here as usually in Cohen the quest for a lost or unknown God, mysterious, elusive, but compelling” (Pacey, Phenomenon of Leonard Cohen, 5-6).
Throughout the 1960s, Cohen continued to write poetry and became relatively reclusive after buying a home on the Greek Isle of Hydra where he wrote the autobiographical novel The Favourite Game, in which a young man comes to discover his identity through writing. The book was initially rejected by Canadian, American, and British publishers, but finally published in England after Cohen reluctantly cut the text in half. Upon publication, Globe & Mail said of the book: “Is there any Canadian novel as compelling and as good as at capturing youthful anxieties as J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye? Absolutely. . . . Leonard Cohen’s first novel, The Favorite Game.” Paul Quarrington said “[t]he Favorite Game is a morally brave book, intimate and unflinching. . . . Leonard Cohen sustains the highest level of poetic craftsmanship throughout,” and The Observer added “[h]e is a writer of terrific energy and color, a Rabelaisian comic and a visualizer of memorable scenes.”
Published in 1966, Cohen’s second and final novel, Beautiful Losers, used a vast range of literary techniques in conveying the tale of a complex love triangle and came to be seen as having introduced postmodernism into Canadian literature. Reflecting the zeitgeist of the 1960s, the prose was simple yet dense with imagery and allusions to mysticism, sexuality, and drug-taking.
In 1966, Cohen announced that he had decided to become a songwriter and published less as he focused on recording songs. In 1978, his first book of poetry in many years, Death of a Lady’s Man was published featuring poems much in line with the thought-provoking and mournful lyrics that had come to define his musical style. Largely autobiographical in tone, the collection offers the reader insights into Cohen’s private world.
As we await Cohen’s new posthumous album of songs, we invite you to explore the many other rare first editions and books signed by Leonard Cohen including his Selected Poems 1956-1968, Dance Me to the End of Love, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, and On Tour with Leonard Cohen. Browse all of his titles currently in our collection here.