Learning from Leonard Cohen

In 1967, when I was a fifteen, I went into a drugstore in the desolate beach town where I lived. Just to pass the time, I looked through a rack of paperback books in the front of the store and by chance, came upon The Spice-Box of Earth, a collection of poetry by Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s name was familiar to me because his song, Suzanne, was often played on the radio. So I bought the book and read it on the bus ride home. I still remember the experience of reading that book—it was like coming upon the secrets of the universe. Until that time, I thought poetry was something that was written by people like Robert Browning, whose work I was forced to read in school but which had about zero relevance for the angry, drug-addled kid I was. By the time I stepped off that bus, however, it was like everything that had ever happened to me had been put into context. My mother had recently died; I was lonely, miserable and full of rage, but I had finally found the path that would lead me out of the darkness I was in and off into the rest of my life. I was a terrible student in school because I was too crazy and unreachable to let anybody teach me anything, but I knew that I could write, and with The Spice-Box of Earth, I had found someone who could teach me to write in modern language that could also be both beautiful and lyrical. In particular, the poem “Travel” affected me. Its last lines are:

Now I know why many men have stopped and wept
Halfway between the loves they leave and seek,
And wondered if travel leads them anywhere—
Horizons keep the soft line of your cheek,
The windy sky’s a locket for your hair.

 Reading that final stanza, I began to understand that the last line of a poem is the most important part of the whole structure. You can’t just let a poem trail off: it has to have a definitive ending, and it should be a real kicker. And I also understood something even deeper about how to end a poem: that you can, at the last minute, go off in a completely unexpected direction that is actually the essence of all the lines that preceded it. In effect, in “Travel,” it is as if all the stanzas that precede the windy sky’s a locket for your hair could be removed and that one line could serve as the whole poem. It’s magnificent and brilliantly done.

In the years since, I’ve had many ups and downs as a writer. I even stopped for a long time, but when I started again, I found that what I’d learned about reading Cohen’s poetry could help me read novels the way I’d read Spice-Box: as how-to manuals that not only told me stories but also provided instructions for the most complex elements of a book, such as how to construct a plot, to the most elemental, including how to punctuate dialogue. For that, I turned to John Cheever, Ann Beattie, John Updike, and others. I thank them all, but most of all, I remember Leonard Cohen with endless love and gratitude. Everything I write honors his name.