Leonard Cohen’s death from leukaemia in November 2016 brought the curtain down on an illustrious and prolific music career that spanned five decades. As well as the ubiquitous Hallelujah, which has been covered over three hundred times in numerous different languages, Cohen’s other famous songs include So Long Marianne, Suzanne and Bird on a Wire to name a few. He won numerous awards throughout the course of his life, including a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2010 and the inaugural New England PEN Award for Excellence in Lyrics in 2012, as well as being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Before his music career took off, however, Cohen published his first poetry compilation, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956, and would go on to publish twelve more books including two novels.
The Flame is a posthumous collection by Cohen compiled in the final months of his life, and consisting mainly of his final poems, writings and sketches. It is split into three sections – the first comprising of sixty-three poems, the second of those that would become the lyrics for his last four albums, and the third of notebook entries from Cohen’s teenage years until the day before his death. Included also is a poignant foreword by his son, Adam, who talks about the process of the book being compiled and finding all kinds of notebooks, napkins and other ‘humble vessels’ around his father’s house when he was younger that consisted of poetry and lyrics.
The works included in these main sections are a generally solid demonstration of why Leonard Cohen is considered to be one of the most important songwriters of his generation, and his prowess is on display here. Admittedly some of the shorter verses are on the weak side, and their inclusion here can be questioned, but the strength of the others makes up for this. Likewise the lyrics are of equally great quality, and the notebook writings – some of which are presented in their original handwritten form instead of type – are also a useful window into Cohen’s creative processes. The collection is fittingly rounded off by his acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Award in 2011.
Collections like these can fall so easily into the ‘posthumous cash-grab’ trap, but this one thankfully avoids that trope. While perhaps a little too in-depth for more casual Cohen fans, it will be lapped up by completists, and is a fitting epitaph for his career.
The Flame is published by Canongate Books and priced at £20.