Leonard Cohen: Canadian Poet and Priest
For six decades, Leonard Cohen revealed his soul to the world through poetry and song – his deep and timeless humanity touching our very core…
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Cohen’s chart resembles the side-view of an opened case of opera glasses for close-up viewing of shows. The open lid hides Leonard Cohen’s I-side. His ability to strike a deep chord in us is due in part to the three planetary energies – the Sun, and creative Venus conjunct Neptune – in the depths of a healing 12th house. With two quincunxes embracing his centre, his poems and songs often evoke a great longing in us. . The lyrics of the melancholic song Suzanne – He touched your perfect body with his mind – could well be said not just of the ex-wife of a friend of his, but of his Self. The base of the case is made up of two blue trines – the great talent, both literary and musical – to assert his creative self-expression. The protruding lens is firmly fixed on the 6th and 7th houses. Cohen projected his inner riches onto the outer world where it was seen and heard by millions. As he says In my Secret Life:
I’ll be marching through the morning.
Marching through the night,
Moving ‘cross the borders,
Of my secret life.
Supported by his graciously assertive Mercury, his leonine Mars had much to say and do in the humanities: his poems, novels and songs explored religion, politics, isolation, sexuality and personal relationships. This imposing energy was experienced most intensely in 1997 when his age point encountered Mars. Cohen then released the More Best of Leonard Cohen album which won him four Canadian Juno Awards and the highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order of Canada.
Mars in Leo and the North Node in Aquarius
Inside the case there are three oppositions running through Cohen’s core. His11th-house Mars was opposed throughout his lifetime by his 5th-house North Node which pointed him in the direction of creative self-expression. He had to strike a balance between being a poet reading his verses in arty venues or a singer performing live to audiences (which he never really enjoyed) and being a priest in the higher realms of his being. His age point conjoined Pluto in 1993 and a major transformation took place in Cohen so that, in 1994 when his age point entered the 11th house of life philosophies, he retreated to a Zen Centre in LA where he lived in seclusion for five years. In 1996, when his age point opposed his creative self-expression on the social scene, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning ‘silence’. He then fell silent for more than a decade in terms of concerts.
The Moon in Pisces and Venus conjunct Neptune in Virgo
The second opposition is between his Moon in creative and compassionate service to others and Venus conjunct Neptune in saintly seclusion. In 1960 when his age point conjoined his North Node, he lived on the Greek island Hydra with Marianne, the Norwegian Venus who inspired the song So Long, Marianne. “She gave me many songs…She is a Muse,” he said. Their relationship lasted for most of the sixties. Marianne died on 28 July 2016. Cohen’s farewell letter to her was read at her funeral: “… our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.” He was right: he died four months later from cancer.
The different Venuses in his life walked hand-in-hand with his Neptune, his creativity and divine love. When his age point was on the cusp of the 7th house in 1970, Cohen had a relationship with the Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod, with whom he had two children. He maintained that “cowardice” and “fear” prevented him from ever actually marrying her, but could he have married any woman if his Venus was in himself? In the 1980s Cohen was in a relationship with the French photographer Dominique Issermann who shot his first two music videos for the songs Dance Me to the End of Love and First We Take Manhattan. He acknowledged this Venus by dedicating the 1988 record I’m Your Man to her.
In the 1990s, Cohen was romantically linked to actress Rebecca De Mornay. De Mornay co-produced Cohen’s 1992 album The Future. Once again Cohen dedicated it to her with an inscription that quotes Rebecca‘s coming to the well from the Book of Genesis and giving water to Eliezer‘s camels – Eliezer is Cohen’s Hebrew name. Another inspiring Venus who collaborated with his creative Neptune was Anjani Thomas. She co-wrote and sang some of his songs. She represented his inner Venus so strongly that, according to one reviewer, she “…sounds like Cohen reincarnated as woman… though Cohen doesn’t sing a note on the album, his voice permeates it like smoke.”
Jupiter in Libra and Uranus in Taurus
The third opposition is between his gracious big-mindedness and freedom from possessions. He was so trusting that he never suspected others of doing him in, but discovered in 2004 when he was 70 – during the low point of the 12th house – that his long-time manager Kelly Lynch had misappropriated over US $5 million from his retirement fund. In court, Cohen said in priestly manner: “It gives me no pleasure to see my onetime friend shackled to a chair in a court of law, her considerable gifts bent to the services of darkness, deceit, and revenge. It is my prayer that Ms. Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”
The Priestly Poet
Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family. His father owned a substantial clothing store – the reason, perhaps, why Cohen always dressed immaculately. His mother was the daughter of a Talmudic writer. “I had a very Messianic childhood,” he maintained. “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest.” At the low point just before Cohen was ten years old, his father died. Exactly 72 years later, when his age point was approaching the same low point, Cohen died
Cohen’s literary talents, due in part to the surplus of air in his temperament (-27!), already became clear when he was in high school where he was inspired by the poetry of Federico García Lorca. (Cohen’s daughter Lorca was named in honour of this great Spanish writer.) From 1948, when Cohen’s age point formed a trine with his North Node, thus paving the way for his soul’s journey, he studied music and poetry. He also learned to play the guitar, initially acoustic but later classical after a young Spanish flamenco guitarist had taught him “a few chords and some flamenco.”
Following the direction of his North Node to the social scene, the teenage Cohen frequented boulevards, where he went for fun and also to read his poetry at various surrounding clubs. It was during his time hat he wrote the lyrics to what would become some of his most famous songs. In 1951 when his age point had Saturn’s blessing – also in the fifth house of creativity – he won the Chester MacNaghten Literary Competition for his poems. It would be the first literary prize in a string of literary and musical awards.
During 1954 when his age point formed a trine with his North Node, Cohen’s first poems were published in a magazine. And when his communication, his Mercury, was fired up in 1956, his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published. It contained poems written largely when Cohen was 15 to 18, and his age point had been moving through the 3rd house of communication.
His graduate studies in law – for only one term – and then in General Studies at Columbia University (New York) left him cold. He described them as “passion without flesh, love without climax.” He then returned to Montreal. From 1957 to 1961 when his age point was traversing the house of creative self-expression, he focused on the writing of fiction and poetry, including the poems for his next book, The Spice-Box of Earth, which was published when his age point had met up with his North Node. This book gained him recognition and a critic at the time declared that Cohen was probably the best new young poet in Canada.
With 7 planets on the I-side of his chart, forming the lid of the opera glasses, Cohen preferred to live in quasi-reclusive circumstances. (Hence his decision to live on Hydra.) The next few years would bear bountiful fruit: he published The Favourite Game, a bildungsroman about a young man whose identity becomes clear through writing. This was followed by a poetry collection, Flowers for Hitler in 1964, the novel Beautiful Losers and another book of poetry, Parasites of Heaven, both in 1966. All these publications, as well as the albums below, happened during the time his age point was moving through his Piscean 6th house, through his creative service to others.
He was disappointed with his lack of financial success as a writer, so he published less and concentrated more on recording songs. In 1966 during the age point/Moon conjunction, he wrote what must be one of his most emotional songs – Goodbye, Marianne. In 1967, his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was produced. It became a cult favourite in the U.S., as well as the UK, where it spent over a year on the album charts. The world out there could now hear his soul speak. The Academy of American Poets later said “… while it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines.”
It is noteworthy that 1967 was when his consciousness was opposing Venus/Neptune in the hidden world, as if he now had to reveal his creative inner world to others. A series of albums followed: Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), Recent Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1984). The most popular song on the latter album, Hallelujah, has been performed by almost 200 artists and sold – up to 2008 – more than five million copies in CD format. It has been the subject of a BBC Radio documentary and the soundtrack of numerous films and television programmes. It reflects both the poet and the priest in Cohen. Already in 1974 when his Mercury was opposed by the age point and his solemnity onstage called into question, he replied: “I sing serious songs, and I’m serious onstage.”
His creative service to others came in the form of a series of concerts, as if the opera glasses were now focused on him on stage. This would continue throughout the eighties. I’m Your Man (1988) was followed by The Future (1992) with its dark lyrics and references to political and social unrest. Then he fell silent for some time, living up to the name he had acquired after his years in the Zen monastery.
The Poetic Priest
In 1978 when his age point fired up his North Node, he published his first book of poetry in many years, Death of a Lady’s Man. Six years later, the encounter of his age point with the North Node facilitated his next book of poems, Book of Mercy, which won him the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Poetry. The book contains 50 prose-poems or ‘prayers’ as Cohen called them, influenced by the Hebrew Bible and Zen writings. Cohen described his writing process as being “like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.” What a wonderful description of the tension of all those oppositions in him! Fortunately, his communication energy – Mercury – is not opposed by other planets and he always had the blessings of Saturn in his creative expression and Mars in his impressive sense of humanity.
When his age point squared assertive Mercury in 1992, Cohen released The Future, which urges -often in terms of biblical prophecy – perseverance, reformation, and hope in the face of grim prospects. Three tracks from the album – Waiting for the Miracle, The Future and Anthem were featured in the movie Natural Born Killers, which also promoted Cohen’s work to a younger generation of US listeners. Then, during the Pluto conjunction in 1993 – just before he withdrew to the monastery – he published Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. Just after the age point formed a quincunx with Saturn, the Great Teacher, (2006) he published his Book of Longing, dedicated to the poet Irving Layton, his mentor. In 2011, when his consciousness experienced the essence of Mercury, he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for literature.
Although around 2000 there had been a public impression that Cohen would not resume recording or publishing after his monastic years, he returned to music in 2001 with the release of Ten New Songs, followed by Dear Heather in 2004. In 2006, when his age point was about to enter – for the second time – the 1st house of assertion, Cohen made his first public appearance in thirteen years at a bookstore event in Toronto attended by 3 000 people. That same year, the famous composer Philip Glass composed music to Cohen’s Book of Longing.
Cohen also asserted his musical side with a string of tours between 2008 and 2010, taking him all over the world and bringing in $9 million – enough to make up for the money taken from him by his ex-manager. His performance at Glastonbury of Hallelujah as the sun went down received a rapturous reception and a lengthy ovation. In 2009, when his age point formed a trine with his North Node, the performances were awarded Ireland’s Meteor Music Award as the best international performance of the year. That same year, his concert in America attracted one of the largest outdoor theatre crowds in the history of that particular festival. In Barcelona, the 2009 show – rumoured to be the last European concert – attracted many international fans, who lighted green candles in honour of Cohen’s 75th birthday. In Sydney. the audience of 12 000 responded with five standing ovations. Wrote one reviewer: “It is hard work having to put this concert in to words so I’ll just say something I have never said in a review before and will never say again: this was the best show I have ever seen.”
The accolades did not stop there. Leonard Cohen’s twelfth studio album, Old Ideas, released just before the Saturn trine in 2012, became the highest charting album of Cohen’s entire career, reaching number1 position in 25 countries. The New York Times reporter Jon Pareles stated: “mortality was very much on his mind and in his songs” on Old Ideas , “an autumnal album, musing on memories and final reckonings, but it also has a gleam in its eye. It grapples once again with topics Mr. Cohen has pondered throughout his career: love, desire, faith, betrayal, redemption. Some of the diction is biblical; some is drily sardonic.” Cohen released two more albums in the final years of his life: Popular Problems (2014) and You Want It Darker (2016), the last of which was released three weeks before his death. This is the album, he said, which represented him best of all.
Although Leonard Cohen died this month, his music will live on. One critic summed Cohen up perfectly as “…one of the most fascinating and enigmatic … singer/songwriters of the late ’60s he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is still working at the outset of the 21st century.”
Featured image of Leonard Cohen by Rama, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons