Leonard Cohen Invokes Irving Layton’s Dictum: “Whatever else, poetry is freedom”


Q: What is your opinion on the proposition that ‘the visions of poets may teach those who do not want to know it that there is more in shadow than in light?’

I don’t think the poet has a mission. I think that activity more appropriately applies to the priest, the teacher, the politician, and the warrior. As my friend Layton wrote: ‘Whatever else, poetry is freedom.’ It seems a very aggressive proposition to teach someone something they don’t want to learn.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From a 2001 online chat. Photo of Leonard Cohen by Roland Godefroy (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Originally posted March 20, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Leonard Cohen shares Irving Layton’s advice: “Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?”

I’m reminded of the advice my old friend Irving Layton, who has passed away now but probably is the greatest Canadian poet that we’ve ever produced, and a very close friend. I would confide in him, and after I’d told him what I planned to do and what my deepest aspirations were, he’d always say to me, “Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?”quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

The Wisdom Of Leonard Cohen by Kevin Perry. GQ: Jan 19, 2012. Note: Originally posted Aug 14, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Two lines you don’t see these days in a newspaper: “Montreal’s most popular celebrity these days is a poet” & “[Leonard] Cohen, a man not frequently given to dressing up”

Layton Draws S.R.O. Crowd
By Thomas Schnurmacher
The Montreal Gazette – Nov 11, 1981

Indeed, today’s readers can be excused for being flummoxed by the notions that (1) a city’s most popular celebrity, as proclaimed in a newspaper entertainment column, would be a poet – in this case Irving Layton and (2) Leonard Cohen, who informed biographer Sylvie Simmons that he was “born in a suit,” was once known as “a man not frequently given to dressing up.” That he was wearing pinstripe pants and a navy blue trenchcoat (no, it wasn’t the famous blue raincoat – it had disappeared by 1981) was unusual enough to be newsworthy.


Note: Originally posted November 14, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Irving Layton: “Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?”

Irving Layton asked and answered this question at a Nov 1995mdinner party held by a McGill University English professor for a few of his graduate students at which Layton was “the main attraction.” According to the account in Balanced on Wooden Stilts and Dancing: What Irving Layton Taught Me about Leonard Cohen by Kevin Flynn (Essays on Canadian Writing; Winter 1999, Issue 69), the tone of the evening had been set by the news that Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated after a peace rally earlier that day. As the evening progressed, Layton became more animated as he told stories about rescuing a drunken Dylan Thomas from a bar and playing a handball match with Louis Dudek “to determine who was the greater poet.” Finally the discussion turned to Leonard Cohen with the students asking Layton’s opinion about his poetry and his decision to turn to music. Then, Flynn reports

It was at this point that Layton asked us his question: “Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?” Silence. Seven people hanging on every word waiting for the other shoe to drop. It did.

“Leonard Cohen is a narcissist who hates himself.” He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t have to. On a day bled dry of joy by the death of Rabin, Irving Layton grabbed hold of the night and poured life into it as no one else could. .

And there is a followup. The following excerpt is from Exile on Main Street by Brett Grainger (Elm Street: Nov 2001)

I seize the moment to bring up an observation attributed to Irving Layton, his longtime avuncular drinking buddy. Once at a dinner party in Montreal, I say, Layton asked, “Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?” His answer? “Leonard Cohen is a narcissist who hates himself.” Cohen laughs at the bon mot. “That’s good,” he says. “But I think Irving may have been talking about himself there.”


“Leonard [Cohen] seduces women with words and vice versa” Irving Layton

I’ve never understood what the vice versa meantquotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Leonard Cohen Is A Poet Who Is Trying To Be Free by Marci McDonald, Toronto Daily Star, April 26, 1969.

Note: Originally posted March 13, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Leonard Cohen on Irving Layton’s notion that culture is “just nail polish on the claws”

My friend [Irving] Layton described it as nail polish. Our culture, our civilization, all this beautiful stuff from Mozart to Bukowski, as exalted or as funky as it gets, it’s just nail polish on the claws and the nail polish has begun to crack and flake and the claws are showing through. And that’s what we’re living with — a world in which the claws have been exposed. And it’s only been a tiny brief moment when they were covered with nail polish and now the nail polish is coming off.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight, WFUV-FM: June 13, 1993

DrHGuy Note: Irving Layton, in fact,. published a volume 62 poems entitled “Nail Polish” (Toronto, Ontario. McClelland and Stewart 1971). A succinct, capable review of the book by Elizabeth Waterston can be found at Canadian Literature: New-Found Eyes.

np-ilNote: Originally posted June 5, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric