If you’re weary of reading Twitter-sized appraisals of Leonard Cohen’s currently trending “Kanye West Is Not Picasso” poem (e.g., “Leonard Cohen is right,” “Leonard Cohen sucks,” “Who’s Leonard Cohen?”), take a look at Leonard Cohen’s Kanye West Poem Wasn’t an Insult; It was a tribute by Carl Wilson (Slate: Oct 12, 2018), which offers a more comprehensive, nuanced, and coherent take on the issue. I’ve excerpted a bit below, but the entire article, available at the link, is worthwhile reading.
But that’s getting the poem exactly wrong. It’s not an insult to Kanye West (nor to Jay-Z, who’s also mentioned). It’s a tribute. Cohen isn’t around to confirm this, but remember that the poem is dated March 2015, when West’s right turn off the rails was still in the distant future. Clearly, it was inspired by several occasions when West compared himself with Picasso, including earlier that month in a speech at Oxford University. But its language is closer to the “rants” of the Yeezus tour, during which Ye (the name he now prefers) regularly issued such direct declarations as “I am Henry Ford. I am Michelangelo. I am Picasso.” Thus Cohen’s poem begins, “Kanye West is not Picasso/ I am Picasso.”
He continues, “Kanye West is not Edison/ I am Edison/ I am Tesla”—bringing up two other self-comparisons West made during that same period. (For someone who supposedly had no use for West, Cohen certainly seemed to keep up on his Ye news.) And then comes perhaps my favorite couplet in the whole poem, a response to Jay-Z calling himself “the Bob Dylan of rap music” in the 2013 track “Open Letter”: “Jay-Z is not the Dylan of anything/ I am the Dylan of anything.” (By Cohen’s own account, Dylan once told him, “As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re No. 1. I’m No. 0,” meaning, “that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.” In other words, Cohen knew artist rivalries.)