Hear Leonard Cohen Talk About Poetry, The Soul, & Book Of Mercy + Recite The Captain: 1984 Interview

In June 1984 I sat with Leonard Cohen in his room at the top of Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel where we talked about his newest collection Book of Mercy. I confessed an uneasiness about love poems because of how often other kinds of love beyond the romantic are overlooked or are treated in a puerile fashion. Not so one poem coming three months after my son’s birth… Even more interesting is what he had to say about poetry and the shift away from traditional lyric to language poetry.

David Godkin’s YouTube Description

A few key quotes from Leonard Cohen’s interview follow:

  • Book of Mercy can only be conceived as a book of prayer… it is different from my other books
  • I’m comfortable [using] the name of God
  • There are many superstitions afoot; one is that there is no soul.
  • You only address the problem of soul when you feel that you’re losing it
  • [Referring to Snow Is Falling by William Carlos Williams] That kind of accuracy is present on every page of Book of Mercy; it’s just about a landscape that’s unfamiliar



Photo by Daniel Bastida.

“[Book Of Mercy] was above all for me a way of praying.” Leonard Cohen

I was so intensely involved with Book Of Mercy that I did not do anything else during its writing. Originally, I did not think of publication. The psalms came this way. It was above all for me a way of praying.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


From Dans les loges avec Leonard Cohen à Strasbourg en 1985 (Le Républicain Lorrain: 18/11/2016). Originally published in Républicain on Feb 17, 1985). By Jean-Paul Germonville. Via Google Translate.

“We’re such a hip age. Nobody wants to affirm those realities. It doesn’t go with your sunglasses.” Leonard Cohen Explains Why The Book Of Mercy Was His “Toughest Book To Talk About”


Tell me about Book of Mercy. What were the circumstances that generated it?

Silence. I was silenced in all areas. I couldn’t move. I was up against the wall. It was the only way I could penetrate through my predicament. I could pick up my guitar and sing but I couldn’t locate my voice… I began to have the courage to write down my prayers. To apply to the source of mercy. At first I had tried to deal with it by not writing. I felt that writing was a kind of self-conscious activity that might come between me and what I wanted to speak. But I found that was the way that I speak. I found that the act of writing was the proper form for my prayer. It was the only type of sound I could make. I didn’t bring much to it. I didn’t bring concerns about whether there is a God or not. Those are just questions of the mind. The mind has the capacity to question but not to answer… Now I find it’s the toughest book to talk about. Because it is prayer. One feels a little shy about the whole thing. We’re such a hip age. Nobody wants to affirm those realities. It doesn’t go with your sunglasses. But I know that the voice in the book is true. And I know that the book is true. It lifted me up to write it.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


From Strong Voices: Conversations with Fifty Canadian Authors by Alan Twigg (Harbour Pub: 1988).

Leonard Cohen Identifies Himself As “One Of The First Punks,” Tells Bovine Sex Joke, Talks About Roshi, Nick Cave, Jennifer Warnes, Dominique Issermann, & More – 1988 Video Interview

Topics Covered In Interview With Christian Eckert (Munich 1988):

  • Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man album
  • Post-Modernist Disco
  • Leonard as one of earliest Punk Rockers
  • His young bull/old bull joke
  • Book of Mercy
  • “I don’t have time to think about politics”
  • How Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat rehabilitated him
  • Leonard’s attitude covers of his work
  • Nick Cave rescuing his song “to let it fall apart again”
  • His computer
  • Living in a Portuguese section of Montreal\
  • Roshi
  • Gap between public and private life
  • Critics being on trial
  • Concerns about next tour
  • Dominique Issermann’s direction of First We Take Manhattan video

View video on YouTube

“It’s called A Book Of Psalms – not that we need another. But I just wanted to sing and dance before the Lord.” Leonard Cohen

And I just brought a new book to Jack McClelland. It’s called A Book Of Psalms – not that we need another. But I just wanted to sing and dance before the Lord.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Leonard Cohen Mixes Movie-Making And Zen by Paul King. The Gazette, July 16, 1983. DrHGuy Note: The “Book Of Psalms” to which Leonard Cohen refers is his Book of Mercy.

“That’s why you pray – because you don’t have a prayer” Listen To CriticsAtLarge Interview with Leonard Cohen (1984)

“[Book Of Mercy] would only be accessible to someone who is in some kind of trouble”

In 1984, Kevin Courrier sat down with poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen to speak about the publication of his latest book of poetry, Book of Mercy. The segment first aired on the radio show, On the Arts, on CJRT-FM in Toronto in 1984. Kevin Courrier writes:

Leonard Cohen and I met once for a conversation in 1984 for “On the Arts” at CJRT-FM after he had come out of a brief retirement from both music and writing. I was aware during our talk that Cohen seemed to be contemplating (and accumulating) more and more unexpressed thoughts as the interview was progressing. So after our chat ended, he asked if he could play me something that he felt might best fully answer some of the questions that the interview kept raising. He was my last guest that morning so all I had was my lunch waiting. Since I had my whole life to eat lunch, but little time to spend with Leonard Cohen, we went into the control room that had just been vacated by my technical producer. He handed me a cassette that was obviously a promo tape with no writing on it and asked me to fast forward it to the concluding song on side two. As I cued the tape titled Various Positions, I brought up the volume on the control board while he lounged back in his chair as I did in mine. As the song began gently, he looked over to me and said, “I think this song best answers your questions during our talk.” What he played was “Hallelujah.” Once it ended, I gave him back the tape, but I forget now what my initial response was. We shook hands and I thanked him for the opportunity to hear this new unreleased song. After escorting him to the door, I went to heat up my lasagna never considering that the song I first heard with Leonard Cohen would turn out one day to be such an enduring one.

Note: If the above embedded player does not function in your browser, listen to the recording at the host site.

Thanks to Gordana Stupar, who alerted me to this recording.