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Leonard Cohen

Poetry comes from a place that no one commands, that no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from I’d go there more often.

Accepting the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature in 2011, Leonard Cohen, then 77, avowed art as his vocation in layers of gratitude and uncertainty. Not knowing where the songs come from awakens gratitude for those unknown sources. Known sources that he neither commands nor conquers intensify the gratitude. And acquaints uncertainty with tragedy and tragedy with uncertainty. Those sources include Federico García Lorca, whose poetry awakened Cohen’s own aspiration to poetry and who was assassinated by a fascist militia; a young Spaniard met in a Montreal park who taught Cohen how to fret flaminco chords on the guitar and who a few days later committed suicide, without Cohen ever knowing anything about him; and a Conde guitar from 7 Gravina Street, Madrid, the smell of whose still alive cedar reminded him half a century later, on the eve of his trip to the ceremony, of his bond with Spain. 

“And a voice seemed to say to me, ‘You are an old man and you have not said thank you, you have not brought your gratitude back to the soil from which this fragrance arose.’ And so I come here tonight to thank the soil and the soul of this people that has given me so much…. So, I thank you so much for the warm hospitality that you have shown my work because it is really yours, and you have allowed me to affix my signature to the bottom of the page.” 

Has an evocation of soil and soul ever been uttered without so much as a whiff of nativism? How so? Because it affirms an other’s soil-bound soul. An act of recognition, respect, gratitude.

Cohen says he’d been awake all night, eating all the chocolates and peanuts in his room’s minibar, pondering, meditating, worrying, composing what he might say. Seldom does a poetically constructed text need no other commentary than what it says itself. So:

The video. And the transcript.

January 2020