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Bob Dylan may have won Nobel prize, but to my mind Leonard Cohen is the better writer

By Mary Kenny

Published 07/11/2016

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen
Bob Dylan

Does Bob Dylan merit the Nobel Prize for Literature? Is he really up there with Yeats, Hemingway, Solzhenitsyn, TS Eliot and Heaney? The Swedish academy gave the award to the American balladeer "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition".

Dylan took some time to acknowledge the award, which irked the Swedish Nobel committee, who thought it a mite rude to ignore the honour for a couple of weeks. They might have nursed fears that like Jean-Paul Sartre, he might reject it altogether (Sartre believed that writers shouldn't accept awards - their work shouldn't depend on others' approval).

But are Dylan's lyrics great literature? He is certainly a hugely significant figure in the cultural landscape, pulling together such diverse traditions as blues, country and western, English mystical verse - William Blake is an influence - and Biblical texts. His best-known songs have been voted among the greatest written, particularly Blowin' in the Wind, and The Times they are a-Changing faultlessly captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s (and perhaps today, too). But if Dylan, at 75, deserves universal recognition for what he has given to universal culture, there is surely another equally worthy contender: another Jewish voice which brings together the mournful, the rueful and the beautiful, whose haunting music and lyrics, once heard, never leave you - Leonard Cohen.

Cohen's new album You Want it Darker is just out and, at 82, his voice is almost that of a diseur - there's not a lot of singing left in that basso-profundo, and it crackles with age. But it's still amazing and divine, and the valedictory note that has been part of Cohen's repertoire is more truthful and relevant than ever.

In a long interview with the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, he indicates he is preparing and ready to leave this life (though elsewhere, he has said he wants to live to be 120): the new album opens with the title song and the couplet: "Hinemi, Hinemi/I'm ready my Lord."

Cohen has always been called 'God-infused' and a poignant text that he sent to his erstwhile muse, the Norwegian Marianne Mollestad (of So Long, Marianne) when he was told that she was moving towards the end of her life, went around the world rapidly: "Well, Marianne, it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am close behind you and that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine…"

He recalled her "beauty and wisdom" and wished her "a good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road". This encompassed Leonard Cohen's perfect pitch for emotional empathy, his courtesy (always remarked upon), grace and affirmation of a life beyond the material, which he has always sought.

Cohen, born into a Canadian Jewish family (his maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar), has embraced a range of faiths and never seen any contradiction in doing so. He's been Jewish, Christian and, for 40 years, followed a Japanese Zen Master - he was even a Zen monk for a time. In religion, he's for "anything that works" but the influence of the psalms is often detected in his lyrics and Jesus, Our Lady and Joseph are repeated motifs, too.

He's struggled with depression. He has struggled with wine: on one tour, in the 1990s, he was drinking "at least three bottles of Chateau Latour before performances". He has been through many relationships, but funked marriage. He had a long relationship with the actress Rebecca De Mornay but she left him because, he says: "She got wise to me. Finally, she saw I was a guy who just couldn't come across... in the sense of being a husband and having more children and the rest." (He has two grown children, Adam and Lorca, both of whom live near him now in an "unglamorous" part of Los Angeles - and Adam works with him).

But the broken loves have inspired the lyrics: Cohen is a great admirer of Yeats and just as Yeats got a lot of poetry out of unrequited love for Maud Gonne, so Cohen has written best out of failure to sustain a love. That's No Way to Say Goodbye is the most heart-rending of amorous valedictions. Treaty, on the new album, brings us the same theme - the impossibility, somehow, of humans keeping it together: "It's over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then: now we're borderline."

Yet this "brokenness" is what makes Leonard Cohen so compelling and Cohen fans always especially cite his inspiring words in Anthem: "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."

Bob Dylan himself admires Cohen enormously and compares him to Irving Berlin, another epic Jewish American lyricist. "He's very much a descendent of Irving Berlin… Berlin was also connected to some kind of celestial sphere… both of them just hear melodies that most of us can only strive for." Cohen's lyrics are often mystical, mysterious, elusive and Dylan notes that Berlin's lyrics "consisted of half lines, full lines at surprising intervals".

Whether even a great songwriter/singer should be awarded a Nobel Prize for literature is debatable: but surely both Dylan and Cohen are the great troubadour-philosophers of our time, both of whom have brought reflection and beauty to their musical performances. Even if those of us who are Cohenistas will always feel that Leonard has the edge.

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