Leonard Cohen is a Canadian poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter known for his dark, prophetic lyrics, husky voice and dead pan delivery.
His early writings were not well received, which led him to move to New York City’s Greenwich Village and begin his career in music – although he continues to publish collections of poetry intermittently. His first album was released in 1967, and he continues to tour and record to this day, at 81 years of age.
Cohen never attained the fame and recognition of a true pop star, but his influence is enormous. He is “an artist’s artist,” and his work has been an inspiration to generations of writers and musicians, from James Taylor to Kurt Cobain. His most well-known and beloved song, Hallellujah, has been covered by hundreds of admirers in the last 30 years, and is one of the most performed songs in music history.
While he has a (well-deserved) reputation for being dark and pessimistic, there is a recurring note of optimism in his work. He sings of a despair that leads to surrender; the hopelessness, the tragic beauty of the human condition, and the transcendent Grace that saves us from ourselves.
Borrowing from his songs, books and numerous interviews, here are a collection of the best Leonard Cohen quotes – on life, love and poetry.
“What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love.”
~ from his 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers
“I think marriage is the hottest furnace of the spirit today. Much more difficult than solitude, much more challenging for people who want to work on themselves. It’s a situation in which there are no alibis, excruciating most of the time… but it’s only in this situation that any kind of work can be done.”
~ from a 1975 interview with Paul Williams
“This is the most challenging activity that humans get into, which is love. You know, we have the sense that we cannot live without love, that life has very little meaning without it.”
~ from a 2009 interview with the Guardian
“Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act.”
“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”
“Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.”
~ from his 1978 collection, Death of A Lady’s Man
“Let judges secretly despair of justice: their verdicts will be more acute. Let generals secretly despair of triumph: killing will be defamed. Let priests secretly despair of faith: their compassion will be true.”
~ from his 1961 collection, The Spice Box of the Earth
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
~ lyrics from Anthem, off the 1992 record ‘The Future’
On his time living in a Zen retreat center:
“This is the very contrary of dropping out. Most people can’t wait to get home to their house or apartment and shut that door and turn on the TV. To me, that’s dropping out.”
~ from a 1995 interview with The Los Angeles Times
“When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you. . . It’s like taking a drink of cold water when you are thirsty. Every tastebud on your tongue, every molecule in your body says thank you.”
~ from a 2001 interview with the Guardian
“When I speak of depression, I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse. I’m happy to report that, by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life.”
~ from a 2012 interview with the Guardian
“If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick everyday.”
~ from Good Advice For Someone Like Me
“I think the term poet is a very exalted term, and should be applied to a man at the end of his work. When he looks back over the body of his work, and he’s written poetry, then let the verdict be that he is a poet.”
~ from an interview on CBC
On the meaning of the lyrics to You Have Loved Enough:
“‘You have loved enough, now let me be the lover.’ You could say that God is speaking to you or the cosmos, or your lover. It just means, like, Forget it. Lean back and be loved by all that is already loving you. It is your effort at love that is preventing you from experiencing it.”
~ from a 2001 interview following the release of Ten New Songs
And perhaps the most perfect, and poetic summary of his whole life and career:
“I did my best, it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch. I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…”
~ lyrics from his 1984 masterpiece, Hallelujah