How Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson Led Me Through Dark Days


His voice came to me right before the world began to end. It was a cold evening in October of 2016—slate grey skies, the highway flat, that Sunday feeling where the worries of the week ahead overtake the pleasure of a weekend away. Leonard Cohen on the stereo, speaking more than singing. He put all casual conversation to an abrupt end.

That wasn’t the first time I heard Cohen. I knew his best-known songs, what his voice sounded like. But it was the first night I really heard him, the first night his voice reached inside and gutted me. It always seems so strange and stupid, in retrospect, when something precious is handed to you, and years go by before you accept it and give thanks for the gift. Until then, I simply hadn’t been paying attention.

On November 7, 2016, after releasing You Want It Darker, his 14th album, Cohen died at the age of 82. One day later, Donald Trump was elected President.

My introduction to Cohen’s extensive catalogue triggered a chain of events, one that continued long after the think pieces were published, after a new terror took root, after Cohen’s wiser, long-term fans quietly went about the lonely work of mourning their warrior poet king. I found myself enthralled, delighted, heartbroken, ecstatic, in the midst of that otherworldly experience people so rarely speak of. It’s a sensation that tends to be relegated to the discovery of a band or writer as a teenager, when emotions are so high that the sounds and stories you connect to become woven into the very fiber of the person you become. In the two years that have passed since that night in the car, listening to Cohen’s songs, reading his lyrics and poetry, I have reconnected with a part of myself I’d been trying to shut off since I was 14 years old. I was awkward, obviously; a weirdo, definitely. In those ways I was no different than most of my peers. What caused me trouble was my obsession with death.

I’m not sure what came first—the depressing music, an all-black wardrobe, or Emily Dickinson. At 14, it was important to constantly display signifiers of what I was interested in, and I did what I could to dress like a reclusive genius who entertained no visitors and lived entirely in her head. I placed a dog-eared copy of Dickinson’s poetry on the lunch table next to my sandwich, hoping someone, anyone, would try to talk to me about it. I admired Dickinson’s origin story as much as I did her writing. Her subject matter and prolific creativity were mystical, so I grouped her with the other wise, witchy, artistic women I idolized: Tori Amos, Francesca Lia Block, Winona Ryder. The fact that Dickinson was a loner who died unmarried, that no one knew her depths until after she was gone, made her brilliance that much more powerful to me.

When I read “Because I could not stop for Death,” one of her most famous poems about the afterlife, I marveled at how Dickinson cleverly personified Death. Her Grim Reaper was not a frightening phantom, come to steal her away. Instead, he was a courteous gentleman who took her on a drive. Dickinson notes his civility—could he have been flirty, even, to the poem’s narrator, who was dressed for the journey in gossamer and tulle? In this poem, Death offers the promise of immortality. But Dickinson suggests her narrator had an independent streak, one that compelled her to make her own decisions and choices, not only about her death, but also about her life. This set my teenage mind on fire: The thought that death itself could be confronted like any other person, that it was both far away and yet just beyond an invisible veil that could, at any moment, be lifted. These themes are repeated again in Dickinson’s captivating, metaphor-rich “Death is a dialogue,” which opens up a conversation between Death and a Spirit, in which they argue about the finality of consciousness.

Do we return to the earth as dust, or is the body just one aspect of a human being? I didn’t know. But, man, in the throes of adolescence, it felt so good to ask, to question, and not in terms of religion or faith. Dickinson’s verses were a constant source of comfort. Heaven, hell, death, god, eternity—she covered it all, simply, perfectly, in a way that actually made sense. The more I obsessed about death, the more fascinated I was. But I soon realized it was best to keep my thoughts about the eternal mystery to myself. If I did express them, I was pandered to or deemed unnecessarily negative, morbid, a freak. I didn’t understand why our culture so readily assumed that thinking about death was gauche, inappropriate, or, more broadly, a red flag, something to keep an eye on, to worry about. Nobody could answer this in a way that satisfied me, and so I returned to the books—the novels and poems that some called melancholy or sinister, but that I needed as a guide, a way of coming to terms, in my own small way, with why we are here and where we might go.

As the years passed, I thought I became less afraid, more confident in what would always be unknowable. Goth culture never quite went away, but I stopped devoting so much time to worship at that particular altar—though I kept wearing black, because what New Yorker doesn’t? I kept the music, too, and continued reading the goths whose merit nobody would dare question: the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier, Poe. My taste hadn’t changed, but I figured I was growing up, growing out of it, whatever it was. I assumed, like so many mansplaining men had told me, that I should smile more.

And so it went, until my rediscovery of Cohen, which set in motion a new cycle of questions about death and the soul. My mother became seriously ill. As I watched her health decline, I became gripped by a fear of time. Not only my own time with her, or the time she had left, but the vast, cavernous depths of what that meant. The weeks that slipped by were not as productive as I wanted them to be, not as generous, not as articulate. There were words I could no longer say. The words I did say so many times—I love you, I love you—seemed to have lost their meaning entirely. I reckoned with deep regrets, with daily disappointments, with the endless, hopeless wishing that I could live in the past, when so much was still possible even if it was cloaked in shadow. Back then, the future was a fantasy, even if it was a dark one. Back then, I considered my research, the books, the songs, all part of a very interesting experiment. By the end of that experiment, I told myself, I’d be adequately prepared for grief, in whatever form it came. I thought that being interested in death meant, on some level, that it couldn’t hurt me as much as it did someone else.

Cohen and Dickinson both have an immortal quality, and both treat death as a muse. This past November, FSG published The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings, Leonard Cohen’s posthumous diary, a collection he vowed to complete before he died in late 2016. The book is a beautiful, intimate look at his life and work, combining his poetry, notebook entries, and lyrics, interspersed with drawings and self-portraits. In “I Pray for Courage,” Cohen writes:
I pray for courage

Now I’m old

To greet the sickness

And the cold

I pray for courage

In the night

To bear the burden

Make it light

I pray for courage

In the time

When suffering comes and

Starts to climb

I pray for courage

At the end

To see death coming

As a friend
In these verses, I feel such compassion and empathy for the burdens of life. Cohen describes a sleepless night wondering, fearing, suffering, while praying for courage, for the rosy fingers of dawn, and for a way to lighten his emotional load. And he prays to see death arriving as a friend, an ally, similar to the way Dickinson describes her supernatural carriage ride. Then, in “School Days,” Cohen personifies time, just as he and Dickinson personify Death.
I never think about The Past

but sometimes

The Past thinks about me

and sits down

ever so lightly on my face—
Here, the Past is a being, someone capable of thought—and someone who Cohen can’t escape. He claims not to think about it, but the Past thinks about him, taunts him a bit, takes him to places in his mind he might prefer to avoid. This is what the pre-grief I live with feels like, the sense that I’m constantly readying myself, waiting for the worst to happen, a phone call in the middle of the night, an accident, or worse, the slow onslaught of the inevitable, bringing with it the small, unavoidable heartaches that pile upon one another until, yet again, I find myself daydreaming about the last terrible piece of news as if it were a friend, a  Past like the being in Cohen’s poem, better and more comforting in its known-ness than the confusion of the present, a new shape of pain.

It’s in poems like these that I find solace—solace in who I was, who I am, and who I hope to be. I still wear black, though not exclusively. I still love sad songs, sad books, stories that end not with everything wrapped in a bow, but with some sense of lament, a nod to the human folly, flaws, and inconsistencies that make even a “happy ending” feel like a question mark. This is what Cohen has taught me, in his songs and his poems, and what Dickinson knew before he did. Both writers invite us into their inner lives because they take their inner lives seriously. They take these questions without answers seriously. They never make light, they never turn their heads away, they refuse to change the subject. They look at the inevitable and perhaps they are scared—and I am, too. But their words are like a hand grabbing mine tightly. They are a reason to keep moving forward.

Reading Cohen’s final poems and absorbing his drawings and lyrics, then reading Emily Dickinson’s verses again and again, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come through the darkness. To some, my current state of mind may seem like something to escape—and so it was to me, even when I knew that the darkness could be a friend, a feeling, a weight, not oppressive but thoughtful, not excruciating but auspicious. Now I move through the darkness, and I try to find peace in what I can’t see. Once, I anticipated what would happen and thought I could prepare. Now that saying goodbye is no longer a vague concept but a heavy reality, my poets sit with me. They remind me that I will never be ready. Not for death, not for the sorrow that haunts my days, not even for the happiness that arrives with a shock. But they also tell me I shouldn’t give up trying.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Cherry Laithang.

The Soundtrack of Our Books

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The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.”

Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption — anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience.

At readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall.

When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests.

“There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour.

New Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics — too distracting — but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.”

The novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on in September as an audio book — it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.”

What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel.

While senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.”

By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says.

Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.”

But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners.

Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.”

Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey