I was never comfortable with the expression “passed away” to mean that someone had died.
I know that many people consider “passed away” as gentler and less cold than “died.” It feels too politically correct, and more of the general problem many people have with facing up to hard facts and difficult situations and delaying as long as possible.
This was a week of upheaval in the United States with the Presidential election finally occurring and the selection of Donald Trump.
And Leonard Cohen died.
I was reading articles about him last night and it most said he passed away quietly at home. He was 82 and had suffered from cancer and knew he was close to death. His son said that he was writing until the end.
I knew Leonard Cohen first as a poet back in the late 1960s. I have a very strong memory of him coming up in a discussion in a English class at Rutgers College. One of my fellow English majors in an honors literature class said that Cohen was his favorite poet. The professor said that Cohen was a songwriter, not a poet. Most of the class did not agree with the professor.
That kind of divide came up recently again when Bob Dylan was given the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is he a poet, or a songwriter? Can you be both? Does it matter?
Leonard Cohen was a poet, a songwriter, a performer and a novelist. At the time of his death,he was certainly best known for his music. Whether it was his “Hallelujah,” ”Suzanne” or “Bird on a Wire,” his songs really have attached themselves to people.
Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.
I discovered that he was an aspiring Zen monk, though he downplayed his own success on that path.
He was painfully shy and did not like being on stage. I read that he quit halfway through his first public performance, and that fear continued until the end. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol unsuccessfully. Perhaps, Zen was an alternative.
Listening to a special edition of The New Yorker Radio podcast that is the last interview with him, they speak of him as “a poet in the vein of Allen Ginsberg or Frank O’Hara,” especially before he released his first album in 1967. In this last gentle interview with David Remnick from this past summer at his home in Los Angeles, Cohen said “I’m ready to die.”
It connected with me that Cohen said “I like to tie up the strings. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order is, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
If you read some of Stranger Music, his selected poems and songs, I would be curious to know if you saw a real difference between the poems and the songs there.
I liked his earliest songs best. They are mostly sad, simple, acoustic songs. I confess that in college I listened to that first album as both a way to deal with depression and as a way to go deeper into depression. Like drinking booze, it didn’t help with depression and, in some way that I still don’t understand, I sometimes wanted to go deeper. Maybe as an English major who wanted to be a writer, I saw depression, booze and drugs as some kind of Romantic, artistic path. It was part of the biographies of many of my favorite writers and artists. In Cohen’s words, “You want to go darker.”
Listening to that podcast, I’m still not sure that Cohen would tell me that attitude was right or wrong.
His words about setting your house in order and being ready to die make me think that in his case he did pass away. Perhaps that is the correct usage of that phrase. When someone dies a violent death, no one says that she “passed away.” I suppose that some people are “deceased,” “expired,” “have departed this life,” or just plain dead. I hope that you and I have the chance to put our house in order before we pass away.
One of the “haiku” from his old poetry collection The Spice-Box of Earth is:
and a deeper silence
when the crickets
Leonard Cohen has passed away.