Maria Viana spent six hours delving into Leonard Cohen’s archives at the University of Toronto. These following excerpts from A look inside U of T’s massive archive of Leonard Cohen poems, letters and pictures by Jennifer Cheng (Toronto Life: Nov 22, 2016) offer an overview of the contents:1
University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library [is] home to 140 banker’s boxes worth of Cohen’s archives. Throughout his career, Cohen donated scores of remnants to the library: handwritten notes and letters, portraits, CDs, paintings, novel manuscripts, books, early drafts of his poetry and lyrics, and even art he made when he lived as a Buddhist monk…
These notebooks came with the the manuscripts of Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers, and first book of poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, which Fisher bought in the early ’60s. (Apparently, Cohen lived off money from the sale for a year on the Greek island of Hydra—he would have been about 26, and rent was about $14 a month.) The books contain drafts of his poetry and lyrics, as well as relics of daily life: there’s a sketch of a rabbit named Cocoa, diary entries (“Where shall I go now?) and phone numbers. Cohen even scribbled a few words of a poem (“This cigarette…It’s clear to me that you will have to deceive me…”) on a piece of toilet paper
I wish I had time to read and write down every single line of Leonard’s notes. I spent six hours in that tower of song, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, I will never thank enough Jennifer Toews for her time with me.
It wasn’t easy; the first box took me nearly two hours. The first thing I saw was a poem about a grave, so you can imagine the tears rolling down my face. That happened a couple times. I felt inundated with his precious archives, words, notes, lines, drawings, first and second thoughts…
I was allowed to view the contents but not use a camera, smartphone, tape recorder, etc to record the material. I was only allowed to scribble my own notes with a pencil (once they noticed I was using my own pen for the first two hours).
There is so much to say about his notes, the photos he had of Marianne … . I was especially interested in his first years in hopes of finding traces of her. And I did.
And then, in the middle of folders, there it was – a piece of brown cardboard paper, listing the titles that he considered for his first poetry book, which was finally called Let Us Compare Mythologies
- When I Faced the Ark
- The Burning Oil
- Let Us Compare Mythologies
- The Raven and the Dove
- Sidewalk Games
- Saints and Prophets
- The Formalities of Passion
- The Promising Oracles
- Rites of Fire
- The Sad Accords
- Descent into Hades
- Barefoot in Hades
- The Singing Oracles
The proposed titles of When I Faced the Ark, The Burning Oil, The Promising Oracles, The Singing Oracles, and The Rites of Fire.are strongly linked with Jewish symbols and traditions while The Formalities of Passion and Sidewalk Games resonate with his novel Favourite Game. The references to Hades (Descent into Hades and Barefoot in Hades), the Greek god of the underworld and the dead, evoke the sadness under which Leonard labored.
I also read his letters to his sister about their mother and why she wasn’t communicating with him (he was so upset). Another was specifically about Marianne.
There were many precious items. I held, for example, his Greek driving license – such a beautiful picture of him. Little details…
There was a drawing of guitar called “Flaming Guitar / Andaluzia” dated June 24, 1953. Another intriguing specimen was a sketch of Irving Layton with the word “cemetery” written on it.
As anyone familiar with Leonard’s songwriting methodology would expect, he repeatedly reviewed and revised everything he wrote. I would find myself reading the same poem page after page. Perhaps it’s telling that his paper of choice was Eatons / Corrosable – Bond. [DrHGuy Note: Eaton’s Corrasable Bond was a popular brand of erasable typing paper during the mid-1950s and 1960s. It was a practical choice for a habitual revisionist but, ironically, it is not considered suitable for archival records because the typed pages are not very durable and in some storage conditions, the pages are apt to stick together.]
The more I learn about Leonard, the more fascinated I become; he never ceases to surprise me.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted July 11, 2017.
- This article is an entertaining description of the collection with lots of photos – including one of Leonard wearing the wings of an angel. [↩]