KWH symposium to celebrate Leonard Cohen

Next week at the Kelly Writers House, the fourth annual Song Symposium turns to Leonard Cohen.

Organizers Al Filreis, faculty director of Kelly Writers House, creative writing lecturer Anthony DeCurtis, and Gregory Djanikian, director of the Creative Writing Program, have gathered Cohen devotees, nine in total including themselves, to tackle a song from the poet-singer’s 50-year catalog. One after another, scholars, poets, rock journalists, and singers will analyze and perform their way into Cohen, considered by some one of the most enduring and influential musical artists alive.

The Symposium takes place on Thursday, March 19, at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Cohen’s selection marks the fourth year of the Song Symposium. In previous years, the Symposium has dug into the songs of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Springsteen. This year, the rock journalists are represented by Tom Moon of NPR, Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson, and DeCurtis, who is also a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

Singers in the line-up include Jessy Ginsberg, Sarah Lindstedt, and Cat Ricketts. Filreis, student Brennan Cusack, and Djanikian will bring the poet’s perspective.

Filreis will kick the symposium off with “Hallelujah,” Cohen’s biggest hit, a song covered by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, John Cale, KD Lang, and others—a song so ubiquitous that it found its way into the motion picture “Shrek.”

DeCurtis will tackle “Stranger Song” from Cohen’s 1967 debut, a haunting durge on the subject of alienation in romantic love. The song first struck DeCurtis at the tender age of 18, when the record first came out, and to this day, DeCurtis says, he’s “still trying to get his mind around it.”

From Cohen’s more recent efforts, Djanikian has selected “Going Home,” a song in which Cohen at the age of 80 finds himself a “sportsmen and a shepherd … a lazy bastard living in a suit.”

How is it that Cohen, after 50 years of writing, recording, and performing, has remained resonant?

DeCurtis nutshells it: “Sex and God.”

In Cohen’s songs, lust becomes sacred, and the sacred becomes an urge.

“It’s a nice mixture,” adds Djanikian, “the gritty earthiness of his voice and the elusiveness of his spirit.”

“This goes way back,” says DeCurtis. “All of R&B is based on that. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘Soul.’ It’s a long tradition, but [Cohen is] a very honored participant.”

Cohen brings to this tension the care of a writer. Before his debut as a songwriter, he had already published novels and poetry collections. Cohen’s lyrics “hold up on the page,” DeCurtis points out. “They read incredibly well.”

“He is a poet,” Djanikian affirms. “He takes time with language.”

For more information about the Symposium, visit the Kelly Writers House website.

Leonard Cohen