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The Flame by Leonard Cohen review – the last word in love and despair

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The songwriter and poet’s final writings are full of youthful spark, beauty and romance

The first time I came across Leonard Cohen – before I had ever heard his songs – I was an opinionated 16-year-old. I was drawn to a volume of his poetry in a bookshop but when I got it home dismissed it as a) too depressed and b) – more snootily – as not literature. Now, decades later, I no longer care whether Cohen’s work is literature. This grand book, The Flame, elegantly and posthumously published by Canongate, includes lyrics of last-gasp beauty from You Want It Darker– his final album with its against-the-odds satisfactions (to do partly with the octogenarian unlikeliness of its existing at all). The Flame is also a selection of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s unpublished work. Cohen’s son, Adam, has been its sensitive custodian. And as for the depression, it has a heroism now. Perhaps there was too much of the old man in the younger poet; youthful spark in the older writer is a finer thing.

Whatever the truth, what is remarkable is that Cohen remained an unreconstructed romantic right to the end (he died in 2016, aged 82). Some of his late poems (balanced between illusion and disillusion) are about trying to resist erotic temptation, as in the wonderful On the Level, about love’s beckoning ecstasies. “I said I best be moving on / You said, we have all day / You smiled at me like I was young / It took my breath away.” He uses the ballad to make life bearable: discord finds harmony. His songs are also a dance; this is the poetry of relationship.

Related: Leonard Cohen: 10 of his best songs

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