Montreal Poetry After Leonard Cohen
by Derek Webster



Beware of what comes out of Montreal, especially during winter.
—Leonard Cohen

For at least a century, Montreal has been seen as an “open city,” in which one can drink freely and experiment socially. Montreal, the Paris of North America, closer and cheaper than the real thing, a place where immigrants can restart their lives, black sheep can become artists, and tourists can enjoy burlesque dreams unavailable or too risky back home. It’s not the vision the religious founders of Ville Marie set out to build in 1642—instead of Mary’s Town, they got MerryTown. But in a continental sea of Protestant teetotalers and late-Victorian moralists, it’s a role Montreal has come to play. Yet the original vision lives on in surprising forms, with unfortunate consequences for anglophones who wish to make a life here.

This is the city where Leonard Cohen was born and raised. In the post-war years, as Europe’s displaced-person camps emptied, the city’s majority French Catholics and Anglo-Scottish Protestants found themselves rubbing shoulders with Irish immigrants, Orthodox and Eastern European Jews, Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, Hungarians, Poles, and more. If you went down to what we now call the Old Port in Old Montreal—as Cohen liked to do as a young man, when the port was still a fully functioning facility—you’d hear sailors and stevedores cursing, singing, and drunkenly brawling in twenty languages.

More than any other group, though, old-stock francophones were on the move within the province. They were migrating to the cities, filling the factories and universities, busting out of centuries-old rural patterns en masse. Premier Maurice Duplessis and the Catholic Church spent a lot of effort trying to keep Quebecers down on the farm; when that didn’t work, Duplessis busted up their nascent unions. The election of Jean Lesage’s Liberals in 1960 was a watershed: hugely popular ministers like René Lévesque (the future separatist leader) embodied a newly assertive Quebec nationalism and a fervent desire to no longer be under anyone’s thumb, to be “maîtres chez nous.” The Quiet Revolution in Quebec had begun.

Shining down, copper-domed, on this fast-changing scene was the modern Parnassus of McGill University, with the booming-voiced, engagé poet F.R. Scott in its law faculty, novelist Hugh MacLennan and modernist poet Louis Dudek in its English Department. Other talented writers in its orbit included the beautiful western transplant P.K. Page, the working-class, sexual Nietzschean Irving Layton, the handsome young Ontarian D.G. Jones, the brilliant enigma A.M. Klein, and the part-time pornographer John Glassco. With their modernist magazines Preview and First Statement, this group—today called the Montreal School—became the aesthetic, energetic centre of Canadian literary activity in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s.

Cohen learned from these literary giants and published Let Us Compare Mythologies, his first book, at the age of twenty-two, in 1954. As Ira Nadel relates in Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen, a parade of brilliant mentors encouraged Cohen, promoted his work, and affirmed him in his youthful poetic vocation. As an undergraduate at McGill, Cohen showed his writing to Dudek, who told Cohen to kneel and “knighted” him on the spot, in the hallway of the Arts Building, with Cohen’s own sheaf of poems. F.R. Scott wrote Cohen letters of support for successful Canada Council grants and offered him the seclusion of his writing shack on Lake Massawippi, in the Eastern Townships, where Cohen started writing The Spice-Box of Earth and The Favourite Game. Cohen took an advanced writing workshop with MacLennan, the beginning of a lifelong literary friendship. And then Lenny, as he was called by those closest to him, started hanging out with the older Layton, whose influence on Cohen’s poetry and ideas (about Judaism, prophecy, sexuality, exuberance, and the role of the poet) is profound.

Cohen embodied Montreal: his elegant, elusive poems, his experimental prose, his cool artist’s demeanour, his fuck-me good looks, his coffee-house guitar-strumming and caveat-emptor sense of humour. Cohen was an open city, an influence-transforming beauty machine the likes of which Canada had never seen. By the mid-1960s, barely in his thirties, he’d already reached the top: four books of poetry, two novels, a growing list of awards, critical acclaim, and notoriety (mostly due to his controversial second novel, Beautiful Losers). He was the subject of Donald Brittain’s now-famous NFB documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, and his appearances on national television made him a household name. He’d earned the kind of critical and public acclaim most writers spend their whole careers trying to achieve.

But this success was undercut by an inconvenient truth: he couldn’t make ends meet. He wasn’t a spendthrift—literary art in Canada simply didn’t pay. According to Nadel, the decisive shift toward his future singing career came at a party at Frank Scott’s house, when Cohen introduced the music of Bob Dylan to the Montreal poets. Listening to Subterranean Homesick Blues, the writers didn’t know what to think. Al Purdy, classy as ever, called it an awful bore and stomped out of the room. But “Cohen listened intently, solemnly announcing that he would become the Canadian Dylan, a statement all dismissed.” By that fall, Cohen had moved into the Chelsea Hotel in New York and was doing the hard work of reinventing himself as a commercially successful singer-songwriter. The Golden Boy would surprise them all.

Reading Cohen’s poetry today, what stands out for me is how consistent his writing was over the years: always clear, full of simple phrases that built toward something amusing, enigmatic, or thoughtful. Poems comfortable with their own emotional restraint. Again and again, he pulls off the trick of making readers believe his on-the-page boasts without perceiving their author as arrogant, perhaps because of an equally endearing self-abasement. The results can be seductive:

Queen Victoria
my father and all his tobacco loved you
I love you too in all your forms
the slim unlovely virgin anyone would lay
Queen Victoria
I am cold and rainy
I am dirty as a glass roof in a train station
I feel like an empty cast-iron exhibition
I want ornaments on everything
because my love she gone with other boys
—from “Queen Victoria and Me”

With the clarity of Dudek, the directness of Scott, the bravado of Layton, and the self-awareness of Klein, Cohen’s poetry is the culmination of the Montreal School. But Cohen himself, perhaps more than his poetry, was its finest creation. His departure from Montreal may not have seemed significant at the time—he’d been coming and going for years, studying in New York, living and writing in Greece—but in retrospect, the meaning of that departure is clear: uneasy in his tin crown, the heir apparent was fleeing the kingdom. Though various aesthetic pretenders lined up to take his place, Montreal poetry would never be the same. From this point on, Cohen’s reasons for being in Montreal had more to do with family and identity than with literature. When he returned to his cottage in the Plateau neighbourhood for a few quiet years in the 1970s, to have his children Adam and Lorca with Suzanne Elrod, he was in his forties and had outgrown the increasingly youthful poetry scene. Most publishing activity in English had already shifted down the highway to Toronto by then, gathering in nationalist houses like McClelland & Stewart, Cohen’s publisher. As poet Endre Farkas writes in the introduction to his anthology The Other Language: English Poetry of Montreal (1989), “in the late sixties, literary movements developed in other parts of the country, and Montreal fell silent for a time.” The local leadership that Cohen might have provided disappeared like a road not taken. Instead, Cohen chose an artistic role that went beyond provincial borders, with greater commitments and a greater risk of failure. That choice continues to resonate today in ambivalent ways: he showed Canadians that it’s possible to succeed in the wider artistic world—but also that to do so, you probably have to leave home.

From left: Irving Layton, Milton Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Eli Mandel, and Aviva Layton attending John Glassco’s Foster Poetry Conference, 1963.

Montreal never held his departure against him. Cohen the King became Cohen the prodigal son, embraced by anglophone Montrealers and a growing number of francophone Quebecers after his musical successes in Europe during the 1970s and ’80s. Francophones loved his boîte-a-chanson style, the messages in his accessible lyrics, his local roots. They never saw him as an anglophone, but rather as the quintessential artiste, an aspirational model for singers, poets, and barstool philosophers who dream of making it outside the province. When Cohen passed away in the fall of 2016, the major French-language stations broadcast live from his modest home on Parc du Portugal as a nonstop procession of well-wishers and heartbroken fans sang beloved songs and laid flowers, pictures, candles, small mementos, and glasses of Scotch on his doorstep. An old ghetto blaster played Cohen’s music on an endless loop, and whenever the batteries ran out, someone would go up and replace them.

By the early 1970s, an extreme aesthetic shift was underway as the venerable Montreal School made room for poets of the baby-boom generation. In the story of Montreal poetry from that period, most of the attention has gone to the “Vehicule Poets,” a group of bellbottom-jeaned, long-haired hipsters, and art-house performers. But what stands out to me looking back now is the incredible proliferation of young people writing poetry at the time—poets, it must have seemed, were everywhere. Peter Van Toorn and Ken Norris’ 1982 anthology Cross/cut: Contemporary English Quebec Poetry presents seventy local poets, roughly sixty of whom grew up in Montreal as post-war children of recent European immigrants, figures like Van Toorn himself (Dutch), Mary di Michele (Italian), Robyn Sarah (Jewish), and Michael Harris (Scottish).

But more than aesthetics were changing. The happy, internationalist vistas that enlivened Expo ’67 were about to be written over like naïve code. Over a single ten-year period, charges of racism turned Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) into a fiery war zone; a homegrown terrorist cell started planting bombs around the city, kidnapped the British ambassador, and then kidnapped and murdered Pierre Laporte, the ­province’s deputy premier; the army closed bridges and tanks occupied the streets; francophone intellectuals and activists were arrested in clumsy police sweeps; a radical new government promised to separate the province from Canada; a massive flight of financial capital and head offices impoverished the province, and a few hundred thousand anglophones left the city. The first defeated referendum, in 1980, delivered only more uncertainty.

It seems strange in retrospect, but English Montreal’s young poets were often pro-sovereignty, in sympathy with working-class Quebecers and a liberation movement that seemed to have a lot in common with the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s and the Prague Spring of 1968. Most of the new poets didn’t live in wealthy districts like Westmount, didn’t really consider themselves English Canadian, and were as enamoured of revolution as their young francophone counterparts. For many writers, it would take years to acknowledge Quebec sovereignty was a francophone nationalist movement and not a new socialist paradise for English, French, Indigenous peoples, and “allophones” (the new term for everyone else). Flinty-eyed realists like Mordecai Richler, slightly older and well schooled in the Orwellian hoodwinks of the 1930s, were not fooled so easily.

Cohen, now living in Los Angeles, was clearly frustrated by the linguistic battles and spiritual blindness of his beloved Montreal, as these lines from his 1978 collection, Death of a Lady’s Man, attest:

I think you are fools to speak French
I think you are fools to speak English
and you dare to interview me on the matter
of your loathsome destinies
you poor boobies of the north
who have set out for heaven with your
mouths on fire
Surrender now surrender to each other
your loveliest useless aspects
and live with me in this and other voices
like the wind harps you were meant to be
—“French and English,” from Death of a Lady’s Man

This pained, messianic sense of lost harmony was a tune many sang at the time. One hears it in the 1982 introduction to the Cross/cut anthology when Van Toorn and Norris present English poets from Quebec as being on the frontlines of revolutionary history, Wordsworths among the sans-culottes. Radical francophone politics were, to them, the perfect recipe for great anglophone poetry. “Where Quebec had provided the atmosphere of integrity, the unique aesthetic philosophy, and the political motivation to enshrine a new conception of man, various Québecois ethnic writers have supplied the creative élan vital.” It’s easy to understand why a pair of young poets would say this—they wanted to be part of the excitement.

Francophone Quebec culture, however, was experiencing a renaissance and could supply its own élan vital. The rebirth started in poetry, painting, folk music, and prose, and continues to this day in circus, film, and dance. Translators of Québécois verse—poets like John Glassco, F.R. Scott, and D.G. Jones—did important work bringing francophone arts to the attention of English Canadians, and were respected by their francophone literary peers.

English Quebec poetry had no comparable rebirth, only failed radical experiments and, for the most part, mediocre verse. Anthologists like Van Toorn and Norris mistook the province’s large, multifaceted array of poets as proof that something special was happening, but looking back it’s clear that upswell in English Quebec wasn’t remarkable: similar growths happening elsewhere across the country and around the Western world were more a reflection of higher literacy rates and the small-press explosion of the 1970s than evidence of poetic quality. But there were bright spots. In her own writing, and in her selection of others’ work for letterpress Villeneuve Publications, Robyn Sarah showed an excellent eye for quality. Poets Brian Bartlett, Marc Plourde, Jack Hannan, A.F. Moritz, and August Kleinzahler (a future American star-poet living in Montreal at the time) all produced fine chapbooks with Villeneuve.

By the late 1980s, the economic consequences of high unemployment and a decade of political turmoil were becoming undeniable in Montreal. While Cohen struggled though a decade of low interest in his art, the legends of the Montreal School were passing away: A.M. Klein in 1972, A.J.M. Smith in 1980, John Glassco in 1981, F.R. Scott in 1985, Hugh MacLennan in 1990 (Irving Layton outlived them all, passing away at age ninety-four, in 2006). Montreal was a changed place, no longer the carefree open city of the 1950s, but rather a stagnant, bitter-minded linguistic war zone. By 1989, Farkas acknowledges openly, in The Other Language, the decline of a local English-speaking audience, francophones’ lack of interest in “the anglo literary scene,” and the rest of Canada’s broad assumption about Quebec that “all its writers must be writing in French.” The truth of these three observations has only deepened in the years since. Leaderless, and facing its new reality as a barely tolerated minority with no political power, English Montreal became a community haunted by its former significance.

But if English-speaking poets in Quebec were feeling blue, everywhere across Canada the world of poetry was shrinking, separating from the commercial-prose universe of novels and non-fiction. South of the border, the old world of New York publishing—tweedy, patrician publishers sheltered from business pressures—was giving way to a new culture of literary agents, bidding wars, and bestsellers. Literary prose accommodated itself to this shifting market by retooling the experiments of 1960s fiction to classic-realist narratives: books like Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale suggested a renewed artistic force. Poetry, in contrast, went further down the self-interrogating linguistic rabbit hole. The more it became like conceptual art, the further it moved away from the average reader.

By the end of the decade, Montreal poets found themselves in a strange, almost Orwellian city of boarded-up storefronts, riven aesthetics, political uncertainty, tanking house prices, massive unemployment, constant ethnic and linguistic tension, and cultural suspicion. Anglophones continued to leave the province. Full of angry self-pity about their unnoticed brilliance one minute, opining about the freedom to experiment beyond the limelight the next, “beautiful losers” is a good description of English literary artists living in Montreal at this time. Cut off from North American mainstream society, the city’s writing community began to fragment into a half-dozen enclaves in and around Montreal. Poet and iconoclast David Solway’s attempt to revel in this glorious isolation, in a manic essay called “Double Exile and Montreal,” was a new intellectual low.

But thanks to publishers Simon Dardick and Nancy Marelli, the communally run Véhicule Press became a stable, successful small press that continues to this day. The QSPELL awards (later renamed QWF Awards), established in 1988 by Dardick, Judy Mappin of the Double Hook bookshop, and others signalled a desire to promote Quebec English authors across the country. Matrix magazine, founded in 1975 by Philip Lanthier and kicked around the usual places anglo literati live (the Eastern Townships, West Island, downtown), became a fine literary magazine in the eighties and nineties under Linda Leith, and continues today under Jon Paul Fiorentino at Concordia University*. And DC Books, a small press started by Louis Dudek in the mid-seventies, continues under Steve Luxton. Other small presses (The Muses’ Company, Empyreal, Nuage, etc.) either relocated outside the province or closed down.

Within Véhicule Press, the poet and editor Michael Harris made Signal Editions (its poetry imprint) into something interesting. Starting in 1981, many of the poets that Harris published either lived outside Montreal or had little to do with the city. Harris and others were part of a cosmopolitan movement away from the plain-language aesthetics and literary nationalism of poets like Al Purdy and Dennis Lee that held sway in Toronto and across the country at the time. Harris liked Cohen’s example of moving and producing art on a wider stage, but also felt the need for a greater devotion to classic elements like metaphor and meter. The Signal Anthology (1993) was an attempt to showcase Montreal’s aesthetic superiority through its international connections to New York, Ireland, and England—places with older, more esteemed traditions. In this brave new world of poetic globalism, the colour of your passport mattered less than your reverence for craft.

Five years after Harris passed on the editorship of Signal Editions to Carmine Starnino, in 2001, Starnino published his own anthology, The New Canon (2005) that showed how neo-traditional ideas of universal excellence were being carried forward by Canadian poets born after 1955. The anthology has shown great resilience. Most of its poems still read well after a dozen years, and the Generation X poets included—Karen Solie, Ken Babstock, Christian Bök, Elise Partridge, Steven Heighton, Stephanie Bolster, Sue Sinclair, and others—have largely inherited Canadian poetry’s mantle. Only a few are connected to Montreal, but The New Canon helped resolidify Montreal’s new role: no longer the centre, but still a modest, legitimate place from which to write and publish in English. According to Simon Dardick, whose Véhicule Press published The New Canon, it still sells regularly and well.

Sophisticated and aloof, too far away from Toronto to make it to the parties, the local representatives of Harris’ Signal poets (and all the former Vehicule poets) have been relegated to the margins of Canadian poetry’s expanding story. Cross/cut, The Other Montreal, and The Signal Anthology are great examples of what happens to a newly disenfranchised group in the wake of a power struggle. Toronto’s literary culture has happily ignored the civil strife that hobbled its former rival in Montreal. The proof of this is sadly easy to see: apart from the poets of the Montreal School, only four English-Quebec baby boomers out of the hundred-odd poets in the three anthologies mentioned above have their work reproduced in any important national anthology. Only David Solway, Michael Harris, Erin Mouré, and Robyn Sarah make it into 70 Canadian Poets (ed. Gary Geddes, 5th edition, 2014) published by Oxford University Press. Among Generation X poets, the numbers are similar. No one today will be much surprised by this. It is English Montreal’s new normal.

Much has happened since the turn of the millennium in Montreal’s literary community: the founding of a new magazine with a national profile (Maisonneuve, started by the author); a literary festival, Blue Metropolis, that’s about to celebrate its twentieth anniversary; a creative-writing program at Concordia that continues to gain a higher profile, and the growth of the Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF) as a centralizing and stabilizing force.

And a new crop of poets has moved to Montreal, most of them originally from Ontario, to live more economically and carry on their art: Jeramy Dodds, Joshua Trotter, Leigh Kotsilidis (now the managing editor of the poetry journal Vallum), Gabe Foreman, and others. There is a radically progressive young crowd at Concordia these days, inspired by poet-professor Sina Queyras. A new publication house called Metatron is also part of this youthful activity, and a fresh generation of Quebec writers, in both languages, is crossing and reinforcing cultural bridges in what may prove to be a renaissance in Canadian translation. It’s hard to say who will stay and what will remain relevant, but for anglophones, the question of leaving Montreal never goes away.

These days, when I think of Montreal poetry after Leonard Cohen, a poet like Julie Bruck comes to mind. A former Montrealer whose sense of the city permeates her work, Bruck won the Governor General’s Award for English-language Poetry in 2012 and has lived in San Francisco for two decades now. Another is Anne Carson, who was in Montreal throughout the 1990s, teaching classics at McGill and writing several literary masterpieces. I remember going to a reading she gave at Thompson House in 1995, wondering who she was, why her poems sounded so interesting and enigmatic, and why I hadn’t heard of her before. A few years later, after McGill decided to downsize its classics department, Carson, too, left town.

Long term, the vibrancy of English Montreal’s literary world will depend to an ever-greater extent on people coming here from the rest of Canada and the US—itinerant artists who move to la belle ville to live “exotically” for a few years before inevitably saying goodbye.

The arts businesses that do well in Montreal today are ones that either originate in francophone milieux (magazines like Nouveau Project and Urbania), or that easily cross the linguistic divide (Pop Montreal music festival; bilingual content-creator Spafax, the publisher of En Route), or engage in activities that are non-linguistic (music, dance, painting, visual art).

English speakers who still live here have mostly made their peace with the new reality. Anglophones and their children speak French now. Unfortunately, old suspicions die hard. Learning French hasn’t altered anglophones’ traditional scapegoat role in the majority’s popular imagination. When the results of the 2016 census were published this past summer, the journalistic voice of moderation in Quebec, newspaper La Presse, raised alarm bells in highlighting a 0.7 decline of Quebecers with French as their mother tongue (79.7 percent in 2011, 78.4 percent in 2016). As Don Macpherson, lead political columnist for the Gazette, wrote:

The implication was that there aren’t enough of the right kind of people in Quebec, and too many of the wrong kind. To put this in perspective, it’s hard to imagine mainstream politicians and commentators saying in 2017 that there are too many Jews in Quebec. But it was socially acceptable for them to say there are too many non-francophones. It was a divisive message, telling the majority, once again, that its identity is threatened by enemies in its midst. And it told the linguistic minorities that it’s not enough to learn French and use it. Our simple presence here is the problem.

This situation isn’t unique to Quebec. How to successfully integrate immigrants and other minorities without triggering radical nationalist fringes or the fears of otherwise-peaceable majorities is a challenge former monocultures all around the world are facing. Nobody wants a catastrophe like Belfast, Brexit, or Trump to happen in Canada, but the Quebec political class’ ongoing embrace of a misguided “Charter of Values”—a nominally secular document that, in practice, just oppresses minorities—shows how easily the majority can be swayed when it feels threatened.

Such fears have, in the past forty years, resulted in radically restrictive anti-English educational and French-first immigration policies, with the unsurprising result that the anglophone community continues to melt away like snow in May. The most recent census figures show the longstanding trend of anglophone and allophone citizens leaving the province has not stopped. Those who stay choose French schools so their children can “pass” as francophones. Barring a shift in educational policy that allows the community to replenish itself, English—actually bilingual—elementary and high schools will continue to shut down, formerly English-speaking (now bilingual) neighbourhoods will continue to transform into unilingual francophone communities, English libraries will keep closing and selling off their books, and the traditional English-language community will continue to merge with the francophone majority.

But even this won’t be enough for bigots and ideologues. The sentiment behind the late Jacques Parizeau’s 1995 post-referendum scapegoating of “money and the ethnic vote” (les anglais and all those damn immigrants)—which sounds a lot like Donald Trump when he talks about Mexicans or Muslims—can still be heard any day of the week in bars, office towers, and living rooms. Recent immigrants and poor dépanneur owners caught in language stings are still routinely hauled before the paranoid electorate by the Journal de Montréal, and fear of General Wolfe’s children still triggers complex maneuvering in the provincial legislature. This past November, the provincial legislature passed a motion condemning “Bonjour-Hi,” the common commercial greeting in Montreal stores when the salesperson doesn’t yet know the language of the customer. The motion passed unanimously, 111-0. Even Kathleen Weil, the minister responsible for relations with English-language Quebecers, voted in favour of it. Unlike in Ontario, where political leaders support broader rights for minority Franco-Ontarians, the Franco-Quebec majority’s hair-trigger cultural and linguistic vigilance means that politicians have to be very careful when speaking English or meeting anglophones in public. Friendliness toward anglophones just isn’t good politics in Quebec.

But Montreal’s bilingual status will remain, largely due to pressure from the tourism industry and the English universities, which are stocked more and more with intelligent young francophones taking advantage of the local English infrastructure to launch themselves into the world. Unilingual students from the rest of the country still come here looking to indulge their four-year Montreal fantasy. The fact that much of Canada’s history, laws, ideas, visions, institutions, and art were created here by a community that barely exists now, seems to have been forgotten by everyone but Graham Fraser, former Commissioner of Official Languages.

Questions of historical continuity have given way to silence. No one wants to ask whether anglophone Quebecers have any cultural future in the province. Or, more germane to the current discussion, whether anglo-Quebec literature even exists anymore. As Jason Camlot writes in the journal Canadian Poetry, if your definition of such a literature is self-recognition in the books written about your geographic location, then most Montreal poetry—whether because it was written by poets who grew up elsewhere, or because it is about other places and subjects, or because of a cosmopolitan trend toward placelessness in poetry—has very little to do with the city itself anymore. And there are, unlike in Ontario and Manitoba, no prizes for English-language writing in French-language Quebec.

Perhaps Montreal will become like poet C.P. Cavafy’s Alexandria, where a dominant ethnic-Greek populace waned over the centuries, giving way to Arab Egyptians. Perhaps English Montreal will soon be identified not with a poetry movement, like Paris’ Parnassians, London’s Imagists, or Moscow’s Futurists, but with a single poet named Leonard Cohen, everything else disappearing into the digital stacks.

Cohen never repudiated his hometown. In return, francophones and anglophones alike always treated him like the prodigal son, weeping joyful tears every time he returned—especially the last and final time. Everything he needed was elsewhere, but Leonard Cohen came back. Could there be any deeper tribute to the resonance of home?

* In the wake of recent events at the university (, the future of the magazine seems uncertain.

—From CNQ 101 (Winter 2018)

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