Sunday, February 26, 2012


Salman Rushdie presents the 2012 PEN New England Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence to Leonard Cohen

Well this is a gig I wouldn't have missed for the world, I have to say. We were all having our picture taken backstage and I thought, this is the best photograph I have ever been in, and I've been in one or two. I really have to say I'm really grateful to PEN New England for the initiative of doing this, and to everybody who made it happen. When I was telling my friends that I was going to come and have the privilege of giving an award to Leonard Cohen, they began to insist that I did certain things. All of these friends were women. One of them said I should kiss him for her. Haven't done that yet, Leonard. Another of my friends said, "You know, I live on Clinton Street, and I'd really like him to come make music for me all through the evening, and I'll even wear a blue raincoat." This is a sign of how much regard and how deeply these songs have entered peoples lives. Yesterday, just as an experiment, I put on my twitter feed. I asked people what was their favorite Leonard Cohen line, and hundreds of people replied with an enormous diversity of lines from this extraordinary songbook. Several of them were among my favorites, but it was just both, the breadth of the response, how much different work was being responded to, how passionately it was being responded to, how much it meant to how many people. It was really very telling. I've been listening to Leonard Cohen's music ever since I was an undergraduate at Cambridge (the other Cambridge; the old one). It's really a thrilling opportunity to have a chance to tell him how much that music has meant to me for over four decades. I said to him before we came on that when we were kids he taught us something about how it might be to be grown up. How to have relationships that were in the real world, that were not kid stuff, but had the pain, the difficulty, the complexity, and the exaltation of real relationships to the real world of adult life.

Listening to his lyrics again before this evening, I was struck by something I had forgotten perhaps about how much religious imagery there is to be found in them. Jesus crops up in "Suzanne" and there are the "Sisters of Mercy" and of course there is the great Hallelujah. There has always been something anthemic, something hymn-like about Leonard Cohen's greatest songs, though when you start listening closely, you here his wit and his jaundice comedy and sometimes his disillusion undermining those hymnal qualities. Not many hymns would rhyme Hallelujah with what's it to ya. Not to mention all the other rhymes in that which are equally non-sacred. I think it's true that all great literature begins at the level of the line. If you can't write a good line, you can't write a good paragraph, you can't write a good page, you can't write a good book. At the level of the line for all these years, Leonard Cohen's work has been amazing us again and again. This is work of great beauty and depth, and to put it simply, if I could write like that, I would. I think of poets in the twentieth century who have had a real relationship with meter and rhyme, and who have loved the playfulness of those things, and I think of W.H. Auden and James Fenton, and I think that the kind of playfulness of those rhymes in Hallelujah, for example, is something that an Auden or a Fenton would respond to very immediately because it's the kind of language play that you find in their poetry, but there is only one man who writes like this, exploring melancholy and exhaultation, desire and loss, as nobody else can, and so it is with great respect and admiration I am able to present this award. Now it's my great pleasure to present the 2012 PEN Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence to Mr. Leonard Cohen.

The Leonard Cohen Acceptance Speech

Thanks so much friends. Thank you for your gracious hospitality. Thank you PEN and the jury. I understand now on what basis these awards were given because the entire jury could be candidates for this award, but I understand they are awarding them on the basis of seniority. So there is Chuck Berry and then there is me, and I don't know who comes next, but it certainly is an inevitability. Thank you so much friends. Ever since I think the only exclamation in our literature that rivals Walt Whitman's declaration of his barbaric yawp is Chuck Berry's Roll Over, Beethoven. Those two expressions of American ingenuity are really what has defined our activity, and from Chuck Berry all the way down to us is a straight line from that Roll Over, Beethoven because if Beethoven hadn't rolled over, there wouldn't have been room for any of us. So friends, I am deeply grateful for this recognition, but I also want to say that in another sense, all of us are just footnotes to the work of Chuck Berry, and like a footnote, I want to keep it brief and light. So thanks a lot friends.