Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, the Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, the Postbeat Poets & the New Demotics

By Raskin, Jonah | Journal of Beat Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, the Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, the Postbeat Poets & the New Demotics


Raskin, Jonah, Journal of Beat Studies


Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, the Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, The Postbeat Poets & the New Demotics.

Jim Cohn (Boulder, CO: Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2011)

It is a cliché, of course, to say "the Beats go on." For several decades now, cultural critics, biographers, and reviewers have echoed the cry "the Beats go on." Behind the banner newspaper headlines and the slick magazine stories about the Beats and their cultural descendants, there is an unmistakable germ of truth. On blogs, as well as in bookstores, bohemian haunts, and college classrooms, the writers of the Beat Generations - plural - go on and on and on with little sign of diminution or atrophy. Perhaps no one in the United States today understands and appreciates the poetic durability and the cultural elasticity of the Beats better than Jim Cohn, the author of Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, the Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, The Postbeat Poets & the New Demotics.

Born in Highland Park, Illinois in 1953 - three years before the publication of Howl, four years before the publication of On the Road - Cohn came of age in the aftermath of the initial flowering of the first wave of Beat Generation writers in the mid-1950s. Old enough to have experienced the 1960s, and yet young enough to have been shaped early in life by the development of digital technology and the computer, he is a pivotal figure linking generations and schools of thought.

Drawn almost instinctively to Allen Ginsberg's poetry and to his personality, Cohn studied with Ginsberg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and worked as his teaching assistant in 1980. Ginsberg has been a lifelong influence on Cohn's poetry, his teaching, and his sense of citizenship, along with pivotal figures such as Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, and a slew of other poets from Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound to Ted Berrigan. Cohn pays homage to these figures in his new, refreshing book that brings together twenty essays and five interviews, many of them previously published in journals and reviews such as Logos, The Arts Paper and Paterson Literary Review and newly revised for inclusion in Sutras & Bardos.

Cohn's book has several distinctive characteristics that make it appealing, and even compelling, reading. It is intensely personal and deeply autobiographical with the author's own dreams, reflections, and journeys in search of poetry, poets, and the poetic. "In Valparaiso, I visited Pablo Neruda's home, high on a steep hillside," Cohn writes in an essay on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass (24). At the same time, Sutras & Bardos is profoundly theoretical. "Form is an extension of emptiness," the author writes. "Poems take place in a space nothing can fill" (21). Elsewhere, he notes that literary movements have "porosity, or openness, such that certain poets are viewed interchangeably" (172).

Scholars and students of the Beats will probably find his terms useful, though they may also find some of them, such as "porosity," new and perhaps even unusual. Cohn always defines his terms. Sutras, he explains in the introduction to the book, are "a distinct Eastern literary form that employs minimal syllabary and is unambiguous, pithy, comprehensive, continuous and without flaw." Bardos, he adds, are "the intermediate or intimate transitional or in-between or liminal states after death and before one's next birth." There is plenty of food for thought here.

Cohn is also generous in his appreciations of writers, including his own contemporaries and near contemporaries such as Eileen Myles, Ingrid Swanberg, David Cope, Gary Gach, Marc Olmstead, Eliot Katz, and Antler, the pen name for Brad Burdick, the author of Factory, published by City Lights, and a former poet laureate of Milwaukee whom Ginsberg described as "one of Whitman's poets and orators to come. …

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