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About Bob Kaufman

Kathryne V. Lindberg

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Photo of Bob Kaufman © Robert E. Johnson.
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Poet, prose poet, jazz performance artist, satirist, manifesto writer, and legendary figure in the Beat movement, Bob Kaufman successfully promoted both anonymity and myths of his racial identity and class origins. While romanticized biographies ascribe to him such epithets as griot, shaman, saint, and prophet of Caribbean, African, Native American, Catholic, and/or Jewish traditions, respectively, Kaufman was most likely the tenth of thirteen children of an African American and part Jewish father and a schoolteacher mother from an old New Orleans African American Catholic family. After an orderly childhood that probably included a secondary education, he joined the merchant marine and became active in the radical Seafarer's Union. An itinerant drifter and self-taught poet (but for a brief stint at the New School for Social Research and among the Black Arts and Beat literati of New York), he identified with the lives and cryptically quoted the works of poet-heroes such as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Federico Garcia Lorca, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Nicholas Guillén, as well as improvisational artists and jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, after whom he named his only son. In individual poems he is, variously, an experimental stylist in the Whitman tradition ("The American Sun"), a French surrealist and existentialist ("Camus: I Want to Know"), a jazz poet after Langston Hughes, and in dialogue with bebop and the Black Arts movement ("African Dream," "Walking Parker Home").

Still "minor," compared to his white bohemian contemporaries, as editor of Beatitude, a San Francisco literary magazine, Kaufman is credited by some with coining "Beat" and exemplifying its voluntarily desolate lifestyle. He enjoyed an underground existence as a "poets' poet" (in Amiri Baraka's poem "Meditation on Bob Kaufman," Sulfur, Fall 1991) and as a legendary performer in the much memorialized street scenes of San Francisco's North Beach and New York's Greenwich Village during the late 1950s through the late 1970s. Kaufman is best known for short lyric poems in African American (Langston Hughes, ed., The New Negro Poetry, 1964, being the first) and avant-garde anthologies (New Directions in Prose and Poetry, #17, 1967, covering poetry and prose; The Portable Beat Reader, 1992). Works originally published by City Lights Bookstore of San Francisco are collected in two New Directions publications, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981). Three early broadsides, Abomunist Manifesto (1959), Second April (1959), and Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (1960) extend his eclectic aesthetics into prose fiction and programmatic prose poetry. The Golden Sardine (1967) was translated and influential in France (as William Burroughs, Claude Pelieu, Bob Kaufman, Paris, 1967). The latter, along with South American and other translations, have earned Kaufman a wider reputation abroad than among mainstream critics in the United States.

Rather than address electoral, protest, or even literary politics in traditional ways, his elusive and allusive writings as well as his tragicomic life sustain a critique of the subtle rules and terrible punishments that, as he knew them, enforce American bourgeois values of race, class, sexuality, and rationality. Answering McCarthyism, Beat, and Black Arts manifestos with Dadaist anarchism and surrealist irrationalism, "Abomunism" (his contraction of, among other things, communism, atom bomb, Bob Kaufman, and abomination), is serious in its "black humor." From the late 1960s onward, through stretches of withdrawal and suffering the ill effects of political blacklisting and harassment, alcohol, drugs, electroshock treatments, and imprisonment, Kaufman recorded both with humor and pathos the pain of society's victims. While no booklength study has yet been devoted to Kaufman, several recent essays affirm his deceptively broad intellectual interests and the ambiguous power of individual acts of cultural resistance in the continuing struggles of oppressed peoples.

See also: Barbara Christian, "Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman?" Black World 21 (Sept. 1972): 20-29. Maha Damon, "’Unmeaning Jargon' / Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet," South Atlantic Quarterly 87.4 (Fall 1988): 701-741. Kathryne V. Lindberg, "Bob Kaufman, Sir Real," Talisman 11 (Fall 1993): 167-182. Gerald Nicosian, ed., Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman, 1996.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Maria Damon

Kaufman's case illustrates the role and position of a writer in certain social and historical circumstances: his biographical status as stereotyped Beat legend and overlooked Black poet complements, even as it can obscure, the problematics of a marginal writer's relationship to modernism. His work exemplifies a mélange of many of the cultural trends of the American 1950s and 1960s: the "individualism versus groupism" model for understanding social dynamics prevalent in the era of McCarthy and the Beats; the popularizing of European modernist developments such as surrealism and existential philosophy; and the blending of these European influences with African-American themes and structures. A quintessential subcultural poet, Kaufman is at once multiply marginal and properly paradigmatic; embodying the mainstream trends and stereotypes of his era, his work is at once high-cultural and streetwise. For example, as Charles Nilon has pointed out, although Kaufman writes in Standard English laden with allusions to Camus, Picasso, and Miro, he also employs street language, Black American verbal structures (rapping, running it down, and signifying) and jazz modalities in his verse.

From The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. Copyright © 1993 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.

A. Robert Lee

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Though born in New Orleans of a Catholic black mother and Jewish father, raised in the Lower East Side (whose human variety he warms to while condemning its squalor and poverty as in pieces like 'East Fifth St. (N.Y.)' and 'TeeVeePeople'), and with twenty years in the Merchant Marine to follow, Bob Kaufman has long been best known as a controversial, drugs-and-poetry doyen of San Francisco. Despite the drug habits which led to several jail terms, or the self-denying and Buddhist ten-year vow of silence from 1963-73 taken to protest John Kennedy's assassination, his adopted city, on his death in January 1986, appointed 18 April 'Bob Kaufman Day' as well as naming a street after him. It was Kaufman, too, no doubt appropriately for the counterculture voice which in 'Benediction' had once told America --'Everyday your people get more and more/Cars, television, sickness death dreams./You must have been great/alive'--who had a shaping part in creating with the journalist Herb Caen the term 'beatnik'.

Throughout the 1950s and early West Coast 1960s (if less so afterwards), when Beatitude, and then Lawrence Ferlinghetti in City Lights, first published his 'Abomunist' poems and broadsides, his often jazz-accompanied, Dadaist poetry readings and legendary 'happenings' won him the reputation of a Beat irregular, San Francisco's own one-off bohemian. His different 'Abomunist' papers (Abomunist Manifesto, Second April and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?), each an anarcho-surreal parody of all 'isms' and issued under the name 'Bomkauf', argue for a Beat-derived ‘rejectionary philosophy'. As he puts matters in 'Abomunist Manifesto':


Yet amid the noise, the heat, the often dire turns in his life, Kaufman managed poetry of genuine distinction as born out in his three principal collections, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness (1959), Golden Sardine (1960) and The Ancient Rain: Poes 1956-1978 (1981).

In Solitudes, Kaufman strikes his own Beat affinity in 'Afterwards, They Shall Dance', a poem in which he claims a lineage with Dylan Thomas ('Wales-bird'), Billie Holiday ('Lost on the subway and stayed there/forever'), Poe ('died translated, in unpressed pants') and, for him, the symboliste master of all, Baudelaire. Only a dues-paying black Beat, one suspects, would end in terms which resemble both Ginsberg's 'sunflower Sutra' and a dreamy, flighted blues:

Whether I am a poet or not, I use fifty dollars' worth
    of air every day, cool.
In order to exist I hide behind stacks of red and blue poems
And open little sensuous parasols, stinging the nail-in-
The foot-song, drinking cool beatitudes.

Nor can the Beat connection be missed in 'West Coast Sounds 1956', one of his best-known 'Frisco' compositions, in which he identifies Ginsberg, Corso, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac and Cassady and himself as co-spirits for a changed America, even to the point of crowding the East Coast. Jazz and 'hip', 'swinging' and 'cool' make inevitable touchstones:

San Fran, hipster land,
Jazz sounds, wig sounds,
Earthquake sounds, others,
Allen on Chesnutt Street,
Giving poetry to squares
Corso on knees, pleading,
God eyes.
Rexroth, Ferlinghetti,
Swinging, in cellars,
Kerouac at Locke's,
Writing Neil
on high typewriter,
Neil, booting a choo-choo,
on zigzag tracks.
Now, many cats
Falling in,
New York cats,
Too many cats,
Monterey scene cooler,
San Franers, falling down.
Canneries closing.
Sardines splitting,
For Mexico.
Me too.

This, too, has to be sited alongside poems like 'Ginsberg (for Allen)', his surreal, larky homage to the author of 'Howl' ('I have proof that he was Gertrude Stein's medicine chest', 'I love him because his eyes leak'); like 'jazz Te Deum for Inhaling at Mexican Bonfires', hymn to the possibilities of human exuberance ('Let us walk naked in radiant glacial rains and cool morphic thunderstorms'); like 'A Remembered Beat', with its play of opposites, to the one side Charlie Parker as 'a poet in jazz', Mexico and the 'hidden Pacific', and to the other, coercive 'organization men' and 'television love'; like 'War Memoir', his contemplative, Hiroshima-haunted lament at nuclear folly; and like 'Jail Poems', his 34-part, moving, self-inquisitorial lyric sequence ('I sit here writing, not daring to stop./For fear of seeing what's outside my head'). Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness made for an auspicious debut.

Though far less even - a suspicion arises that some of the poems were either unfinished or too hasty - Golden Sardine has its own triumphs. The untitled opening poem, a bitter, vivid dream sequence based on Carl Chessman in death-row (which oddly anticipates the execution of Gary Gilmore as told by Norman Mailer in The Executioner's Song), exudes a fierce compassion. The jazz poems, whether 'Round About Midnight', 'Tequila Jazz', 'His Horn' or 'Blue O'Clock', might all have been written by the Beat voice of 'Night Sung Sailor's Prayer'. There, America's 'born losers, decaying in sorry jails', find redemption (as they do in Ginsberg's 'Footnote to Howl') through the poet's own life-affirming articulacy:

Sing love and life and love
All that lives is Holy,
The unholiest, most holy of all.

But the presiding note in Golden Sardine is one of angry, sad revolt at American venality, materialism and 'ritual lies', a revolt, however, redeemed from solemnity or mere complaint by Kaufman's linguistic energy and flair. His poem, 'On', set out in serial form, envisages an America of disjunctures and fracture, beginning, 'On yardbird corners of embryonic hopes, drowned in a heroin tear’ and moving through to 'On lonely poet corners of low lying leaves & moist prophet eyes'. The view is one from the Beat or Hipster margins, appalled at American conformity, the 'comic-book seduction', the 'motion picture corners of lassie & other symbols'. It is, too, a view unmistakably Kaufman's own.

In his Introduction to The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978, Kaufman's editor, Raymond Foye, rightly characterises the later work as 'some of the finest ... of his career - simple, lofty, resplendent'. Two poems especially do service. In 'War Memoir: Jazz, Don't Listen To At Your own Risk', he makes jazz a counterweight, a moral balance, to war and rapacity ('While jazz blew in the night/suddenly we were too busy to hear a sound'). He also focuses on the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ('busy humans were/Busy burning Japanese in atomicolorcinescope/With stereophonic screams,/What one-hundred-percent red-blooded savage would waste time/Listening to jazz, with so many important things going on . . .’). For Kaufman, jazz, 'living sound', so restores and harmonizes, a (Beat?) act of life over death. Or as he himself puts it: 'jazz, scratching, digging, bluing, swinging jazz,/And we listen/And we feel/And live'.

In 'Like Father, Like Sun', with Lorca as tutelary spirit, he again invokes an America of life - from New Orleans to the Mississippi to the 'Apache, Kiowa, and Sioux ranges'- against a 'rainless', 'fungus' America. But his ending looks even further, to a pluralised, uncoercive, universal nation - to, as it were, Emerson's 'poem' America:

The poem comes
Across centuries of holy ties, and weeping heaven's eyes,
Africa's black handkerchief, washed clean by her children's honor,
As cruelly designed anniversaries spin in my mind,
Airy voice of all those fires of love I burn in memory of
America is a promised land, a garden torn from naked stone,
A place where the losers in earth's conflicts can enjoy their triumph.
All losers, brown, red, black, and white; the colors from the
Master Palette.

Kaufman's 'Like Father, Like Sun' no doubt bespeaks his own pains, his own will to redemption. But as in the poems of Jones/Baraka and Joans, it equally seeks to 'signify' at a wider level: nothing other than the exposure of America and beyond to a black beatitude.

From The Beat Generation Writers. Ed. A. Robert Lee. Copyright © 1996 by Lumiere (Cooperative) Press Ltd. And Pluto Press.

by C. Natale Peditto  

Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) was a legend to his own and succeeding generations of poets while he was still alive but has yet to obtain the literary stature granted to  his fellow contemporaries, such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Ferlinghetti and Baraka.  Still, he is a seminal member of a distinctly American movement of poets, an archetypal figure of the Beat movement, especially as a member of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and the general community of North Beach artists of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In Kaufman's case, biographical (including autobiographical) material is sparse?never easily defined, he was, essentially, an autodidact and internationalist; in his youth, a sailor of the seven seas; a union organizer and orator in the South and on the Westcoast docks; an intimate of New York City's Bop figures Charlie "Bird" Parker (for whom Kaufman named his only son, Parker), Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. Bob Kaufman was a rambling man of the world and eternal social outsider who could recite T. S. Eliot and Garcia Lorca by heart and who created his own spontaneous surrealist verse.

Kaufman's notoriety as a poet has often been associated with his public visibility and outrageous antics as a radical street poet; he often incurred the wrath of the local police simply for reciting his poetry aloud in public, and it is said that in 1959 alone, at the height of the "beatnik" fad, he was arrested by the San Francisco police on disorderly charges 39 times. In 1960 he was nominated for the Guiness Poetry Award and was invited to read at Harvard University but ended up in New York City for an extended period and became involved in heavy drug use while briefly pursuing a song writing career. Ironically, on the day in 1963 that he was to depart New York with his wife and infant son, he was summarily arrested for walking on the grass of Washington Square park and incarcerated on Rikers Island, then sent as a "behavioral problem" to Bellvue Psychiatric Hospital where he underwent electro-shock treatments. Later that year, he returned to San Francisco; and after John Kennedy's assassination, Kaufman submitted himself to a lengthy vow of silence which he finally broke at the end of the Vietnam War.

Stories of Kaufman's eccentric career are legion, and consequently at times apocryphal. By now, oral tradition itself (local word-on-the street grown into literary oral histories, memoirs and commentary) has transformed Bob Kaufman into a mythical legend in the folklore of Beatdom.

The most recent edition of Kaufman's poetry, Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman, edited by Gerald Nicosia (Coffee House Press, 1996), will probably serve as the major collection for some time to come since it contains the complete text of the out of print Golden Sardine (City Lights, 1967) along with Kaufman's broadside Abomunist Manifesto, as well as some fine poems from currently in-print collections, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness  (New Directions, 1965) and The Ancient Rain (New Directions, 1981), and includes eight previously uncollected poems/prose poems. The three previous editions of Kaufman's poems were culled, for the most part, by others from notebooks, scraps of paper and audio-taped transcriptions. In this latest collection, one of the previously unpublished poems was discovered in 1980 on the floor of a North Beach diner where Kaufman often ate breakfast.

More than other poets of his generation, Kaufman embraced the orality of poetry as part of a living art form that went beyond the boundaries of the printed page.  Raymond Foye, who edited a collection of Kaufman's poetry, The Ancient Rain (New Directions, 1981), remarked in his editor's note, "Bob took no part in publishing his work; indeed, he had an aversion to even writing his poems down. He wanted to live a simple life, a man amongst his friends. 'I want to be anonymous,' he once told me, 'my ambition is to be completely forgotten.' And I think he meant it." Yet Foye also relates the story of finding Kaufman's handwritten manuscripts (many of the poems that eventually went into The Ancient Rain) in the smoldering ruins of a burnt out San Francisco hotel where Kaufman had just lived and escaped the disaster. It is remarkable not only that these poems survived, but that no one might have known of their existence had it not been for their near extinction. Foye's anecdote is likely indicative of how Kaufman regarded literary fame that seeks a measure of traditional status and permanence.

One of the hallmarks of the oral poet is anonymity, and Kaufman was a man of the streets whose oral compositions and public performances were his particular mode of art and life.  Kaufman's wife, Eileen, writing in the Beat series, the unspeakable visions of the individual, told of her husband's proclaiming poetry to customers in a diner, of his shouting poetry to passengers in cars stuck in traffic, of his holding lyrical court evenings at the Coffee Gallery, a famous Beat hangout in San Francisco where he would spontaneously speak his poetry. Her descriptions of Kaufman's style illustrate the oral dynamics of his verse: "...each time Bob speaks it is a gem in the crown of oratory," and "Bob's entire monologue is like a long line of poetry which constantly erupts into flowers." She also spoke of her regret at not having a tape recorder to capture Kaufman's "speeding thoughts" and admitted that many poem fragments existed on note paper, napkins, and even toilet paper.

Foye has written of Kaufman's sources of poetry as "oral and automatic." Kaufman's intuitive sense of jazz musicality, reflected in the rhythm and sound patterns of his prosody, as well as a heightened visual sense of his imagery and word juxtapositions, link him to the surrealist painters of the twentieth century. He aligns jazz with the surrealist traditions of the Parisian jazz age, as well as celebrating an ecstatic symbolism and sensualism (of word music), and is hailed as the "black American Rimbaud" by the French.

If one considers Kaufman as essentially an oral poet, one ought to consider comparing his creations to the compositions of jazz musicians who we think of as creators and improvisers in the moment of performance. Bob Kaufman's intimate acquaintance with and appreciation for jazz musicians such as Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane underscores his own aesthetic. These musical influences on his poetry were evident in structure and style as well as content and theme. Foye characterized Kaufman's poetic thus, "Adapting the harmonic complexities and spontaneous invention of be-bop to poetic euphony and meter, he became the quintessential jazz poet." In this respect, Kaufman's appellation as a jazz poet reflects the joint association of modern jazz musicians with more ancient oral traditions.

American as Bop, Kaufman's poetry was capable of ecstatic solo flights of word jazz. There exist a whole series of relatively short poems, especially in Golden Sardine, that are expressed as lyrical wails. In one such poem, "Cocoa Morning," the assonant sound patterns match the words in a very jazz-like way, especially throughout the second stanza:

          Drummer, hummer, on the floor,
          Dreaming of wild beats, softer still,
          Yet free of violent city noise,
          Please, sweet morning,
          Stay here forever.

Kaufman's sound-consciousness directly links his poetic sense with jazz, explicitly so in the sound poem "Crootey Songo," where the repetitive e's and o's combine in syllabic strings to resemble jazz riffs and runs of a saxophone:




Kaufman's poetic devices combine in series of short playful outbursts or epiphanies in phrases and lines. In "Secondless," Kaufman demonstrates a long line of melodic assonance:

          Secondless, minute scarred, hourless, owless, sourness,
     flowerless, for a statement, FOR
          GOD the pygmies are ECSTATIC.
                         FICKLE TIME GONE FROM TIME INTO
          Sometimes are tickless times.

And in "Darkwalking Endlessly," it is the assonance of the connecting words that drives the lines themselves:



          . . . .




Kaufman is capable of long poems and prose poems that consist of the long bardic breath-line in which all his sonic and rhythmic energies come into play. In "Jazz Te Deum for Inhaling at Mexican Bonfires," each long line is prefaced with the words "Let us . . ." followed by an almost breathless array of surrealistic images. One can detect a litany of cries and responses and the repetition of stated themes that are typical of oral poems and that resemble jazz composition containing chorus lines and individual solo improvisations.

The importance of sound as an key element in Kaufman's poetry is most evident in "Unanimity Has Been Achieved Not a Dot Less for its Accidentalness," a poem in which rhythm is both the subject and driving force:

          Raga of the drum, the drum, the drum, the drum, the drum, the
          Raga of lip, raga of brass, raga of ultimate come with yesterday,
               raga of parched tongue-walked lip, raga of yellow, raga of
          mellow, raga of new, raga of old, raga of blue, raga of gold,
          raga of air spinning into itself. . . .

     The oral dimension of Kaufman's poetry is particularly characteristic of the poetry of the Beat generation that Kaufman helped to shape. Lee Hudson, in "Poetics in Performance: The Beat Generation" (Studies in Interpretation, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1977), has examined the oral aspect as it relates to the poetics and performance of members of Kaufman's generation. According to Hudson, the Beat poets related to ancient bardic traditions and sought to bring their poetry directly to the people. Thus, the Beat scene was a resurgence of an oral tradition, a tradition of performance. In short, the poem's existence depended, in large part, on more than print; performance was basic. A significant dimension in the entire Beat movement, performance was a part of the compositional process, a consideration in the form and content of poems, a social literary event. (pp. 67-68)

Hudson has further described the sources of this type of poetry which consisted of a particular American idiom, as a form of talking that reflected common speech. This language was transformed in terms of a "physiological metrics" with a "rhythmic unit born of lyrical outburst," which quite naturally emphasized spontaneity and oral composition and came to be known as "street poetry." Hudson linked this type of poetry to the self-identity of the poet in so far as "the physiology of the poet himself will determine the from of his expression."

As part of a master's thesis/project in 1989, I conceived and directed a readers theatre production of Kaufman's poetry, entitled The Poet Alive. Kaufman's poetry lent itself to performance by a spoken word choral quartet, with a saxophonist who interweaved sounds with the texts. Modeling the performance of poetry on jazz suggested one contemporary mode of oral poetics, especially in the case of Kaufman who self-consciously created jazz poems, is the reappearance and/or variations from one poem to another of the same phrases and lines (anathema to the authorial poet/writer), the explorations of words as sound as well as the concoction of sounds into word-like vocalic forms (scats and sound-poems), the prosody of air and percussive instrumentation through intonations and verse rhythms. Most importantly, the orality of living poetry comes through as Kaufman's poetry was the rich score for the body to perform as an instrument of language art, vocally and kinetically, providing the performers with interpetive material for multiple voices and choreographed movements.

Poetry, for Kaufman, was always a part of the occasion for his utterances and inseparable from the activities of his daily life. Poetry lived and breathed through Kaufman body and consciousness as a matter of his routine. He was known to recite other poets he knew "by heart" and interlaced his own verses with theirs. Kaufman played the situation and the crowd for its own "consciousness," and naturally sensed the need for poems as evocations for occasions. The special impact of such poetry as it relates to performance also brings into play a direct interplay between the poet and audience, the hallmark of the lyric poet. Rather than a distanced, abstract poetry of the formal, printed "literary" type, this Beat poet was aware of and engaged his audience's immediate senses in a poetry of the body.


Abbott, Steve. "Hidden Master of the Beats." Poetry Flash, February 1986.

Cherkovski, Neeli. Whitman's Wild Children. (Venice, CA: Lapis) 1988.

Foye, Raymond. "Bob Kaufman, A Proven Glory." The Poetry Project Newsletter, March 1986.

Kaufman, Eileen. "Laughter Sounds Orange at Night." The Beat Vision: A Primary Sourcebook. Eds. Arthur Knight and Kit Knight. (New York: Paragon) 1967.

Seymore, Tony. "Crimes of a Warrior Poet." Players Magazine, December 1983.

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