Kaufman, Bob

   Kaufman was a multiethnic poet, an African-American poet, a Beat poet, a surrealist poet, a jazz poet, a poète maudit, a New Orleans poet, a San Francisco poet, a street poet, a people’s poet, and a poet’s poet. One of the founding architects and “living examples” of the Beat Generation as a literary, historical, and existential phenomenon, he has until recently been overshadowed in reputation by his white and formally educated contemporaries such as allen ginsberg, jack kerouac, gary snyder, and William S. Burroughs. To some extent this reflects a business-as-usual neglect of black writers by the mainstream; to some extent it reflects Kaufman’s own stated ambition to become “completely anonymous.” Partly by choice, partly out of disillusionment and the ravages of street life, he turned his back on fame and respectability, implicitly declaring solidarity with the world’s anonymous poor. While African-American writers and scholars have been familiar with his work, it is only in the last several years that he is gaining wider recognition.
   One of 13 children, Robert Garnell Kaufman was born in New Orleans to a well-respected, highachieving, middle-class, black-identified Catholic family. His mother, a member of the Vigne family (one of whose members was Louis Armstrong’s upper-school teacher at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys), was a schoolteacher who insisted that the children develop sophisticated literary capacities: their reading included Henry James, Marcel Proust, Herman Melville, and Gustave Flaubert. According to Kaufman’s older brother George, their father was a Pullman porter and thus participated in one of the most heroic labor efforts in American history: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Pullman porter union, was the first black union to organize successfully. It was, in the words of Franklin Rosemont, “more than a union,” as it used the railroad system to disseminate black culture, education, and political power throughout the United States. (Other research has suggested that Kaufman’s father was a waiter at elegant restaurants that catered to whites; another oral-history source claims he was a bar owner.) At age 18, in 1945, Kaufman, like several of his older brothers, joined the merchant marines and participated in the turbulent organizing activities of several overlapping maritime unions. He became an impassioned, militantly leftist labor orator for the National Maritime Union. When the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged in the 1950s, he was purged from the union, a casualty of the anticommunism that swept through the labor movement during the Eisenhower-McCarthy years. During this period of the cold war, political dissent was crushed; cultural/aesthetic dissent seemed the only way to publicly affirm one’s right to be different. The Beat literary movement was born under these circumstances. Kaufman left New York, which had been his prime organizing territory, for California where he met Kerouac, moved to San Francisco, and became a familiar figure in the North Beach literary and street scene. In a brilliant move of spiritual survival, he reinvented himself as a poet—a half-black, half-Jewish Beat poet with an Orthodox Jewish and “voodoo” upbringing (his Jewishness remains apocryphal, though there is some possibility that his great-grandfather, Abraham Kaufman, was a Jew who converted to Catholicism; there is no basis in the claim, made in several biographical sketches, that his mother was Martiniquaine). Embodying dissent in his lifestyle (not working) and writing—or not writing but living “poetically”—became his form of labor, as outlined in “The Poet.” A much-beloved and brilliant extemporizer, he blended original rapid-fire aphorisms and wisecracks with the considerable store of modernist poetry that he recited from memory. This ability to “sample” other writers in an original and inventive context is evident in his poetry, which reworks and defamiliarizes that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Federico García Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and others. In its adventurous imagery, sonorous qualities, and biting wit, moreover, Kaufman’s poetry has much in common with other New World black surrealists such as ted joans, Aimé Cesaire, Will Alexander, and Wilson Harris, as well as with the jazz-inspired poetry and fiction of Leroi Jones/ amiri baraka and Nathaniel Mackey.
   Kaufman’s first book, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) was compiled, edited, and sent off to the publisher (New Directions) by his wife Eileen Kaufman. Many of the poems in this volume describe the North Beach scene in San Francisco’s bohemian pathos, humor, posturing, and genuine utopian yearnings (“abomunist manifesto,” “Bagel Shop Jazz”); others chronicle the ongoing social hassles of being African American (“Jail Poems,” and “I, Too, Know What I Am Not,” which was selected by Clarence Major for his 1970’s anthology The New Black Poetry); still others are modeled on jazz compositional principles (“Second April”) or invoke jazz themes. Many lyrics express an intense desire to live beyond oneself or acute dissociation (“For My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room,” “Would You Wear My Eyes?”). Golden Sardine (City Lights, 1967) continues many of these themes and continues to experiment, as did “Abomunist Manifesto” and “Second April,” with new versions of the long poem (“Caryl Chessman Interviews the PTA from his Swank Gas Chamber”). After a three-year sojourn in New York City (1960–63), during which time he experienced the hardships of addiction and poverty, Kaufman returned to San Francisco, abruptly withdrawing from public life. Where he had been animated and gregarious, spouting his witty raps from cafes and street corners, he became elusive and shadowy, desiring only “anonymity” and “uninvolvement,” which he maintained for the remainder of the 1960s and early 1970s. Some accounts characterize this period as a “ten-year Buddhist vow of silence” lasting from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the end of the Vietnam War. Others point to the locating of his son Parker, who had been lost for several years, in the Khyber Pass, as the moment when Kaufman “began to speak again.” A second period of productive engagement with the literary and social world in the mid-1970s through the 1980s produced “The Ancient Rain,” a bicentennial dark-night-of-the-soul, and several other beautiful poems, some of which derive their power from the increasingly decentered, fragmented vision of apocalyptic liberation and/or destruction that the poet’s psychic, physical and political/aesthetic life embody; they are both historical allegories and personal accounts of nightmarish experiences and intuitions. This era culminated in the publication of The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New Directions, 1981), edited by Raymond Foye, who had to demonstrate his commitment to the project to convince Kaufman to break his own commitment to silence and anonymity but who ultimately won the poet’s approval. In January 1986 Kaufman died of emphysema and cirrhosis. The Bob Kaufman Collective published the posthumous Closing Time Till Dawn (1986), a poetic dialogue between Kaufman and San Francisco poet Janice Blue. In 1996 Coffee House Press republished Golden Sardine and a selection from the other books under the title Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman.
■ Damon, Maria. “Unmeaning Jargon/Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet.” The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993: 32–76.
■ Edwards, Brent Hayes, et al., eds. Callaloo 25, no. 1. Special Issue on Jazz Poetics: Special Section on Bob Kaufman. Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. New York: New Directions, 1981.
■ ———. Cranial Guitar. Edited by Gerald Nicosia. Introduction by David Henderson. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1996.
■ ———. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965.
   Maria Damon

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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