Wills, D., ‘Bob Kaufman – The Unsung Beat’ in Wills, D. (ed.) Beatdom Vol. 1 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2007)
By David S Wills
It always baffles me to find Bob Kaufman omitted from a great many books and documentaries and websites and talk about the Beat Generation. For me, Kaufman is the embodiment of Beat. That is not to say that the more well known names and faces did not embody the spirit they are most widely credited with creating and fulfilling, but rather that Kaufman was as Beatnik as any of them, and people today forget that all too easily. Hell, many critics argue that it was Kaufman who actually coined the phrase “Beat”, and not Jack Kerouac.
What would Kerouac say? Kerouac and his well-known Beat Generation contemporaries respected Kaufman as much as anyone, but he has been downplayed by later critics and fans. In France, where his largest following existed, he was known as the ‘Black American Rimbaud”.
Maybe there is a simple explanation for this apparent amnesia… Kaufman only wrote his poetry down on paper when forced to, preferring instead to read it aloud in public, or to indulge in a little guerrilla poetry, posting notes on shop windows, criticising society and the police. He preferred to recite his works in coffee shops and on the streets, once reading to Ken Kesey before the two knew each other, and frightening the young Kesey with his mad appearance, but impressing him nonetheless. Consequently, little accurate biographical information is available for willing scholars, and Kaufman remains for most a mythical Beat figure.
“My ambition is to be completely forgotten,” he once told Raymond Foye, editor of his collection of poems, The Ancient Rain.
His poetry had many of the influences of the works of other Beats, primarily jazz and Buddhism. He also had drug problems and run-ins with the law. And his life consisted of stories the equal of those that made famous. For example, when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Kaufman took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam war. When he spoke, he recited a poem he had written, entitled “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” Although he did speak after this, he remained more or less in solitude until his death in 1986.
The following bio is drawn from an extremely wide selection of reading, containing a number of conflicting dates and stories. Although this is testament to the wonderfully elusive life and times of the poet, it also means: Take the info with a pinch of salt, friend.
Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, to a German Jewish father and a Martinican black Catholic mother. His grandmother was a practitioner of Voodoo, while he was active in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, and later he became a Buddhist. It could therefore be stated that he was influenced in one way or another by a variety of religions and had an unusual and diverse racial heritage.
To add to these experiences, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines when only thirteen, survived four shipwrecks, and travelled the world, meeting Jack Kerouac. He read widely and studied literature at New York’s The New School, where he met William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He led unions and spoke on the docks on both coast, and was friends with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. In 1944 Kaufman married Ida Berrocal, in 1945 their daughter, Antoinette Victoria, was born, and in 1958, he married his second wife, Eileen Singe.
So when he moved to San Francisco in 1958, with Ginsberg and Burroughs, it would be fair to say that he had gained quite a bit of life experience. He met Ferlinghetti and Corso in San Francisco and helped develop the local literary Renaissance. Here he devoted himself to spontaneous oral poetry that flowed to the beat of jazz and bebop, the music that pulsed through the dives and haunts of the Beatnik North Beach area. He often took his son, Parker (named after Charlie Parker), into coffee houses and cafes, to “hold court”.
With Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine in North Beach, in 1959 (or ’65 or ’75 depending on the used resource). The magazine today exists in name and memory through Beatitude Broadside and Beatitude Press. Coupled with this accomplishment, and the creativity of his poetic performances, Kaufman read at Harvard and was nominated for the English Guinness Award.
However, as with so many Beats, Kaufman found himself addicted to drugs, in financial strife, and in frequent trouble with the law. Then when arrested in New York City for walking on the grass of Washington Square park, he was arrested and forced to undergo electro-shock therapy. So, with the assassination of JFK, Kaufman withdrew into silence. After the end of the war in ‘Nam, he regained some creativity, but soon went into a sort of retirement until his death in 1986.
He published three volumes of poetry, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, Golden Sardine, and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. He published Golden Sardines, as well as a number of chapbooks in the mid-sixties, through City Lights. He also founded Beatitude and a variety of ‘Abomunist’ texts, including the Abomunist Manifesto.
Kaufman’s poetry blends high English with street language, the structure and rhythm of African-American speech, surrealism, and the beat and improvisational qualities of jazz. He would recite his poetry aloud in the Coffee Gallery or in diners or during traffic jams, rarely writing them down, except perhaps in loose note form on napkins. Many listeners state that his best performances were done alongside a jazz musician.
Naturally, for a poet so obsessed with the orality of his poems, Kaufman’s work reflects speaking patterns – and not just through reciting his poems aloud. The words that make up his poems are everyday words, and the rhythms reflect everyday speech, in keeping with the style of Walt Whitman, although imbuing it with contemporary streetwise language.
He frequently features in volumes of African-American and avant-garde poetry, but seems forgotten in the predominantly white world of Beat history. But I guess that although he embodied Beat ideals and poetics, he was extremely unique within the bohemian world and was so occupied with new poetic ideas that he is of greater interest to more specific schools of thought than the often overarching generality of Beat literature studies. Of course, more likely than that is the fact that he preferred to not write down his poetry. Conflicting sources would have us believe that Kaufman’s wives wrote his poems down on his behalf, and also that they encouraged him to write them down himself. Either way, published collections of his work only reveal a small section of the full body.
However, although it is mostly true that he was averse to writing down his poetry, a handwritten manuscript was found by incredible fortune in the burning rubble of a hotel fire, from which Kaufman had narrowly escaped. Many of these poems went into The Ancient Rain.
But back to the poems… And Kaufman is frequently compared to twentieth century surrealist painters for his appreciation and use of strong and madly juxtaposed imagery. His use of symbolism is incredibly vivid and sensual. His Whitman-esque use of lists to build images imbued with sound, colour and feeling also draws upon Pound and W.C. Williams in its minimalist economy and effective conveyance. ‘Jazz Chick’ is a great example of such devices, and is easily available to read online.