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Bob Kaufman
An essay 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.
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.
Bob Kaufman (Robert Garnell Kaufman) nacque il 18 aprile, a new Orleans, Louisiana, primo di tredici figli. Sua madre era una nera cattolica della Martinica, suo padre un tedesco ebreo ortodosso. Da bambino Kaufman prese parte a servizi religiosi sia cattolici che ebraici; venne anche a contatto con le credenze voodoo della sua nonna materna. All’età di tredici anni, scappò di casa e si arruolò nella Marina Mercantile, sopravvisse a quattro naufragi e circumnavigò il globo per ben nove...