Born: April 18, 1925
Place of Birth: New Orleans, Louisiana
Bob Kaufman was, other than Langston Hughes, the greatest jazz poet who ever lived. He remains one of the best 2 or 3 of the Beat poets and the most underrated of all American poets.
– Sean Daniel Singer
Kaufman said of his own work, “My head is a bony guitar, strung with tongues, plucked by fingers & nails.”
Poet, prose poet, jazz performance artist, satirist, manifesto writer, and legendary figure in the Beat movement. They say he coined the term “beatnik”. He claimed to be the son of a German-Jewish father and a Roman Catholic Black mother from Martinique, and that his grandmother practiced voodoo. At the age of thirteen, he ran away and joined the Merchant Marine, surviving four shipwrecks and circumnavigating the globe nine times in the next twenty years. He left the Merchant Marines in the early 1940s to briefly study literature at New York’s The New School. There, he met William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. The three went to San Francisco, joining Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the center of the Beat scene.
In 1959, along with poets Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly, A. D. Winans, and William Margolis, he was one of the founders of Beatitude magazine. The same year he had a small role in a movie called The Flower Thief, shot in North Beach by Ron Rice. The following year he was invited to read his poetry at Harvard. In 1961, Kaufman was nominated for England’s Guinness Poetry Award, but lost to T. S. Eliot.
Kaufman is credited with popularizing Beat attitudes and philosophies in Europe – especially France, where he was known as “the American Rimbaud.” His books of poetry include The Ancient Rain: Poems, 1956-1978 (New Directions, 1981); Watch My Tracks (1971); Golden Sardine (1966), collected by Kaufman’s friend, Mary Beach, during his first period of silence; and Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness (1965), comprised of three earlier broadsides, Does the Secret Mind Whisper?, Second April, and the Abomunist Manifesto.
Kaufman, a poet in the oral tradition, usually didn’t write down his poems, and some of his published work survives by way of his wife Eileen, who wrote his poems down as he conceived them. He would carry his son, Parker, into coffee houses in San Francisco and “hold court,” reciting his poems aloud and from memory – his work was essentially improvised. It varies from Symbolist to Surrealist, and often involves political and social protest. He was repeatedly persecuted by local authorities, and even given shock treatment against his will.
When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence to protest the Vietnam War. On the day the war ended in 1975, he walked into a coffee shop and famously recited a poem called “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” A period of intense activity and productivity ensued. He even appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson four times. But Kaufman again withdrew into solitude in 1978, after telling editor Raymond Foye, “I want to be anonymous . . . my ambition is to be completely forgotten.” He died from emphesyma in 1986. He is not forgotten.
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.
There is a special library at the Sorbonne in Paris which has the bulk of his “papers” and information about him. He was much more popular in France than in America. He also published several “chapbooks” or “manifestos” for City Lights in the early to late sixties. Those are completely unavailable, and “Golden Sardine” is out of print.
Much of the difficulty editors, scholars, and admirers have in putting together Kaufman’s poems and life is that he was an oral poet, and embraced the anonymity of the role. For Kaufman, the public space had no boundaries; he would recite to people stuck in traffic, patrons of restaurants, audiences gathered in one of San Francisco’s hot-spot coffee houses or bars–it didn’t matter. The poem, not the poet, was what mattered. To that end, many of his poems were lost, with the odd fragment often jotted down on a scrap of paper or cocktail napkin. His editor, Foye, recalls discovering manuscripts of Kaufman’s poems in his burned apartment, astonishingly surviving a fire that damaged the building beyond repair. One poem, included in Cranial Guitar, was found on the floor of a North Shore diner Kaufman frequented, a fitting emblem of the poet’s indifference to the trappings of fame.
– text lightly edited and heavily copied from:
- The Beat Museum, Literary Kicks
Contributed by Sean Daniel Singer = firstname.lastname@example.org
- About Bob Kaufman
Article: All Those Ships That Never Sailed