Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, and Tate Swindell, editors: Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Lights Books, 2019)

“To set the story straight it was his (Bob Kaufman’s) spirit that helped sire the Ginsberg that we know and not vice versa. It was he who magically hoisted the invisible umbrella under which Kerouac and others such as Corso were enabled to protractedly flourish.”  – Will Alexander, surrealist Los Angeles poet

On a ‘Praise for Bob Kaufman’ page in Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman there is high praise for this “surrealist saint of the streets” (poet Anne Waldman). And David Henderson, poet, writer and producer of the two-hour NPR/National Public Radio 1991 documentary Bob Kaufman, Poet, writes: “So much did he embody a French tradition of the poet as outsider, madman, and outcast, that in France, Kaufman was called the Black Rimbaud.

There are tributes from spoken word-poet Kamau Daáood (Leimert Park, CD/1997), poets Douglas Kearney, Philip Lamantia and Tyrone Williams, jazz-pianist Cecil Taylor, and Kaufman’s fellow Beats, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, his publisher at City Lights Books.

But Will Alexander and company notwithstanding, Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) is something of an “under-sung literary master” (Daáood) of the beat generation’s San Francisco Renaissance.

BORN IN NEW ORLEANS to a Louisiana born Afro-Caribbean mother and a father of German  and French ancestry (at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in most states, becoming legal in all states only in 1967), Kaufman once said of himself: “I’m black, Jewish, white, green, and yellow with a blue man inside me struggling to come out,” beginning the poem Oct. 5th, 1963, taking the form of a letter to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, with these lines:

“Gentlemen:// Arriving back in San Francisco to be greeted by a blacklist and evic-/ tion, I am writing these lines to the responsible non-people. One thing/  is certain I am not white. Thank God for that. It makes everything else/ bearable.”

Co-editor Tate Swindell’s Bob Kaufman Chronology contains much valuable information, like meticulous documentation of Kaufman’s six years at sea 1942-1948, his joining NMU, the National Maritime Union as an organizer and agitator, declared a ‘poor security risk’ by the US Coast Guard, being expelled from the NMU for ‘degeneracy’ and drug use, etc.  

Blacklistings and evictions were just two among the many disasters in Bob Kaufman’s life. As a result of a beating during his days as a labor organizer in the Deep South, Foye writes, Kaufman lost several teeth, lost all hearing in one ear, and suffered tinnitus in the other (“.. My teeth rattle, like musical instruments./ In one ear a spider spins its web of eyes,/ In the other a cricket chirps all night./..,” see ’Michelangelo’ the Elder).

By 1953 we see Kaufman in San Francisco, reciting his poetry in North Beach bars, co-founder of the magazine Beatitude, in 1958 meeting Eileen Singer, mother of his son Parker, and an invaluable editor and preserver of his poems, seeing to the publication of much of his poetry.  

In 1959 City Lights Books issued his first publication, Abomunist Manifesto – a cult classic – soon followed by two other broadsides, Second April (1959) and Does the Secret Mind Whisper (1960), the latter thought to be an excerpt from a novel-in-progress that never materialized.  

WE TURN AGAIN to the multi-layered Oct. 5th, 1963. Jack Kerouac put Bob Kaufman in his 1965 novel Desolation Angels as ‘Chuck Berman’. But devorah major, a San Francisco poet laureate, in Eternal Poet, her foreword to Collected Poems, argues that Bob Kaufman’s ‘beat’ was not like Jack Kerouac’s ‘beat’, quoting from the last part of the poem:

 “… there is a silent beat in between the drums./  … the silent beat is/ beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all/ the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in beatween,/ its sound is                                                     Bob Kaufman, Poet                                                                                  

As these lines suggest, music was important to Bob Kaufman. He named his son Parker (Robert Parker Kaufman) after the legendary bebob saxophonist Charlie Parker, and a number of his finest poems are jazz poems: Walking Parker Home, Battle Report, and Bagel Shop Jazz.

His reputation as a surrealist (the ‘Black Rimbaud’) rests on surreal elements seen in Would You Wear My Eyes?, Heavy Water Blues (“My radio is teaching my goldfish Jujitsu/ ..”), and Blues for Hal Waters (“My head, my secret cranial guitar ..”), as in much of his poetry.    

RAYMOND FOYE: “Are you Bob Kaufman?” Kaufman (in passing, without stopping, and without turning around): “Sometimes.” Whereas editors Neeli Cherkovski and Raymond Foye’s essays are based on personal recollections and encounters with Kaufman, devorah major’s foreword is a loving tribute to a poet who was her father’s friend, and a clear inspiration for her own poetry.  

Taking a ten year Buddhist wow of silence following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, by the time of his death in 1986 Bob Kaufman was beat (“.. My body once covered with beauty/ Is now a museum of betrayal./..,” see All Those Ships That Never Sailed), beaten by too many years of living on the streets and in fleabag hotels, too many drugs, alcohol and psychedelics, too many beatings by the police, FBI surveillance, incarcerations (Jail Poems), and electroshocks.

Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman offers you an opportunity to read all and pick your own favorite poems to sing this under-sung literary master, better appreciated in France than in his own country.

UFI// 19 December 2019

Collected Poems contains all three volumes of poetry published while Kaufman was still alive: Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New Directions, 1965), Golden Sardine (City Lights, 1967), The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New Directions, 1981, edited by Foye), the three City Lights broadsides mentioned above, and 34 pages of uncollected poetry, for the most part unearthed by Tate Swindell – note the last nine poems on mortality and Buddhism, some written towards the very end of Kaufman’s life.   

Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems of Bob Kaufman (Coffee House Press, 1996), edited by Gerald Nicosia, was  important for keeping the poetry of Bob Kaufman in print, and for David Henderson’s still very readable introduction, excerpts mostly from the above mentioned 1991 NPR documentary.