Bob Kaufman: The Enigmatic Beat Poet
Bob Kaufman once declared, "I want to be anonymous . . . my ambition is to be completely forgotten," as Raymond Foye recalls in his introduction to The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978, a collection of Kaufman’s poetry. A leading figure in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s, Kaufman's poems, politics, and, perhaps most importantly, his embrace of the oral nature of poetry informed and influenced a generation of poets. However, no definitive study of Kaufman’s work exists, and, given the ambling details of his life, perhaps no complete study may ever be possible.
Remembrances, essays, and tributes by and about the man credited with coining the term "beatnik" are scattershot through Beat histories and memoirs. There are a few volumes of his poems still in print, including Ancient Rain and Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman. Still, much of Kaufman's alternately ascetic and highly public life remains a mystery. Even what is known about Kaufman is not all certain; he was born into a large family in New Orleans, to a Catholic African American mother and a father of German Orthodox Jewish heritage.
Kaufman left the Merchant Marine in the early 1940s for a brief stay at the New School in New York City, where he met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. The three left for San Francisco to join Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac in the city’s North Beach neighborhood, where the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance took root. Kaufman's work soon became popular in France, where he helped create an audience for the Beats, and was known as "the black American Rimbaud."
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Kaufman took a legendary vow of silence that ended ten years later, the day the war in Vietnam ended, when he walked into a coffee shop and recited his poem, "All Those Ships That Never Sailed." His life cycled through periods of poverty, methadone addiction, and extended creative periods until his death in 1986 from emphysema.
Modeled on the rich tones and structures of jazz, Kaufman’s poems were built on melodic assurance and vibrant sonics. He claimed close friendship with many of the pioneering figures of be-bop, including Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker (for whom Kaufman named his only son, Parker). Calling Kaufman "the quintessential jazz poet," Foye pointed to his ability to adapt "the harmonic complexities and spontaneous invention of be-bop to poetic euphony and meter."
This understanding of jazz, of its adherence to tight compositional structures that made possible freeform improvisation, shaped Kaufman’s essential ideas about poetry, namely that invention and recitation were of supreme importance, and the sound of the poem is as much the subject of the poem as any observation or story it contained. In the short poem "Cocoa Morning," Kaufman created a pattern that matches words to sounds in a jazz-inspired manner, as in 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.
This jazz influence sparked the Beat generation in significant ways. Following Kaufman’s example, many of the Beats desired to free the poem from the printed page to bring it directly to the audience. Embracing this bardic tradition of orality, the Beats borrowed from jazz the qualites of improvisation, muscular musicality, and direct transmission. The performance of the poem became the reason for the poem, explaining, in part, the significance attached to the first public readings of Ginsberg’s "Howl."
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.