Bob Kaufman

Bob Kaufman


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From the late 1960s onward, through stretches of withdrawal and suffering the ill effects

of political blacklisting and harassment, alcohol, drugs, electroshock treatments,

and imprisonments, Kaufman recorded both with humor and pathos the pain of society’s victims.



Books by Bob Kaufman


Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness  /   The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978  / Second April  /


Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems / The Golden Sardine


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Bob Kaufman


By Katherine V. Lindberg


Poet, prose poet, jazz performance artist, satirist, manifesto writer, and legendary figure in the Beat movement, Bob Kaufman successfully promoted both anonymity and myths of his racial identity and class origins. While romanticized biographies ascribe him with such names as griot, shaman, saint, and prophet of Caribbean, African, Native American, Catholic, and/or Jewish traditions, respectively, Kaufman was most likely the tenth of thirteen children of an African American and part Jewish father and a schoolteacher mother from an old New Orleans African American catholic family. After an orderly childhood that probably included a secondary education, he joined the merchant marine and became active in the radical Seafarer’s Union.

An itinerant drifter and self-taught poet (but a brief stint at the New school for Social Research and among the Black Arts and Beat literati of New York), he identified with the lives and cryptically quoted the works of poet-heroes such as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Federico Garcia Lorca, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, and Nicholas guillen, as well as improvisational artists and jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, after whom he named his only son. In individual poems he is, variously, an experimental stylist in the Whitman tradition (“The American Sun”), a French surrealist and existentialist (“Camus: I Want to Know”), a jazz poet after Langston Hughes, and in dialogue with bebop and the Black Arts movement (“African Dream,” “Walking Parker Home”).

As editor of Beatitude, a San Francisco literary magazine, Kaufman is credited by some with coming “Beat” and exemplifying its voluntarily desolate lifestyle. He enjoyed an underground existence as a “poets’ poet” (in Amiri Baraka’s poem “Meditation on Bob Kaufman,” Sulfur, Fall 1991) and as a legendary performer in the much memorialized street scenes of San Francisco’s North Bend and New York’s Greenwich Village during the late 1950s through the late 1970s.

Kaufman is best known for short lyric poems in African American (Langston Hughes, ed. The New Negro Poetry, 1964, being the first) and avant-garde anthologies (New directions in prose and Poetry #17, 1967, covering poetry and prose, The Portable Beat Reader, 1992). Works originally published by City Lights Bookstore of San Francisco are collected in two New Directions publications, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981). Three early broadsides, Abomunist Manifesto (1959), Second April (1959), and Does the Secret Mind Whisper (1960) extend his eclectic aesthetics into prose fiction and programmatic prose poetry. The Golden Sardine (1967) was translated and influential in France (as William Burroughs, Claude Pelieu, Bob Kaufman, Paris, 1967). The latter, along with South American and other translations, have earned Kaufman a wider reputation abroad than among mainstream critics in the United States.

Rather than address electoral, protest, or even literary politics in traditional ways, his elusive and allusive writings as well as his tragicomic life sustain a critique of the subtle rules and terrible punishment that, as he knew them, enforce American bourgeois values of race, class, sexuality, and rationality. Answering Mccarthyism, Beat, and Black Arts manifestoes with Dadaist anarchism and surrealist irrationalism, “Abomunism” (his contraction of, among other things, communism, atom bomb, Bob Kaufman, and abomination) is serious in its “black humor.”

From the late 1960s onward, through stretches of withdrawal and suffering the ill effects of political blacklisting and harassment, alcohol, drugs, electroshock treatments, and imprisonments, Kaufman recorded both with humor and pathos the pain of society’s victims. While no booklength study has yet been devoted to Kaufman, several recent essays affirm his  deceptively broad intellectual interests and the ambiguous power of individual acts of cultural resistance in the continuing struggles of oppressed peoples.

See Barbara Christian, “Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman?’ Black World 21 (Sept. 1972): 20-29.

Maha damon, “‘Unmeaning Jargon’ / Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet,” South Atlantic Quarterly 87.4 (Fall 1988): 701-741.

Kathryne V. Lindberg, “Bob Kaufman, Sir Real,” Talisman 11 (Fall 1993): 167-182.

Gerald Nicosian, ed. Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman, 1996.

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Round About Midnight

By Bon Kaufman

Jazz radio on a midnight kick,

Round about Midnight.


Sitting on the bed,

With a jazz type chick

Round about Midnight,


Piano laughter, in my ears,

Round about Midnight.


Stirring up laughter, dying tears,

Round about Midnight.

Soft blue voices, muted grins,

Excited voices, Father’s sins,

Round about Midnight.


Come on baby, take off your clothes,

Round about Midnight,

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Jazz Chick

              By Bob Kaufman

Music from her breast, vibrating

Soundseared into burnished velvet.

Silent hips deceiving fools.

Rivulets of tricking ecstasy

from the alabaster pools of Jazz

Where music cools hot souls.

Eyes more articulately silent

Than medusa’s thousand tongues.

A bridge of eyes, consenting smiles

reveal her presence singing

Of cool remembrances, happy nalls

Wrapped in swinging


Her music . . .


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Bob Kaufman (April 18, 1925 – January 12, 1986), born Robert Garnell Kaufman, was an American Beat poet and surrealist inspired by jazz music. In France, where his poetry had a large following, he was known as the “American Rimbaud.” . . . His poetry made use of jazz syncopation and meter. The critic Raymond Foye wrote about him, “Adapting the harmonic complexities and spontaneous invention of bebop to poetic euphony and meter, he became the quintessential jazz poet.”

Poet Jack Micheline said about Kaufman, “I found his work to be essentially improvisational, and was at its best when accompanied by a jazz musician. His technique resembled that of the surreal school of poets, ranging from a powerful, visionary lyricism of satirical, near dadaistic leanings, to the more prophetic tone that can be found in his political poems.” Kaufman said of his own work, “My head is a bony guitar, strung with tongues, plucked by fingers & nails.”

After learning of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence that lasted until the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. He broke his silence by reciting his poem “All Those Ships that Never Sailed,” the first lines of which are

All those ships that never sailed

The ones with their seacocks open

That were scuttled in their stalls…

Today I bring them back

Huge and intransitory

And let them sail


Source: Wikipedia

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