|Reading the work of Bob Kaufman (1925
- 1986) one senses the urgent and relentless determination
of the poet to engage and put to rout the combined forces
of Injustice and Destructiveness, Inertia and Illusion,
and to unfurl above a liberated world the banner of
Beauty and Joy. Sadly, in the end it was the poet himself
who fell in the encounter, worn-out from long fighting
and overthrown from within by his own self-destructiveness.
Yet he left behind him - in the form of three high explosive
volumes of poems -- munitions sufficient for us to carry
on the struggle.
For Bob Kaufman the struggle must have begun at an
early age. Born the eleventh of thirteen children
to an African-American family in New Orleans, Kaufman
must have learned at first hand already as a child
the inequalities and. injustices of the world.1 Joining
the Merchant Marine at the age of eighteen, he soon
became a member of the radical (Communist Party-oriented)
National Maritime Union, later serving the union as
orator, organizer, and international representative.
During his war years with the Merchant Marine, Kaufman
was simultaneously involved in the struggle against
fascism, the struggle against racism, (the color line
among merchant seamen was only broken by the War Labor
Board in 1943) and the struggle against capitalist
exploitation. After the war, Kaufman represented the
N.M.U. at conferences in London and France, and also
became an active supporter of the short-lived, left-leaning
Progressive Party, serving as an area director for
Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign on
the Progressive ticket. In the course of his union
and political activities, many of which took place
in southern states, it is said that Kaufman not infrequently
suffered incarceration and brutal treatment at the
hands of the police.
During these same years, apart from his political
activities, Kaufman also cultivated a keen interest
in modern literature and in jazz, associating with
members of the nascent Beat Generation in New York
City already in the late 1940s. Settling ashore in
San Francisco in 1956, Kaufman quickly became a central
figure in the North Beach bohemian-hipster scene,
attracting favorable attention among members of that
community for his spontaneous oral poems declaimed
atop café tables or on street corners, and
for his co-editorship of the literary magazine, Beatitude.
At the same time, the poet attracted hostile attention
from other quarters -- including the local police
-- for his inter-racial relationship (later marriage)
to Eileen Singe. For his public role as defender of
the North Beach community against police harassment,
and for his boisterous and unruly antics, Bob Kaufman
was often singled out by the police for persecution
and was repeatedly arrested and jailed.
Even while he was beginning to gain a national literary
reputation for the 1959 publication by City Lights
in broadside form of three of his long poems, Abomunist
Manifesto, Second April and Does the Secret Mind Whisper,
Kaufman seems to have been entering upon a period
of mental instability. This condition may have been
the result of his frequent incarceration or of his
growing alcoholism and use of amphetamines, or may
be attributed to the combination of both circumstances.
Moving to New York City, Kaufman’s substance
abuse accelerated and as a consequence he grew increasingly
impoverished and was often altogether without funds
or a domicile. Arrested and jailed for his erratic
public behavior, Kaufman was sent to Bellvue Hospital
where he was subjected to involuntary electro-shock
Upon his release from Bellvue in the autumn of 1963,
Kaufman returned to live in San Francisco. For private
and political reasons (reacting to the assassination
of President John F. Kennedy) the poet entered upon
a period of silence (forbearance from speech), which
he maintained for nearly ten years, until early 1973.
During this period, however, two volumes of Kaufman’s
poems were printed. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness,
a collection of Kaufman’s poems from the l950s,
appeared from New Directions in 1965; and Golden Sardine,
edited from manuscripts recovered from Kaufman’s
scorched Morocco portfolio after a fire had destroyed
his hotel room, was issued by City Lights in 1966.
Between 1973 and 1978 Kaufman composed a number of
poems that were then gathered together with earlier
uncollected poems to make up the volume, The Ancient
Rain, published by New Directions in 1978. In that
same year Kaufman again withdrew into silence and
seclusion, living a marginal existence, continuing
his prodigious consumption of alcohol and amphetamine.
To Raymond Foye, an admirer and editor of The Ancient
Rain, who tracked him down, the elusive Kaufman remarked:
“I want to be anonymous ... My ambition is to
be completely forgotten.” 2
Kaufman ‘s periodic silences and withdrawals
from the life of the world have been interpreted variously
as having their motivation in his Buddhist spiritual
orientation, in his personal disappointments and disillusion
with the affairs of the world, or as the consequence
of an amphetamine psychosis.3 Whatever may have been
its cause or causes, Kaufman’s second period
of silence and seclusion endured until his death in
Perhaps as an extension of his earlier occupation
as orator and organizer for the N.M.U., Kaufman conceived
of poetry as primarily an oral-aural art, as performance,
as a personal encounter or communion with his audience.
Indeed, it was Eileen Kaufman who first persuaded
her husband to commit his poems to writing, herself
transcribing his earliest poems from tape recordings.
Kaufman was equally committed to the principle of
spontaneous composition or improvisation in his writing,
a practice he derived both from jazz and from surrealism.
There is, then, often a rhetorical, polemical quality
to his poetry. It is charged with indignation and
outrage, abounding in pronouncements and indictments.
Yet, incongruously, and in contrast to American political
poetry of the 1930s, which may have provided an early
model for him, Kaufman’s poems employ surrealist
techniques and devices: disjunction, ellipsis and
fragmentation, inconsequence and juxtaposition. Further
poetic voltage is generated by wit and wordplay, rhapsody
and rant, slapstick and whimsy, and horror mingled
with humor. The collision of these disparate stylistic
elements produces a hallucinated impressionism, a
lucid madness in which the reader is implicated.
Kaufman’s poems range in shape and length from
short-lined, short lyrics of a dozen lines or so to
dense prose-poems pages in length. His poems take
the form of letters and biographies, a mock-manifesto
and a shooting script for the cinema of the mind;
they may present themselves as enigmatic jests, inscrutable
aphorisms or oracular telegrams. The structural device
most often employed by Kaufman in his poems is anaphora,
a jazz-like or blues-like repetition and variation
of lines and phrases. Even at their loosest and most
diffuse, a deep cohesion is sustained in the poems
by a central contrapuntal tension between grief and
ecstasy, denial and affirmation, admonishment and
yearning, terrified despair and aspiration toward
a redeeming order.
Kaufman’s poems may be seen to fall into three
main types: the personalist lyric, the poem of social
protest, and the visionary poem. There is some degree
of overlap among these categories, but by and large
they are distinct from one another. In the following,
I would like to consider a few representative examples
of each kind of poem and to suggest something of the
thematic development of the particular types within
Kaufman’s personal lyrics are typically self
- portraits and self - assessments expressed in terms
of surreal metaphors. His first collection, Solitudes
Crowded with Loneliness, opens with such a poem, titled
“I Have Folded My Sorrows.” 4
I have folded my sorrows into the mantle
of the summer night,
Assigning each brief storm its alloted space
Quietly pursuing catastrophic histories buried
in my eyes …
The verbs “fold” and “assign,”
together with the adverb “quietly,” combine
to suggest a calm control of the speaker’s sadness
and anguish. Though they still remain present in his
mind, he would seem to have surmounted his sorrows.
Later in the poem the semantic field created by “sorrows”,
“storm” and “catastrophic histories”
is expanded to include “yesterday’s disasters”
and yesterday’s pains”, while still the
poet declines to indulge the memory of former sufferings.
He acknowledges, however, that these “unfinished
encounters” remain to be dealt with. The tone
of the poem is one of candor and of a guarded optimism.
There is the sense of an achieved poise, and equanimity
in the face of menace, a faith in the processes of
life: “the world is not some unplayed Cosmic
An altogether different note, however, is struck
by two subsequent poems in the same volume, “Dolorous
Echo” and “Would You Wear My Eyes?”
In the first poem, the pores of the poet’s skin
are likened by him to “Millions of little /
Secret graves, / Filled with dead / Feelings;”
while the hairs on his head are compared to “Millions
of little / Secret trees, / Filled with dead / Birds.”
The mood of brooding doom conveyed by these images
is extended and intensified in the second poem:
My body is a torn mattress,
Dishevelled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
The whole of me
Is an unfurnished room
Filled with dank breath
Escaping in gasps …
The poet then proceeds to depict the parts of his
body in terms of dryness, decomposition and destruction
by fire. His mind he describes as being equally ravaged
and afflicted: “I have walked on my walls each
night / Through strange landscapes in my head.”
He seems to be immobilized with horror, unable to
find a way out of his misery, in the end incapable
of doing anything other than putting to the reader
the piteous question: “Would you wear my eyes?”
Here, then, that which formerly was “folded”
is now “disheveled”, and the “catastrophic
histories buried in my eyes” as mentioned in
“I Have Folded My Sorrows”, (and the “Black
Hole of Calcutta behind my eyes” mentioned in
the poem “Ginsberg” SCL 23) are now no
longer held in check but have burst forth from within
with overwhelming and devastating force.
In Golden Sardine, despite further suffering and
further affliction, Kaufman discovers and affirms
an identity apart from and beyond the body and mind,
declaring in. the poem “Blue Slanted into Blueness”:
I AM NOT A FORM
I AM ME, SACRED & HOLY
I AM UNIMPALABLE
Further imagery in Golden Sardine suggests that the
wound that so afflicts the poet is now seen not as
central to his being but exterior (if proximate) to
it, and that the defilement he feels does not besmirch
his inmost self.
Who crouches there in my
Some wounded bird.,
Hidden in the tall grass
That surrounds my heart.
. . .
Dirt of a world covers me,
My secret heart
Other poems in the same volume, including “Sun”,
“Slight Alterations”, “Saraswati”
and “Believe, Believe”, suggest that the
poet is in the process of gaining a sustaining spiritual
perspective upon the shocks and sorry confusions of
the world and upon his own sufferings.
In The Ancient Rain, Kaufman’s final volume
of poems, the poet advances further in the direction
of an acceptance and understanding of his suffering.
In the poem titled “All Those Ships That Never
Sailed” -- recited by Kaufman to astonished
listeners in 1973 as his first utterance in ten years
-- the poet seeks through an act of imagination and
a declaration of personal love to expiate his past
failings and to salvage from the ruin of his life
some redeeming value.
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
. . .
My body once covered with beauty
Is now a museum of betrayal.
This part remembered because of that one’s touch
This part remembered for that one’s kiss -
Today I bring it back
And let you live forever.
Later poems collected in the volume, including “My
Mysteries Created for Me” and “The Poet”,
bring to resolution the problem of personal pain.
In the former poem, the poet accepts the enigma of
individual fate, trusting that there is a worthy if
obscure supernatural purpose operative in each life,
and attempting therefore to submit himself to the
fulfillment of such purpose in his own life.
MY MYSTERIES CREATED FOR ME
BY GOD ARE UNOWN TO
ME. YET I LIVE EACH ONE
In the second of the two poems, the speaker again
consents to his fate, accepting the part assigned
to him -- that of poet -- despite the suffering inevitably
to be endured in undertaking to perform that part.
THE POET NAILED TO THE
BONE OF THE WORLD
THE PAIN IS BORN
INTO THE POET. HE MUST LIVE
WITH IT. IT IS HIS SOURCE OF
PURITY, SUFFERING HIS
Pain, then, is seen as essential to the progress
of the poet’s soul and vision, while the poet,
in turn, -- in his public role as moralist and seer
-- is essential to the progress of the world. Initially
seized by his vocation, the poet at last accedes to
it, embraces it, finding in his act of assent not
an end to pain, but rather a reason to bear it and
a way to use it, transforming it into poetry.
A good portion of Kaufman’s writing consists
of poems of social protest, criticisms of injustice
and folly, false values and of a society hostile or
indifferent to imagination and spirituality. Kaufman’s
protest poems often have as a recurrent theme the
disparity between American ideals and the realities
of modern American society.
Perhaps the most bitterly, bitingly ironic of Kaufman’s
poems of social protest is ‘Benediction,”
which appears in his first collection, Solitudes Crowded
with. Loneliness. Taking its point of departure in
the events of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s,
the poem inveighs against American racism, militarism
and materialism. The founding fathers and the immigrants
are seen by the poet as having held democratic and
humanistic ideals, while their descendants sell real
estate, accumulate material goods and in the emptiness
of their lives nurture unconscious destructive impulses.
The American democratic experiment is seen by the
poet as lacking in direction and vital force. Addressing
the nation directly, the poet concludes his harangue
Every day your people get more and more
Cars, televisions, sickness, death dreams.
You must have been great
Yet in the same collection a markedly more optimistic
view of the United States is expressed in a poem titled
“To My Son Parker Asleep in the Next Room”.
Here the poet regards America as the historical culmination
of human aspiration because it is made up of peoples
from every land on earth, bringing with them their
visions and their cultural and spiritual heritages.
Kaufman concludes the poem by proclaiming the potential
of the United States to become a truly just and righteous
On this shore, we shall raise our monuments
of stones, of wood, of mud, of color, of
labor, of belief, of being, of life, of
love, of self, of man expressed in self-
determined compliance, or willful revolt,
secure in this avowed truth, that no man
is our master, nor can any ever be, at
any time in time to come.
Such hopes for the future of the United States do
not, however, hinder the poet in employing his art
to point up the faults and failings of the nation
in present time. Indeed, the fulfillment of his wishes
for his country in time to be may in part depend upon
the effectiveness of his assaults on fatuousness and
folly in the present.
Two poems from the same collection representative
of the tenor of Kaufman’s social criticism are
“Hollywood” and “Teevee People”.
The former poem consists of a catalog of instances
of the film capitol’s crassness and fatuity.
To Kaufman, Hollywood represents the epitome of all
that is false and, shallow, silly and futile, modishly
meretricious and stupefyingly inane. It is to him
the “artistic cancer of the universe,”
the center of a corruption of taste and intelligence
that is inimical to human advancement. Although the
poem itself is light in tone, employing word play
and. surreal humor, Kaufman nevertheless conveys an
ominous sense that the individual specimens treated
in the poem and the tendencies they embody are no
less pernicious for their being ridiculous.
The title of “Teevee People” is somewhat
misleading as the poem is not concerned with television
actors, newscasters or talk-show personalities, but
with academia. (Presumably the title is intended to
suggest that there are no significant differences
between the two groups, and that a common denominator
is their one-dimensionality.) In the first stanza
the barren pedantry and insularity of the academy
are denounced: conforming to schedules, rules and
conventions, faculty members forfeit their individuality
and originality, while their fields of study lose
all relevance to increasingly critical human issues,
such as the nuclear arms race and its possible consequences.
The second stanza of the poem depicts the students
as being similarly aloof and dehumanized, reduced
to a rote consumption of knowledge, developing “computer
minds”, becoming mere “machines”.
The third and final stanza portrays the depleted,
blighted landscape outside the academy, a waste land
in need of regeneration and renewal.
The cold land breathes death rattles, trembling,
The dark sky casts shadows across the wounds.
Yet the concluding lines of the poem find grounds
for hope in the ineradicable human aspiration to genuine
feeling and authentic being:
Beneath the bright clothing of well-fed machines,
The hungry heart inside the hungry hearts,
Beats silently, beats softly, beats, beats.
Taken together, the social protest poems collected
in Kaufman’s three volumes of poetry view the
condition of post-war American society as one compounded
of interlocking, over-lapping, mutually reinforcing
systems or structures of power, including the communications
media, the academy, advertising, corporate business,
organized religion, the government and the military.
These combine to promote among the populace homogeneity,
complacency and passivity, and act in concert to suppress
what is individual, unique and, genuine. It is against
the forces of standardization, systematization and
massification, against mechanization and, quantification,
against the encroachments of an incipient all-pervasive,
monolithic mega-system that Kaufman’s poems
protest, ridiculing and indicting, exhorting to defiance
and resistance, claiming for themselves a dissociative
space suited to the cultivation of value and meaning,
liberty and vision.
In his assault upon those tendencies and agencies
that reduce human potential and inhibit spiritual
growth, Kaufman employs as weapons both humor and
horror. The former quality is perhaps best exemplified
by Kaufman’s sly, surreal text “Abomunist
Manifesto”, which satirizes racism, the Cold
War and the nuclear arms race, patriotism, national
myths, religious organizations, status symbols, human
vanity, scholarship, politics, the pretensions of
bohemian artists and intellectuals, and all that is
dogmatic and programmatic. Cast in the form of a mock-manifesto,
Kaufman’s poem includes aphorisms, a glossary,
scholarly notes, an election program, an anthem and
founding documents of Abomunism, -- all in parodic
form, exposing to laughter the preposterously solemn
jargon and cant characteristic of established religion,
academia, artistic and literary manifestos, and political
Imagery of hallucinatory horror is frequent in Kaufman’s
poems, portraying a world of spiritual decay, violence,
isolation, fear and suffering. In his darker poems
Kaufman conducts us through a nightmare landscape
of dead cities, empty cathedrals, leafless trees and
infernal jails, taking us to places of carrion and
hungry jackals, where the air is filled with shrieks,
babbling and hideous laughter and is thick with smoke
and dust, where everything is bent, torn, cracked,
jagged, twisted, splintered, stained, eroded, tarnished,
withered, mildewed, parched and burnt. With Kaufman
as our Virgil we travel through realms of black rain
and wounded snow, regions populated by losers and
the lost, fake mystics, Gothic brain surgeons and
dented boxers, suicides and murderers, cannibals and
eunuchs, kleptomaniacs and pederasts.
In his final poems, collected in The Ancient Rain,
in the section titled “New Poems 1973 - 1978”,
Kaufman remains pointedly critical of the United States,
yet he also remains resolutely optimistic as to the
future glory of the nation. In a poem titled “The
American Sun,” Kaufman is scathing in his censure
of what he views as American imperialism, yet in the
title poem of the collection, “The Ancient Rain,”
he foresees an end to racism in the United States
and a renaissance of American idealism.
“The Ancient Rain” is concerned with
the process and direction of human history, and more
specifically with the past, present and future of
the American nation, which Kaufman -- like Walt Whitman
before him -- regards as having an historical destiny
and mission. One of the central issues of the poem
is the acceptance by American society of its African
The black community is personified in the poem by
the figure of Crispus Attucks, an African American
who together with four fellow protestors was shot
dead by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre of
March 5, 1770. Kaufman foresees that Crispus Attucks,
“the black angel of America” (AR 79) will
be united in fellowship with his countrymen, will
be acknowledged and honored by them. Such racial reconciliation,
Kaufman believes, will be but a single aspect of a
general national regeneration, a return by the nation
to first principles.
As Kaufman’s final poem of social protest,
“The Ancient Rain” is notable both for
its Whitmanic faith in a future transformation of
the United States, and for its sharp criticism of
the aggressive imperialism of the U.S.S.R. (a theme
also present in two other poems in the same collection:
“The American Sun” and “January
30, 1976: Message to Myself”.) “The Ancient
Rain” also expresses disdain for those individuals
who by their aid to Soviet Communism are seen to have
betrayed American ideals, -- the Rosenbergs and Alger
Hiss are named in the poem in this
“The Ancient Rain” is the culminating
expression of the social criticisms and hopes articulated
throughout Kaufman’s work. What has altered
significantly between the early protest poems and
this final text and its companion poems is the proportion
of dissatisfaction and disapproval to acceptance and
anticipation, the ratio between dissent and assent.
It should also be noted that the expression of so
unfashionable a stance as patriotism, optimism and
faith in the American nation -- during the 1970s,
among the literary left, and more especially among
the African American community -- bespeaks in Kaufman
a rare integrity.
In turning now to a consideration of the visionary
or revelatory element of Kaufman’s poetry, I
think I ought to say at the outset that I do not mean
to imply that Kaufman was an oracle or a prophet,
nor altogether a mystic either. Rather, the visionary
quality of his poetry derives from his recurrent concern
with supernatural experience and from the sometimes
startling, extravagant and magical images that occur
in his spontaneous compositions. In his essay, Literature
and Science, Aldous Huxley notes how the uninhibited,
intoxicated use of language characteristic of Dada
and Surrealism, drawing on imagery from the preconscious
mind, communicates to readers an uncanny, magical
significance, opening “unsuspected windows on
the unknown”, and revealing at times “aspects
of the essential mystery of existence”. 5
Scattered among Kaufman’s poems there are glimpses
and intimations of an order of reality higher than
that of the perceptual/phenomenal world. Already in
the early poems there are glints of such a realm,
imaged as an “imaginary forest” where
“the shingled hippo becomes the gay unicorn”
(SCL 3), and as a “purple forest ... where yellow
flower loves yellow flower” (SCL 53).
Associated from the outset with brilliant colors
and radiant light, the realm of the transcendent is
in later poems represented as a sun, the center both
of the cosmos and of each soul.
Sun, Creator of Suns,
Sun, which makes Men,
My eye fails me,
Longing to see Thee
I touch stone.
For the sole desire to know
Might I know thee.
(“Sun” GS 52)
Even the faintest and briefest manifestations of
the luminous Other World leave the spirit afterwards
filled with painful longing for further such contact,
and leave the seeker
feeling both exalted and inspired, and desolate and
forsaken. Then, upon another later occasion, a more
intense kind of contact takes place in which the spirit
becomes identified with the Light, and -- if only
for a timeless moment -- the temporal realm and ordinary
consciousness are transcended.
I climb a red thread
To an unseen existence
Broken free, somewhere,
Beyond the belts.
Ticks have abandoned
My astonished time.
The air littered
With demolished hours.
I become a ray
From the sun …
(“Slight Alterations” GS 55)
Following communion of this kind, the world and the
cosmos are regarded by the poet in an entirely new
fashion, celebrated by him as a sacred mystery:
A SKY OF STARS, A HEAVEN OF
SUNS AND MOONS, AND THE GREAT
SUN IN THE CENTER,
CREATION IS PERFECT.
(“The Poet” AR 70)
The image of the Great Sun in the center of the soul
and of the cosmos occurs also in the final lines of
“The Ancient Rain”, the concluding poem
of Kaufman’s last collection. Whereas in that
poem rain is employed as a symbol of the cosmic forces
of fecundation and annihilation, of creation and destruction,
the shaping agencies of human history, the image of
the sun serves to represent a condition of eternal
unchanging being, outside history, beyond time. The
poem ends with a quotation from Garcia Lorca by which
Kaufman urges us all -- trapped as we are in time,
caught up as we are in the conflicts and distractions
of the world -- to “seek out the great Sun of
the Center” (AR 81). 6
Desiring to help in delivering humanity and in transforming
the world, Kaufman saw his work as a poet as a series
of small raids carried out and minor skirmishes fought
on the far-flung battlefields of a vast war. As fellow-warriors
engaged on the same side in the same great conflict,
he reckoned jazz musicians, painters and, poets, both
living and dead, as well as prophets and saints drawn
from various spiritual traditions. Each poem or tune,
each painting or prayer, he believed, brought nearer
the hour of inevitable final victory: the advent of
a free and joyous new world, and the ultimate illumination
of the human spirit.
Kaufman’s life and work may be seen to represent
a quintessential instance of the beat/beatific process
that was so essential a tenet of the Beat movement.
It will be recalled that in founding works such as
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s
On the Road, the condition of being beat -- in the
sense of being in the extremity of exhaustion, isolation,
pain, despair -- was seen as a necessary stage of
spiritual development preceding the state of becoming
beatific, or blessed.
We have see how at a nadir of dejection, loneliness,
emptiness and anguish, Kaufman achieved redeeming
vision. This inward passage from beat to beatific
is plotted by Kaufman in a work from his last collection,
a poem titled “All Hallows, Jack O’Lantern
Weather, North of Time”.
I KNOW OF A PLACE IN BETWEEN BETWEEN, BEHIND
BEHIND, IN FRONT OF FRONT, BELOW BELOW, ABOVE
ABOVE, INSIDE INSIDE, OUTSIDE OUTSIDE, CLOSE
TO CLOSE, FAR FROM FAR, MUCH FARTHER THAN FAR,
MUCH CLOSER THAN CLOSE, ANOTHER SIDE OF ANOTHER
SIDE ... IT LIES OUT ON THE FAR SIDE OF MUSIC
THAT DARKLING PLANE OF LIGHT ON THE OTHER SIDE
OF TIME, AND IT GOES ON GOING ON BEYOND BEYOND
… IT BEGINS AT THE BITTER ENDS.
There are various perspectives from which the poetry
of Bob Kaufman may be appreciated, diverse standards
by which it might be evaluated. Originally intended
for declamation by the poet himself, the poems are
experienced by us as readers as words printed upon
a page. What is the relation of the silent artifact
we encounter on the page to the living voice that
once uttered the words? By what aesthetic (or other)
criteria do we judge an art that is improvisational
-- with all the inherent imperfections of such a technique?
And, what response is demanded of us by surrealist
texts? What questions of quality and value, what principles
of discrimination ought to be involved in our experience
of such texts? Or should we (can we?) disavow all
such considerations, merely registering the text,
acknowledging, absorbing it without making any attempt
at critical understanding? I do not ask these questions
rhetorically. I have, in fact, no notion of how to
answer them, so I must evade them and fall back upon
my personal responses to Bob Kaufman’s poetry.
I think on the whole Kaufman’s work is uneven
in quality. A number of the poems seem to me to be
diffuse and slack, inflated, or -- at their weakest
-- inert and self-indulgent. Yet, despite these recurrent
faults, his best poems manifest a powerful visual
imagination and a daring intelligence. Embodied in
their swift rhythms and wild diction there is genuine
force and poetic resonance.
What distinguishes the best of Kaufman’s work,
for me, is its urgency and vividness of expression,
its invention and humor, its ferocity and authority.
Kaufman’s was a distinctly individual voice
in postwar American poetry, his work flawed but vital.
1. There seems to be a good deal of misinformation
in print concerning Bob Kaufman’s ancestry,
ethnicity and religious background, as well as his
career in the Merchant Marine. Some of this misinformation
may even have been initiated and perpetuated by the
poet himself. Based on interviews with members of
Kaufman’s family, the most reliable accounts
of the poet’s background and early life are
to be found in Damon (1993), pp. 32 -76, and Henderson
(1996), pp. 7 - 28.
2. Foye (1978), ix - x.
3. Kaufman’s friend and Beatitude co-editor,
Pierre Delattre, concludes that Kaufman “finally
burned his brain out on the amphetamine Methedrine.”
Delattre (1993), p. 55.
4. Henceforth all references to Kaufman’s poems
will appear in the text with the following code: SCL
= Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, GS = Golden Sardine,
AR = Ancient Rain.
5. Huxley (1963), p. 35.
6. The line “Buscad el gran sol del centro”
occurs in the poem “El Rey de Harlem”
(The King of Harlem) by Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca
(1995), p. 210.
I. Works by Bob Kaufman:
Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New York: New Directions,
Golden Sardine (San Francisco: City Lights, 1967).
The Ancient Rain (New York: New Directions, 1981).
Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman (Minneapolis:
Coffee House Press, 1996).
II. Works Cited:
Damon, Maria. “Unmeaning Jargon/Uncanonized
Beatitude, Bob Kaufman, Poet,” in
The Dark End of the Street, Margins in American Vanguard
University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Delattre, Pierre. Episodes (St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf
Foye, Raymond. “Editor’s Note” in
The Ancient Rain (New York: New Directions, 1981).
Henderson, David. “Introduction” in Cranial
Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman (Minneapolis:
Coffee House Press, 1996).
Huxley, Aldous. Literature and Science (New Haven,
CT: Leete’s Island Books, l963).
Lorca, Federico Garcia. Antologia Poetica (Barcelona:
Plaza & Janes, 1995).