Black, Blue, Jazzy and Beat Down to His Bones: Being Bob Kaufman

It wasn’t ever easy to be Bob Kaufman, not even in San Francisco, a city hospitable to poetry and poets, and where Kaufman was a larger than life figure who attracted attention wherever he went, not unlike that San Francisco native, Jack London, who also attracted attention and stood out from his contemporaries. Like London, Kaufman was the real thing and no imitation writer.

The American literary critic, Alfred Kazin, once wrote famously that, “The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.” Much the same might be said about the African-American, jazzy, beat poet, Bob Kaufman, who was born in 1925 in New Orleans to a father who was of German descent and an Orthodox Jew, and a mother who was Catholic and from Martinique.

From those origins, it’s no wonder he was a kind of misfit in a crowd of misfits.

Fans of Jack London’s writing have long disputed Kazin’s remark and have touted books like The Call of the Wild and Martin Eden and stories such as “To Build a Fire.” No doubt, fans of Kaufman’s poetry—which has just been published in its entirety by City Lights—would dispute the notion that his greatest story was his own life, though his eleven-year vow of silence following JFK’s assassination made him a legendary figure in San Francisco and beyond.

Other chapters in his life, including his years as a merchant marine are no less dramatic, and no less emblematic of his loneliness and his solitude as a black man in a white world. For most of the 1940s, he sailed from New Orleans to New York and Calcutta and back to the U.S. and learned the ways of men and women and different cultures.

No one seems to know what he did for the year, 1952. “Whereabouts unknown,” the chronology of his life reads.

The City Lights website calls Kaufman “One of the most important and most original—poets of the twentieth-century.” Poet and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, writes, “No one else talked like him. No one else wrote poetry like him.”

Maybe not in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world, poets did write like him. The French have long claimed him as a literary kinsman and dubbed him “the Black American Rimbaud.”

Readers can judge for themselves what to call Kaufman and where to place him now that all his poems are contained in a single volume titled Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Lights; $13.97 paperback), which is edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye and Tate Swindell, all of them fierce defenders of Kaufman’s reputation.

New Directions previously published two volumes of Kaufman’s poetry: Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness (1965) and The Ancient Rain (1981). City Lights published Golden Sardine, his first book of poetry in 1967, the same year that L’Herne in Paris published some of his work in French.

Former San Francisco poet laureate, devorah major, writes in a Foreword that Kaufman “will always be surrounded by myth and mystery,” that he was “a poet of the world,” and that his work is best appreciated while listening to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Béla Bartók.

The names of jazz musicians sparkle on the pages of his poems. If he was at home anywhere, it was with the likes of African-American saxophonists, pianists and blues singers, and Bartók thrown in for cultural diversity.

Major calls Kaufman a “Beat poet,” but she adds that he was not “’beat’ in the meaning attributed to Jack Kerouac.” Still, Kaufman sounds in part like Kerouac—who deified the down-and-out—in the poem titled “Celestial Hobo.” At the same time, Kaufman parts company from Kerouac when he writes in the same poem about “Zombie existences” and “Dada prodigies of black.”

Unlike Kaufman’s surrealistic, Dadaesque universe, Kerouac’s parallel universe isn’t populated by zombies. Nor is it infused by the surrealist aesthetic. Kerouac was closer to Joyce and Proust than to Rimbaud, Baudelaire and the French symbolists.

For many years, Kerouac proclaimed (and wrote in his journal) that he wanted to be a “Negro.” (“Negro” is the word he used.) In On the Road, Kerouac’s hero, Sal Paradise, echoes that sentiment.

While walking the streets of Denver, Colorado, Paradise says he wishes that he could exchange his disillusionment with the white world for the world of the “happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.”

Happy and ecstatic doesn’t sound like Kaufman, who was locked up in jails and mental institutions, beaten by the police and investigated by the FBI. For a time he apparently belonged to the Communist Party of the U.S.A.

He died of pulmonary emphysema in 1986 at the age of 60. It’s unlikely that Kerouac would have wanted to be a Negro in the precise way that Kaufman was a Negro. That would have been too painful.

Kaufman’s desire to be embraced by the white San Francisco literary world—bohemian, hipster and Beat—finds expression in “West Coast Sounds — 1956” in which he mentions Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth, the Chicago-born godfather of the Beats.

Like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, Kaufman often wrote in the first person, but he also seemed to subvert the first person when he wrote in “Ginsberg (for Allen),” “I am not not an I…I do nothing.”

A mimic who could adopt different voices, Kaufman could sound like Ginsberg in “Benediction,” a short, angry, ironical, surrealistic poem in which he writes, “America, I forgive you/Eating black children/… Burning Japanese babies.”

The poem ends rather predictably, “Every day your people get more and more/ Cars, television, sickness, death dreams.”

But perhaps it’s Ginsberg who sounds like Kaufman. Still, Ginsberg was rarely as enraged as Kaufman was. Ginsberg’s poem, “America,” ends, “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Kaufman was far more alienated from American life than Ginsberg or Kerouac. A century after the end of the American Civil War, it still rankled him.

Forgiveness didn’t come easily to Kaufman, though devorah major says he helped to build a Buddhist temple in San Francisco and had a Buddhist practice, which suggests the capacity to forgive. Major also allows that he was funny. If so, it’s often the humor of a man who couldn’t forget about war, genocide and famine, except perhaps when he listened to jazz.

He does look very happy in a photo (included in this volume), from 1962 that was taken in New York, where he smiles with his son Parker (named after Charlie Parker) and his wife Eileen.

Kaufman is most happy when he’s playing with words and challenging the linguistic expectations of readers, as when he accuses Ginsberg of “tossing lions to the martyrs,” and in his “Abomunist Manifesto” when he suggests that one way to end religious bigotry is to have a “protestant candidate for Pope.” (The word “abomunist,” which he coined, merges his abolutionist and communist sympathies.)

He’s fun to read when he writes about his Louisiana grandfather who plays “chess with an intellectual lobster,” burns down his house and sends the “intellectual off to jail.”

In his book Whitman’s Wild Children, Neeli Cherkovski tells a story about meeting the poet in San Francisco. “Bob Kaufman will disappear someday,” he told Cherkovski. “Nobody will even notice.” He was wrong. Cherkovski has never forgotten him, nor have Raymond Foye, Tate Swindell, devorah major and everyone at City Lights who have made sure that the work of Bob Kaufman is more visible now than when he was alive.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.