Bob Kaufman the man is hard to pin down. His life is wrapped in mystery, legends, and hagiography. It was in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood where both the legend and the man began to take form. He arrived in the late 1950s when he was 33, having already made contact with notable Beat figures in New York and sailed around the world on merchant ships.
Arriving at definitive notions of what Kaufman was is harder still because so little of his work was written down. He was a street poet of the oral tradition. But what we have is compelling and gives us a window to his soul.
It is difficult to consider Kaufman without resorting to religious or spiritual explanations. He represented Beat cosmopolitism; racially mixed, perhaps part Jewish, from a Catholic family, later a self-identifying Buddhist and a man with vast experience of the wide world. But he was enthusiastic in his pursuit of downward mobility. He was the kind of person who did not deal easily with hypocrisy, polite lies, and cruelty, the things that the bourgeoisie take for granted.
As a put-upon black man, he self consciously heaped problems upon himself including provoking the San Francisco police who enjoyed nothing more than battering him and dragging him off to jail.
About the most bourgeois thing Kaufman attempted in San Francisco was co-founding Beatitude Magazine along with William Margolis and a cast of contributors. It sold for 25 cents an issue. They made 17 of them, the first several editions mimeographed at the home of publisher John Kelly with an illustrated cover of construction paper, stapled together. The later magazines were made at the Bread and Wine Mission, a Congregationalist ministry run by the young ordained preacher Pierre Delattre in North Beach. The first issues had contributions from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Brautigan, Michael McClure, Peter Orlovsky, ruth weiss, and Kaufman himself.
Kaufman’s lifestyle was marked by peripatetic relationships, walking around North Beach, drinking, drug use and oftentimes spontaneous outpourings of poetry. Ken Kesey, visiting San Francisco with his family, found Kaufman yelling poetry into passing cars which Kesey understood to be “an exceptional use of the human voice and the human mind.” As poet and friend A.D. Winans has noted, Kaufman had a mystical quality.
Because Kaufman was in a sense “otherworldly” he could speak the truth without worrying about the consequences. As a man who owned nothing, there was nothing that could be taken from him. But his body suffered; from electroshock therapy at Bellevue in New York in the early 1960s where he had gone for a brief few years before returning to San Francisco, to the beatings meted out by the SFPD, to the self-inflicted scars of alcohol, speed and poverty. Kaufman describes his body as repository of human hardship, time, and history in his poem “Would you wear my eyes?”
My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
The whole of me
Is a unfinished room
Filled with dank breath
Escaping in gasp to nowhere.
Before completely objective mirrors
I have shot myself with my eyes,
But death refused my advances.
I have walked on my walks each night
Through strange landscapes in my head.
I have brushed my teeth with orange peel,
Iced with cold blood from the dripping faucets.
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is lettered with frying ragweed.
Bitter raisins drip haphazardly from my nostrils
Wile schools of glowing minnows swim from my mouth.
The nipples of my breast are sun-browned cockleburrs;
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.
My legs are charred remains of burned cypress trees;
My feet are covered with moss from bayous, flowing across my floor.
I can’t go out anymore.
I shall sit on my ceiling.
Would you wear my eyes?
In theological terms, Kaufman practiced self emptying, or what is called Kenosis in Christian mysticism, important in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. John of the Cross, a noteworthy influence on the Beats, discussed the transformation of the individual into the likeness of Christ through self emptying in his treatise “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Here one becomes entirely receptive to God and the divine will. Kenosis explains both God’s incarnation as a man and God’s activity and will through the individual.
It is doubtful that Kaufman self consciously chose the Kenotic spiritual path but his lifestyle and poetics suggest something similar. In the Russian tradition the mendicant seeking God lives in a small, sparse cabin called Poustinia and one who practices this devotion is called a Poustinik. Kaufman, when he had his own place, was often cooped up in a small, rundown North Beach hotel room. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist who coined the phrase, considered Kaufman the prototypical Beatnik, though probably not for his spiritual yearnings.
Clearly Kaufman thought suffering was part of his vocation as a poet. His afflictions and intractable confrontations with authority were an expression of his essence. His poetry recited was an embodied profession of who he was. Like a prophet, he was inspired to tell the truth, which was his weapon against oppression.
In his work “The Poet,” Kaufman explains his condition:
THE POET IS ALONE WITH OTHERS
LIKE HIMSELF. THE PAIN IS BORN
INTO THE POET. HE MUST LIVE
WITH IT. IT IS HIS SOURCE OF
PURITY, SUFFERING HIS
THE POET HAS TO BE A
Kaufman read widely in his time as a merchant seaman and we can be sure he was familiar with Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s influence on the Beats has been underrated. What he termed the “wisdom of the cross,” that is, how suffering confers spiritual knowledge, depth and understanding of the human existential predicament found its way into the Beat worldview and poetics. This can explain in some measure why many in the Beat milieu self consciously sought out hardship, penury, and marginality. Kaufman’s poetry and life, which cannot be separated from each other, represent a kind of mortification of the flesh.
There is, however, another side to Kaufman. He was not some kind of morose ogre of suffering and misery. There is humor, joy and play in his poetics. And there is the spontaneous creative energy of his legendary spoken word performances in the cafes and bars of North Beach, where he was the jazz poet par excellence.
As a poet, Kaufman was from the camp of black surrealists like his Beat counterpart Ted Joans. Kaufman’s “Abomunist Manifesto,” playful and funny, attempts to explain the subculture emerging in North Beach and its worldview. The threat of the atomic bomb loomed large in the background of Beat consciousness and Kaufman’s uses this madness, the threat of nuclear annihilation, to launch into Dadaesque commentary redolent of the humor writing of Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain with thoughts like:
Abomunist writers write writing or nothing at all.
Abomunists believe only what they dream only after it comes true.
Abomunists love love, hate hate, drink drinks, smoke smokes, live lives and die deaths.
He concludes with an “Abomunist Rational Anthem” comprised of nonsense words and signed Bomkauf.
Maria Damon has noted that “globally diasporic black modernism” using surrealism “was the poetic medium of choice” for writers attempting to overcome the limits of language, its “constricting political and social reality” in order to elaborate a realm of the imagination.
A fine example of this is Kaufman’s much anthologized “Heavy Water Blues”:
The radio is teaching my goldfish is teaching my goldfish Jujitsu
I am in love with a skin-diver who sleeps underwater
My neighbors are drunken linguists and I speak butterfly
Consolidated Edison is threatening to cut off my brain
The postman keeps putting sex in my mailbox
My mirror died and cant tell if I still reflect
I put my eyes on a diet my tears are gaining too much weight.
Here Kaufman subtly critiques seemingly banal aspects of the everyday establishment, from the media, to the electric company to the post office. They can be seen as the infrastructure that supports an oppressive society, the people that literally tried to cut off his brain. Powers that perceive themselves to be hegemonic tend to categorize people in opposition to them as “crazy.” This was a frequent tactic in totalitarian societies like the Soviet Union where dissidents were deemed insane and warehoused. Kaufman was forced to undergo electroshock treatments and apparently narrowly escaped a lobotomy not because he was depressed as was the case with Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and other writers but because he was a black man confronting authority and therefore ‘insane’ in the eyes of his persecutors.
In this poem also is the prophetic Kaufman, an important aspect of his power as a poet. These days it’s Google putting sex in your inbox. And the media now more than ever gets people upset about things that don’t matter or that they can’t do anything about in a nonstop news cycle, as useless as martial arts are for goldfish.
Kaufman famously took a vow of silence about the time he returned to San Francisco from New York. Again the Kaufman mythology takes over and muddies truth, fiction and legend. Was he silent on account of the Kennedy assassination as is often asserted? And was he really silent those 10 years until the end of the Vietnam War or just contemplative, very quiet and high on whatever was available? Another view on silence and poetry comes from George Steiner who states:
To speak, to assume the privileged singularity and solitude of man in the silence of creation, is dangerous. To speak with the utmost strength of the word, which is the poet’s, supremely so. Thus even to the writer, perhaps to him more than others, silence is a temptation, a refuge when Apollo is near.
Who can blame Kaufman for seeking the refuge of silence after years of intensity in spoken word street poetry and punishing confrontations? He had often stated it was his goal to be forgotten, the ultimate end of his downwardly mobile trajectory. As Thomas Fisher and Maria Damon have noted Kaufman’s silence also turns the tables on his oppressors because he chooses silence, it isn’t forced upon him. In this sense, Kaufman silence is an act of defiance and not merely capitulation.
Although Kaufman broke his silence in 1973 and began producing poetry again, this period foreshadowed the final decade of his life as someone pushed to the absolute margins of society, a ghost on the streets of San Francisco’s North Beach. Kaufman’s wife Eileen worked to collect his poetry with the help of editor Raymond Foye. Many of Kaufman’s poems had to be transcribed from old recordings. This effort became The Ancient Rain, published by New Directions in 1981.
Kaufman addressed silence in his ‘Letter to the Editor’ at the Chronicle about the same time he went quiet:
That silent beat makes the drumbeat, it makes the drum, it makes the beat. Without
it there is no drum. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum.
His is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating the drum,
his silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you
hear it in between
Kaufman “anticipates his own occlusion” from the later Beat canon, as the silent and forgotten one. Aldon Nielsen discussed the importance of silence in jazz music like Miles Davis’ famous record In a Silent Way, where drummer Tony Williams uses silence as the ‘silent beat’ appearing and reappearing and keeping time. Kaufman was noted for disappearances and reappearances in North Beach. AD Winans said, “He… had a magical way of appearing from out of nowhere. I would be sitting at a bar enjoying a drink, and suddenly I’d see him standing there beside me, having seemingly appeared from out of nowhere. Sometimes he would ask me for a cigarette; sometimes he would take a seat next to me and mumble to himself, or recite poems from the masters like Pound, Eliot, and Blake. He had memorized their work by heart.'”
It’s been said that Kaufman lost 40% of his hearing from a case of frostbite he got in Greenland when he was a merchant seaman. So it’s possible his own silence in some measure was related to his inability to hear others. It was easier just to be still, in his own world.
When Bob Kaufman died in 1986 they had a parade with a brass band in North Beach and everyone drank in the bars he wasn’t allowed into the last years of his life. Death is a common theme in Kaufman’s work but in “Afterwards They Shall Dance” he shows how the poet’s spirit lingers in the world.
In the city of St. Francis they have taken down the statue of St. Francis,
And the hummingbirds all fly forward to protest, humming feather poems.
Bodenheim denounced everyone and wrote, Bodenheim had no sweet marijuana dreams,
Patriotic muscateleer, did not die seriously, no poet love to end with, gone.
Dylan took the stone cat’s nap at St. Vincent’s, vaticaned beer, no defense;
That poem shouted from his nun-filled room, an insult to the brain, nerves,
Save now from Swansea, white horses, beer birds, snore poems, Wales-bird.
Billie Holiday got lost on the subway and stayed there forever.
Raised little peace-of-mind gardens in out of the way stations,
And will go on living in wrappers of jazz silence forever, loved.
My face feels like a living emotional relief map, forever wet.
My hair is curling in anticipation of my own wild gardening.
Poor Edgar Allan Poe died translated, in unpressed pants, ended in light,
Surrounded by ecstatic gold bugs, his hegira blessed by Baudelaire’s orgy.
Whether I am a poet or not, I use fifty dollars’ worth of air every day, cool.
In order to exist I hide behind stacks of red and blue poems
And open little sensuous parasols, singing the nail-in-the-foot song, drinking cool beatitudes
Thinking of Bob Kaufman in the 1980s, in the last years of his life, you can almost see him drifting down Grant or Columbus in North Beach in the fog, as his friends described him, muttering, blinking, silent, a man who died a lot of deaths before his body finally succumbed, a ghost, and hear, apropos of us being now in Vienna, what Robert Musil called in another context, “the tender, clear echo of a great sound that had faded away.”
Damon, Maria. 2002. Introduction. Callaloo. (Winter), pp. 105-111.
Fisher, Thomas. 2011. “The Audible and the Inaudible: Bob Kaufman and the Politics of Silence“. Babilónia Número Especial pp. 273 – 290.
Kaufman, Bob. 1959. Abomunist Manifesto. San Francisco: City Lights.
Kaufman, Bob. 1981. The Ancient Rain, Poems 1956-1978. New York: New Directions.
Musil, Robert. 1997. The Man Without Qualities. London: Picador.
Nielsen, Aldon. 2002. “‘A Hard Rain’: Looking to Bob Kaufman.” Callaloo. (Winter), pp. 134-145.
Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman. New
York: Atheneum, 1977.
Winans, A.D. “A.D. Winans remembers Bob Kaufman.” Empty Mirror. Retrieved from https://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/beat/winans-remembers-bob-kaufman.