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Bob Kaufman

(1925—1986)


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(1925 –1986), 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 to him such epithets 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 marines and became active in the radical Seafarer's Union. An itinerant drifter and self-taught poet (but for 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, Aimé Cesairé, and Nicholas Guillén, 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”).

Still “minor,” compared to his white bohemian contemporaries, as editor of Beatitude, a San Francisco literary magazine, Kaufman is credited by some with coining “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 Beach 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 punishments that, as he knew them, enforce American bourgeois values of race, class, sexuality, and rationality. Answering McCarthyism, Beat, and Black Arts manifestos 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 imprisonment, 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.

From The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literature.


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