Bob Kaufman was born on April 18, 1925 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was, other than Langston Hughes, the greatest jazz poet who ever lived. He was one of 13 children born to a German Jewish father and a Black Catholic mother. He ran away from home and joined the Merchant Marines when he was 13, and circled the globe 9 times in the next 20 years. During that period Kaufman read literature and met a fellow Merchant Marine, Jack Kerouac, who had been discharged from the Armed Forces after refusing to obey certain orders. Kaufman later traveled to San Francisco where he joined Ginsberg, Corso, and others during their literary “renaissance.” Kaufman was known in America as “the original bebop man” and was very popular in France, where he was known as “the Black American Rimbaud.” His three volumes of poems are:
- Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New Directions)
- Golden Sardine (City Lights)
- Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New Directions)
Kaufman was so dedicated to the spontaneous, oral tradition of poetry that he sometimes would not write his work down, and only did so at the encouragement of his wife. He would carry his son, Parker, into coffeehouses in San Francisco and “hold court,” reciting his poems aloud and from memory. It is claimed that he invented the word “beatnik,” and his work is essentially improvised. His work varies from Symbolist to Surrealist, and often involves political and social protest. He was often persecuted by local authorities, and even given shock treatment against his will. After difficulties with heroin, and prison terms, he began to experience a sense of solitude. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence to protest the Vietnam war which lasted for ten years. During that period, until 1973, he neither spoke nor wrote anything. On the day the war ended, he walked into a coffeeshop and recited a poem called “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.”
In 1978, he withdrew again into solitude (but was not silent) for four years.
There is a special library at the Sorbonne in Paris which has the bulk of his “papers” and information about him. He was much more popular in France than in America. He also published several “chapbooks” or “manifestos” for City Lights in the early to late sixties. Those are completely unavailable, and “Golden Sardine” is out of print and only available at better libraries.
Kaufman’s poems include love poems, jazz poems and odes to Hart Crane, Charlie Mingus, Ray Charles, and Albert Camus. They often infuse jazz sounds and rhythms, and are meant to have musical accompaniment. He died in 1986. He remains one of the best 2 or 3 of the Beat poets and the most underrated of all American poets.