I found out about jazz/beat poet Bob Kaufman while listening to streaming music on my computer, a live performance by Jazz bassist Ron Carter. Carter and poet/painter Danny Simmons collaborated on this project. The project was to take Simmons’ book, The Brown Beatnik Tomes, and transform it into a live concert. Simmons recited, while Carter backed up Simmons’ intonations on the double bass. In the cut titled “Tender,” Simmons talks on stage about the time that he did not know any black beatniks except for LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Then someone in the crowd shouted out the name of a black beatnik, by the name of Bob Hauffman. “Turns out that Bob Hauffman was the baddest black beatnik poet, and the baddest beatnik poet of the time,” Simmons proclaimed. They pronounced his name with an “H” instead of a “K,” which, after researching Bob Kaufman, seemed like the ultimate disrespect that he could be given.
Of course, I found this to very interesting. I had never heard of any black (brown?) beatniks at all. I am vaguely familiar with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, and the rest of that gang. However, I have never heard any of them mention a black poet in their writings. I have read the classic book, “On the Road”, by Kerouac; however, this was a group of dudes I would never want to hang out with. Honestly, I questioned their talents. It’s so easy for a painter to hide their lack of abilities behind abstract paintings, a musician to hide behind the music they call free jazz. Hence, it is with poetry, where the lack of stringent rules allows anything to be called poetry. But maybe it is good poetry! And that is the problem. Poetry is one of the most subjective of all the arts. But Ginsberg and Burroughs never impressed me. I came to the conclusion that they were in the right place at the right time, just like Andy Warhol, an untalented hack, who just happened to be in New York City at just the right time. And lifetime junkie, and social parasite, William S. Burroughs is way overrated.
Bob Kaufman was born on April 18, 1925, to a German Jewish father and a black, Catholic mother and was one of 13 children. At least, this is the familiar story that was told. According to Maria Damon’s “Dark End of the Street,” there is substantial evidence that both of his parents were African-American. After the end of WWII, there was an advantage to combining African Americans and Jews. These two groups are historically known to suffer much of the world’s racism. Combining the two groups could be fruitful. And maybe he simply wanted to take advantage of his Jewish name and combine worlds because he may have thought his racial makeup would make his poems more urgent. However, all accounts of his past include the information that he was close to his maternal grandmother. She arrived in America on a slave ship and taught him the rites of voodoo.
Kaufman had an interesting life. A lynch mob hung him in the ice house by his thumbs when he was only 13. He was continually being brutalized by the police and was arrested more than 30 times during two years. In 1963 he was arrested in Washington square for walking on the grass. (Walking on the grass in the park?) He was taken to Ryker’s Island, then transferred to Bellevue Hospital and received more than 50 involuntary shock treatments.
In the 40s, he attended the New York School of Research. This is where he met Ginsberg and Burroughs. In the late 50s, he moved to San Francisco’s North Beach area and became a Buddhist. In 1959 he was co-founder and editor of “Beatitude.” He was known as the original Bebop Man, was said to actually coin the word, “beatnik,” had an invitation to read poetry at Harvard University, was nominated for Great Britain’s Guinness Poetry Award in 1960–1961 and received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Creative Writing. But even after all of that, he still remained poor, anonymous and addicted to drugs like methedrine for most of his life. He took a vow of silence after President Kennedy’s assignation and did not speak publicly for almost 10 years.
Bob Kaufman wanted to be anonymous. His poetry was in the oral tradition, not the written tradition. This freed him from being conventional. He stated in his book, “Ancient Rains, “I want to be anonymous. I don’t know how you get involved with uninvolvment, but I don’t want to be involved. My ambition is to be completely forgotten.” Kaufman shunned the spotlight in every way, both critically and financially. This enabled him to be only himself. He never had to live up to any expectations, and no one could put him in any one category. His work was never written. The poems were mostly composed aloud by him or recorded by friends. Some of his work was written on small pieces of paper. Kaufman thought it was the spoken word that returned poetry to its origins as an oral art.
There are many pictures of this forgotten poet online. He died from emphysema and cirrhosis when he was only 60 years old. His face showed every minute of his 60 years on earth. With all of the drugs, alcohol, beatings, mental breakdowns, incarcerations, and involuntary electroshock treatments, it is no wonder it would show this on his face. I can’t say he looked older than his years. That is not age on his face — this is a life hardship and pain that he chose for himself.
He was popular in France. The French called him the American Rimbaud. By this, I think they mean they were both men who were tortured souls. There is something about a large group of great artists. Drugs, alcohol, and insanity seem to run high for the profession of art. Kaufman was often seen in the streets, screaming poetry into cars while they were parked, or sprouting poetry to anyone would be close enough to hear. Sometimes he would simply shout on street corners around San Francisco.
His poems were drenched in jazz, both referential nods, and beat delivery. As a jazz poet, he made several poems that celebrated Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ray Charles, Colman Hawkins, and Charlie Mingus. Kaufman is a true jazz poet. Here is the last part of O-Jazz-O A War Memoir, which he laments how jazz can ease the pain and sufferings of war.
Now in those terrible moments, when the dark memories come
The secret moments to which we admit no one
When guiltily we crawl back in time, reaching away from ourselves
They hear a familiar sound,
Jazz, scratching, digging, blueing, swinging jazz,
And feel, & die.
His almost decade long silence can be viewed as an artistic performance. No one really knows why he really fell silent. It could have been the Kennedy assassination as noted, or it could have been a Buddhist vow. No one really knows why he even ended his silence, but it corresponded to the end of the Vietnam war. We may never know the reason why he fell silent for so long. But it was an impressive act. It fits the model of a mad genius perfectly. For even if madness is the cause of his extreme behavior or some heavenly altruistic need, being silent to make a personal statement is something to admire. When language seems to collapse, there are other ways to express ideas and emotions.
Was Poe insane? What about van Gogh? Could insanity be the key to genius, or is it really the other way around? I guess we can look at the life of Bob Kaufman and say, at the least, he may have had some mental issues. And many will say that he must have been insane for not wanting money and fame. Our social media culture cannot comprehend how a talented person can shun attention and be sane at the same time. LOL! Here is an artist who wanted to be forgotten, and became more famous partly because of that statement. Tolstoy wrote about art and artist in his book, “What is Art?” “- human lives are also expended on it directly, as in war; from an early age…” Bob Kaufman’s experience as a poet burned up his own existence. In the wake of his life, we are lucky to have the ability to look deeply into the graceful poetic messages he left behind.