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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 105-111
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Way out people know the way out.
--Bob Kaufman, "Abomunist Manifesto"
Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) was a street poet, a people's poet, a poet's poet, a jazz poet, a surrealist poet, a modernist poet, a post-modernist poet, an African-American poet, a Black poet, a Negro poet, a New Orleans poet, a San Francisco poet, a poète maudit, a lyric poet, a Beat poet. Although he has come to be overshadowed by his white, formally-educated contemporaries Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, Kaufman was one of the founding architects and living examples of the sensibility of the Beat Generation, a counter-cultural phenomenon of the Cold War which attempted to embody dissent from the tyranny of consensus in its artistic and everyday practice; New York and San Francisco were its primary sites. At the height of the movement (1955-1960), he was a vibrant poetic force on the San Francisco street scene; his broadside, The Abomunist Manifesto, rivaled Ginsberg's Howl in its status as signature Beat text, and the term "beatnik" was coined by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen to describe Kaufman. In 1959 Kaufman co-founded the significant Beat mimeo-journal Beatitude, which has continued to appear sporadically into the present day. However, he also suffered from the racism--sometimes romantic Negrophilia and sometimes out-and-out violent prejudice--of his mostly white milieu. Treated as a favorite mascot for his outrageous antics (people would buy him drinks in order to get him to entertain them by insulting them), he was also not taken seriously as a poet by many of the active San Francisco poets, and he was brutalized by the North Beach police. Partly out of choice, partly out of disillusioned resignation and the ravages of street life, drugs and alcohol, in the early 1960s Kaufman, never a careerist to begin with, turned his back definitively on the seductions of fame and respectability, implicitly declaring solidarity with the world's anonymous poor by informally adopting a "vow of silence," neither speaking nor writing until shortly after the end of the Viet Nam War. In the 1970s and 1980s he resumed public life again to some degree; this period was punctuated by high points like the composition of his "bicentennial poem," an apocalyptic rant entitled "The Ancient Rain"; a large and gala public reading in 1981 with fellow surrealist Philip Lamantia at the San Francisco Art Institute; and most importantly, the publication of The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978, due largely to the devoted editorial labors of Raymond Foye. A much-admired [End Page 105] extemporizer, Kaufman blended his own rapid-fire aphorisms and wisecracks with the considerable store of modernist poetry he had memorized. His poetry reworks and defamiliarizes that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Federico García Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes and others. In its adventurous imagery, sonorous qualities and biting socio-existential wit, Kaufman's poetry shares much with other New World Black surrealists Aimé Cesaire, Ted Joans, and Will Alexander, as well as with the jazz-inspired poetry and fiction of LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey.
One of thirteen children, Robert Garnell Kaufman was born in New Orleans on April 18, 1925, into a middle-class, African-American Catholic family, to a school-teacher mother who insisted on a high degree of literacy among her children, and a father who was, according to Kaufman's brother George, a Pullman Porter who traveled between New Orleans and Chicago. The historical legacy of labor activism among the Pullman porters combined with the intellectual ambition of Mrs. Kaufman for her children means that Kaufman grew up in a household saturated not only with classics by Proust, James, and Dickens, but probably also with the regular arrival of The Messenger, the official organ of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and other political and topical materials. This double legacy was to be reflected in his subsequent activist and literary career; for example, his late poem "The Poet" riffs on Langston Hughes's...