Celebrating Poetry, Part 3

Bob Kaufman's Golden Sardine (City Lights Books, 1967)

Bob Kaufman’s Golden Sardine
(City Lights Books, 1967)

“Abomunists reject everything except snowmen”

So ends the Abomunist Manifesto written by Bob Kaufman, one of the leading figures of the San Fransicsco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s. Kaufman’s poetry embraced the oral nature of the art, as well as the sounds and rhythms of jazz music, and influenced a generation of poets across the United States and in Europe. As Amistad winds up its recognition of National Poetry Month, we celebrate the life and writing of Bob Kaufman and announce the acquistion of a number of his works.

Kaufman was born Robert Garnell Kaufman in New Orleans on April 18, 1925, to Joseph Kaufman, a Pullman porter, and Lillian Vigne, a schoolteacher. Kaufman’s upbringing was often shrouded in myths and stories, often perpetuated by Kaufman himself, about a voodoo mother, joining the merchant marines at age 13, and spending much of his early years at sea. In truth, Kaufman came from an established Jewish and Roman Catholic family in New Orleans, and was one of 13 children. Kaufman did join the merchant marines when he was 18-years-old, afterwhich he worked as a labor organizer in New York City and San Francisco.

After settling in San Francisco, Kaufman took up poetry and became one of the leading proponents of jazz poetry, often performing in various clubs and cafes in the North Beach area and on the streets. In 1959, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine, along with Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly, and William Margolis, which became one of the leading mimeograph literary magazines of the era.

Kaufman struggled with drugs and alcohol during his adult life, and was once given shock treatments in Bellevue Hospital after being arrested for walking on the grass in Washington Square Park in New York City. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Kaufman took a vow of silence that lasted until the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam almost ten years later.

Despite his troubles and withdrawal from public speaking, Kaufman authored a number of poetry books and broadsides, including the broadsides Abomunist Manifesto, Second April, and Does the Mind Whisper?, and poetry collections such as Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, Golden Sardine, and The Ancient Rain. The Amistad Research Center has recently acquired copies Kaufman’s oeuvre in its entirety, which adds his voice to its growing collection of contemporary African American literature — a voice that can be described as…”Brief, beautiful shadows, burned on walls of night.” (from Kaufman’s “Bagel Shop Jazz”).

Posted by Christopher Harter


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