Bob Kaufman had been everywhere, man. Born in New Orleans in 1925, he joined the merchant marine when he got out of high school and saw the world for much of the 1940s. He took his mail in New York, but by the late 1950s he’d also called San Antonio and Monterey home. He was considered a Beat, but at the same time, he was something more than that—a restless spirit eventually tied to San Francisco’s North Beach.
In his lifetime, the African American poet was a subject of attention and much confusion. He was an outlier among cultural outliers. He had an intense, faraway gaze and a gift for larger-than-life gestures, like when he dyed all the clothes in a laundromat red. By the time he died, in 1986, he had outlived the legend—he was a casualty of his isolation and his lack of interest in cashing in on the Beat brand.
They loved him in France, where he was called “the black American Rimbaud,” but he was hearsay in America. Perhaps that’s the most predictable thing about him. The curtain gets pulled back a great deal, however, with Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, which assembles the three broadsides and three books he published during his lifetime as well as unpublished work and ephemera.
Kaufman loved jazz, cities, movies, reading, his skin. He wrote: “My face feels like a living emotional relief map, forever wet. / My hair is curling in anticipation of my own wild gardening.” In these poems, his mind is racing; he is always thinking about time of all sorts. He is also thinking about Beat culture, speaking to it and past it, sometimes mocking it (as in the marvelous iterations here of his “Abomunist Manifesto”). In his short poem of dark whimsy “Unholy Missions,” Kaufman manages to throw an elbow at God, Los Angeles, and himself. The lines offer quick bursts of wishes, ending cold sober with “I want to prove once and for all that I am not crazy.” This is the work of a poet always aware that he is speaking to an audience—which means it is writing that frequently begs to be read out loud. But it’s also the work of somebody aware of an audience staring at him, which leads him to move into the shadows of himself to get away.
Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman provides much information about the life of an artist long hidden from view. He was stalked by a San Francisco police officer who hated the Beats; he suffered addiction and mental instability and electroshock therapy. The work trailed off as life got harder. Today, Kaufman should be viewed in the shared light of the poet and musician Arthur Lee, the musician Albert Ayler, and the painter Bob Thompson—protean African American artists who created at the edge of racism, magic, and mental duress. A line tossed off: “If i can’t be an ugly rumor i won’t be the good time had by all.” Maybe he’s not a rumor anymore.
RJ Smith is the author of American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank. He lives in Los Angeles.
• Edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, and Tate Swindell
• Foreword by devorah major
• City Lights Publishers, 234 pages, $19.95