Mastodon COLLECTED POEMS OF BOB KAUFMAN - review - Marc Olmsted - Reviews - Sensitive Skin Magazine


edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye and Tate Swindell
City Lights Books

Collected Poems of Bob Kaufamn

The surrealism of Bob Kaufman is a true American surrealism, because Kaufman brings the blues, jazz and being a black man in the United States to his subconscious visions. He still remains, in my estimation, America’s unequaled surrealist. Just as Beat’s other most famous black poet, Amiri Baraka, spawned the Last Poets and the eventual rise of rap, Kaufman’s influence is not only present today in Will Alexander and transmale Blackfoot poet Max Wolf Valerio, but in Bob Dylan. It was Amiri Baraka himself who coined the term Afrosurreal Expressionism in 1974 to discussing the work of Henry Dumas, and was later expanded in the Afrosurreal Manifesto by D. Scott Miller. Afrosurrealism is now considered a very active movement, with a wide pantheon that now considers Ted Joans and Samuel R. Delany among its members. Certainly some of Ishmael Reed’s writing also seems to flow from this river.


America I forgive…I forgive you
Burning Japanese babies defensively –
I realize how necessary it was.
Your ancestor had beautifuf thoughts in his brain
His descendants are exports in real estate.
Your generals have mushrooming visions.
Every day your people get more and more
Cars, televisions, sickness, death dreams.
You must have been great

There is an incredible effortlessness to the bubbling up of Kaufman’s mind, who does not try on surrealism like an affectation, but because he cannot help but see everything as an intersection, a crossroad of outer phenomena and inner Rorschach. His mind works like William Burroughs’ cut-ups, he can’t help the explosive collage of the world entering his eyes. As such, he always seems somehow understandable, like Salvador Dali’s melted watch. It’s the difference between simile and metaphor. Simile links things, metaphor becomes a mutation, a melding. This melding, like a molten car crash, occurs continuously in Bob’s mind, evoking an immediate visceral response, a recognition. Another aspect of his work that makes him available is his extraordinary humor, both satirical and absurdist. It is impossible not to laugh at some his juxtapositions and observations. This sense of humor strikes me as a particular sign of his lack of pretension, as well as his inherent wisdom mind. Bob saw through things. It is interesting to note that some of Will Alexander’s poetry also has this humor, though his deadly serious live reading of them often makes that less obvious. Alexander is obviously the chief heir of Kaufman’s surrealism, and is the clearest departure from the flavor of Beat and PostBeat.

American jazz surrealism is certainly not Bob’s property alone, we see it in his friends Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, and to a lesser degree Allen Ginsberg. Philip Lamantia went the distance, but like Col. Kurtz receiving a diamond bullet right between the eyes, Kaufman went up the river to become the river.

I thought I was well-read in Kaufman, but his prose fragment SECOND APRIL was a revelation. I figure I found it too daunting to remember first time around:

Session nothing before nothing…is red, look out for green, Dante’s blanket too, a thing, lilies burn crisply on green screaming mornings, dogs licking backs of necks, fountains full of sacramental wind and Yom Kippur Good Friday in wet shoes, electric spitballs of lying, Roman night of baby boy dreams, musclebound streets, all our eyes, things corkscrewing raindrop pressures, sacrificed goats….

Yet Kaufman also has his pure Objectivist moments as in the style of William Carlos Williams.



The defective on the floor, mumbling,
Was once a man who shouted across tables.

Kaufman, a divine madman, was a longtime fixture of the San Francisco North Beach scene until his death in 1986. A casualty of police beatings and electroshock, it was very hard to guess just what he understood or was oblivious to, only that this was a drinking, drugging man in pain who wore his crown of thorns with dignity and had the complete respect of his more famous peers. A rare public reading was to hang on every word because he was not entirely of this world anymore, and hard to clearly hear. A private conversation might seem like a news recap of an asylum stay. Mostly he watched, even after he ended his voluntary vow of silence (which he took after the death of JFK). Since Bob’s North Beach presence by 1974 had a distinct derelict madness, even in appreciating his genius it was hard to see how well-read he was, as these collected poems clearly show.

Buddhism appeared in his work enough for him to be anthologized in at least one Buddhist poetry collection, but Kaufman was hardly a conventional devotee. Whether he had just gleaned some insights from Zen literature or actually had some realization was hard to say, though at the same time as the spreading of his ashes in the San Francisco Bay, a rainbow appeared. That is known as “auspicious coincidence.” Previously “buried” in a sprawling, unalphabetized and unindexed Beatitude Golden Anniversary 1959-2009 volume of nearly 500 pages, I had originally missed Kaufman’s late poems that are once more collected here, and he quotes Milarepa and Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and dedicates a poem to Gyaltrul Rinpoche, the last figure being a very significant Tibetan Buddhist presence in the Bay Area. This strongly suggests that for Bob an interface continued far beyond the Beat Zen of the late 50s, both in more recent books and some sort of actual face-to-face transmission.


will come
and go
if we allow.
Just let them
go about
the business
of illusion
on their own.
If you think
them real,
gently look
at where
they came from.
No one’s home.
Now you are free
to be.

At last we have the collected poems, thanks to Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye and Tate Swindell. It is a great accomplishment and a major literary event.

–Marc Olmsted

Poetry Reviews

2 thoughts on “COLLECTED POEMS OF BOB KAUFMAN – review

  1. A perceptive review that accurately conveys the experience of Bob Kaufman on the page and in the flesh. He’s definitely an underappreciated American poetic genius. One slight change I’d like to see is the inclusion of the late Al Young on the list of American jazz surrealist poets.

  2. This devoted review finds parameters for one of the most out there poets of them all. There is a quite a lot of pain in Kaufman’s poems to reconcile. Then he arrives at the surprisingly gentle “Human Being” which makes peace with existence in a calm way like a Miyazawa Kenji poem.

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