This Old Poem #59:
Bob Kaufman’s O-Jazz-O   
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/3/03

  2 of the great poetic fraud movements of the last century were those of Surrealism & Jazz poetry. Surrealism was a masturbatory excuse to strip a poem of form, content, purpose, &- well- poetry. Jazz poetry has about as much to do with jazz as French Fries have to do with France. Worse, it has even less to do with poetry itself. Only 3 poets who have been published have ever shown a facility with ‘jazz’- Langston Hughes, who did not invent the genre but- ala Shakespeare with sonnets- midwifed it, Stephen Jonas- whose ‘poetry’ was bereft of import, but as finely attuned to sound as any poet I’ve read, & Quincy Troupe- before his poetry veered downward into doggerel with his insistence on using the word ‘eye’ in place of the pronoun ‘I’. QT was smart enough to couch his jazz poems not in the tercet form- that has no functionality to the way the poems are read- indeed all jazz poetry is performance-based, as it cannot hold up on the page (by & large)- but as prose poem riffs. As for Surrealism, the best example I can give is of a doggerelist poet I knew in the mid-90s named John Murphy. JM would come to a poetry group with a string of words he called a poem & then coo the rejoinder, ‘Cool!’ to whatever crit he received. That his ‘poems’ were little more than unrhymed Burma Shave billboard texts, well- it is Surrealism after all!
  At the nexus of this discombobulation of verse stands Bob Kaufman- a black Jew who was a failure at virtually everything he ever did. His life’s tale?:

  Bob Kaufman, or more accurately, Robert Garnell Kaufman, was born on April 18, 1925 in New Orleans, LA and died January 12, 1986 in San Francisco, CA. Kaufman has been described as an "innovative poet" and an important writer who gained his prominence during the Beat period.

  As a youth, Kaufman had the opportunity to gain exposure to a wide variety of religions. His father was German-Jewish, his mother was Roman Catholic and his grandmother was a practitioner of voodoo. He was one of 13 children born to a German Jewish father and a Black Catholic mother. He ran away from home and joined the Merchant Marines when he was 13, and circled the globe 9 times in the next 20 years. Eventually however, Kaufman developed an interest in eastern religions and like many of the other Beat writers, became a Buddhist.

In 1958, Kaufman moved to San Francisco and quickly became acclimated to the lifestyle led by many of the writers and artists who were prominent during the Beat period. Much of his writing became "surreal" and was often inspired by jazz music. He published Crowded with Loneliness and founded a magazine called Beatitude in 1965.

  Kaufman was most popular among European readers during the 1960's and published his second collection, Golden Sardine in 1967. After witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Kaufman was compelled to take a vow of silence, which it is said was unbroken until the end of the Viet Nam War. His writing became political again and he produced a collection that included early works called The Ancient Rain: Poems, 1956-78 (1981). It is said that in 1978 Kaufman once again resumed his silence and seldom broke the sacred vow until his death in 1986.


  What is not said in this bio is that BK was also a homeless bum with mental problems. The conflation of mental illness with creativity shows no signs of abatement. BK also is illustrative of the gap between poetry on the page & that spoken. Local Twin Cities poet Eric Bailey once gave 1 of the best performances of a poem I’ve ever witnessed. He read a BK poem, but the excellence was all in EB’s reading, not in BK’s words. Here are a few of the horrors BK unleashed- this from I Have Folded My Sorrows (great title, eh?):

Seekers of manifest disembowelment on shafts of yesterday's pains.
Blues come dressed like introspective echoes of a journey.
And yes, I have searched the rooms of the moon on cold summer nights.
And yes, I have refought those unfinished encounters. Still, they remain unfinished.
And yes, I have at times wished myself something different.

The tragedies are sung nightly at the funerals of the poet;
The revisited soul is wrapped in the aura of familiarity.


  Are you ready to rumble? Didn’t think so. Here’s another poem with a terrible title & worse theme:


Round About Midnight


Jazz radio on a midnight kick,
Round about Midnight.

Sitting on the bed,
With a jazz type chick
Round about Midnight,

Piano laughter, in my ears,
Round about Midnight.

Stirring up laughter, dying tears,
Round about Midnight.

Soft blue voices, muted grins,
Excited voices, Father's sins,
Round about Midnight.

Come on baby, take off your clothes,
Round about Midnight.


  No- this was not meant as parody, I swear. But, let’s see some of BK’s staggering breadth of vision. Recall that ‘jazz type chick’ from the previous poem? This time she’s type-less:

Jazz Chick  


Music from her breast, vibrating
Soundseared into burnished velvet.
Silent hips deceiving fools.
Rivulets of trickling ecstacy
From the alabaster pools of Jazz
Where music cools hot souls.
Eyes more articulately silent
Than Medusa's thousand tongues.
A bridge of eyes, consenting smiles
reveal her presence singing
Of cool remembrance, happy balls
Wrapped in swinging
Her music...


   Is the flood of clichés due to the surrealism or the jazz? Just asking. Look at this niftily titled logorrhea:



On yardbird corners of embryonic hopes, drowned in a heroin tear.
On yardbird corners of parkerflights to sound filled pockets in space.
On neuro-corners of striped brains & desperate electro-surgeons.
On alcohol corners of pointless discussion & historical hangovers.
On television corners of cornflakes & rockwells impotent America.
On university corners of tailored intellect & greek letter openers.
On military corners of megathon deaths & universal anesthesia.
On religious corners of theological limericks and
On radio corners of century-long records & static events.
On advertising corners of filter-tipped ice-cream & instant instants
On teen-age corners of comic book seduction and corrupted guitars,
On political corners of wanted candidates & ritual lies.
On motion picture corners of lassie & other symbols.
On intellectual corners of conversational therapy & analyzed fear.
On newspaper corners of sexy headlines & scholarly comics.
On love divided corners of die now pay later mortuaries.
On philosophical corners of semantic desperadoes & idea-mongers.
On middle class corners of private school puberty & anatomical revolts
On ultra-real corners of love on abandoned roller-coasters
On lonely poet corners of low lying leaves & moist prophet eyes.


  This must be the Beatnik in him- pointlessness apotheosized. On to the poem in question:



Where the string
some point,
Was umbilical jazz,
Or perhaps,
In memory,
A long lost bloody cross,
Buried in some steel cavalry.
In what time
For whom do we bleed,
Lost notes, from some jazzman's
Broken needle.
Musical tears from lost
Broken drumsticks, why?
Pitter patter, boom dropping
Bombs in the middle
Of my emotions
My father's sound
My mother's sound,
Is love,
Is life.

  Pointless line breaks, no music, line lengths that are wildly divergent, bathos, & almost comical attempts at depth. Jazz is- after all- about pain, loss, injustice, etc. Let’s rehab this sucker:


Or perhaps,
Lost notes

Tear from lost
Broken drumsticks, why?
Pitter patter, boom dropping
My father's sound
My mother's sound.

  Bathos gone. Tears turn to the act of ripping, & the end leaves an echo following after the reader. Plaintiveness has given way to a truly surreal image- or, at least, idea. The rewrite’s persona is far more interesting & haunted than the trite jazzman of the original.
  Still BK reveled in his living fame- he was especially loved in France- feted as the ‘Black Rimbaud’- sort of tells you all you need to know, eh? BK claimed to be the inventor of the terms Beat & Beatnik, & had a band of devotees that apotheosized his mental illness & ‘persecution’ by authorities. This persecution was usually in the form of having his inebriated carcass hauled off for a night in stir- but who needs facts? Boosters claimed he was the greatest Jazz/Surrealist, & even Symbolist poet of America- but we’ve seen his poems’ only range were from terrible to worst. Drug abuse, felonies, prison terms- all were part of this loser’s life, & all ignored by talentless hacks who saw in BK a reason to write bad poems- for even bad poets are ‘respectable’- despite their failures. Almost nothing about BK has any truth. His supposed ‘decade of silence’- from JFK’s assassination in 1963 till 1973’s end of the Vietnam War- is pure hagiography, as dozens of folks attested to the fact that it was just a scam to cover his decade of poetic impotence. But, oh, has impotence ever been sweeter than when a doggerelist has no impetus? He was also the living embodiment of a ‘street poet’- spending many a night passed out in the gutters about San Francisco. Like Frank O’Hara BK asserted he cared not a whit about publishing his poems- yet his wife, Eileen, somehow produced many a manuscript in perfect condition after his death- again with the Rimbaudism! Fans tell tales of BK’s screaming poetry at passing cars or at train stations- then they wonder why he was so often arrested for disturbing the peace, harassment, & sent to mental institutions. My favorite BK tale is how he often wrote his poems on toilet paper using his own shit as ink! Boy, what great prosody that must have been!
  My point in this extended look at the doggerelist? So that young poets who read his crap will be able to not wonder what they are missing when some poetastric critic comes along & praises his garbage unstintingly. BK was a TERRIBLE poet- in fact- 1 of the foremost examples of someone with very little artistic talent masquerading as a poet- indeed, living the life without the work.
  Here’s just a small sample of the ridiculous justifications such bad writers will thrust upon you:

   As part of a master's thesis/project in 1989, I conceived and directed a readers theatre production of Kaufman's poetry, entitled The Poet Alive. Kaufman's poetry lent itself to performance by a spoken word choral quartet, with a saxophonist who interweaved sounds with the texts. Modeling the performance of poetry on jazz suggested one contemporary mode of oral poetics, especially in the case of Kaufman who self-consciously created jazz poems, is the reappearance and/or variations from one poem to another of the same phrases and lines (anathema to the authorial poet/writer), the explorations of words as sound as well as the concoction of sounds into word-like vocalic forms (scats and sound-poems), the prosody of air and percussive instrumentation through intonations and verse rhythms. Most importantly, the orality of living poetry comes through as Kaufman's poetry was the rich score for the body to perform as an instrument of language art, vocally and kinetically, providing the performers with interpetive (sic) material for multiple voices and choreographed movements.

  Poetry, for Kaufman, was always a part of the occasion for his utterances and inseparable from the activities of his daily life. Poetry lived and breathed through Kaufman body and consciousness as a matter of his routine. He was known to recite other poets he knew "by heart" and interlaced his own verses with theirs. Kaufman played the situation and the crowd for its own "consciousness," and naturally sensed the need for poems as evocations for occasions. The special impact of such poetry as it relates to performance also brings into play a direct interplay between the poet and audience, the hallmark of the lyric poet. Rather than a distanced, abstract poetry of the formal, printed "literary" type, this Beat poet was aware of and engaged his audience's immediate senses in a poetry of the body.


  You know you’re in trouble when 1 speaks of the ‘poetry of the body’ or other such sillinesses. I won’t embarrass the writer by giving name. Ignore such dreck. Ignore BK, unless you’re depressed, & wanna chuckle at someone whose life was worse than yours. Go ahead, it’s alright to laugh!

Final Score: (1-100):

Bob Kaufman’s O-Jazz-O: 35
TOP’s O-Jazz-O: 70

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