Poetry News

"The radio is teaching my goldfish": Cedar Sigo on Bob Kaufman

By Harriet Staff

For those who missed it, last week Cedar Sigo wrote an insightful piece on the poetry and life of Bob Kaufman. Sigo begins by drawing together the often mythic details of Kaufman's life, and describes his 10 year silence following the death of JFK:

It seems that the actual facts and dates of Kaufman’s life have been swallowed whole by prevailing myth. He was a merchant seaman, sailed around the world, gave endless monologues in North Beach, was harassed and often beaten by police, moved to New York, received shock therapy, narrowly missed a lobotomy, and took a 12-year vow of silence in 1963 following a dark vision after JFK’s assassination. He broke his silence in 1973 after the end of the Vietnam War and wrote a fascinating return sequence of poems now collected in The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981), which is edited and with an introduction by Foye. His work could not be contained by the page. Foye writes, “So absolute was Kaufman’s dedication to the oral and automatic sources of poetry, it was only at the insistence of his wife, Eileen, that he began to write down his work.”

A vow of silence seems bigger than the act of writing poems, especially after writing and publishing successfully for years. By 1963 Kaufman had published three pamphlets with City Lights Books, Second April and Abomunist Manifesto in 1959 and Does The Secret Mind Whisper in 1960. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness followed on New Directions in 1965, and then Golden Sardine on City Lights in 1967.

Sigo goes on to discuss the poetry Kaufman wrote after his 10 year silence:

Poetry is often such a monument to compression, and so married to the locking and unlocking of language, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate form in which to return to the world of the speech and letters. The poem directly addresses Kaufman’s having gone away, and not so much regret, but a willingness to return to his own body:

All those flowers that you never grew—
that you wanted to grow
The ones that were plowed under
ground in the mud-—
Today I bring them back
And let you grow them forever

Make the jump here to read the rest.

Originally Published: March 5th, 2012