Bob Kaufman

[A version of this talk was given at AWP in Minneapolis on April 10th, 2015 as part of the Neglected American Masters panel with James Allen Hall, Yona Harvey, and Richard Siken.]

Every poet is an ambassador. Sometimes I’m so desperate I fly from the bottom of the country to the top just so I can talk about Bob Kaufman. Here is some of what I said about him in a conversation I had on “neglected American masters”:

A couple of weeks ago, in what I am sure was an act of irony, the poem-a-day administered by featured a piece that made me laugh out loud when I opened my email. The title: “A Minor Poet.” The poet: Stephen Vincent Benét. I didn’t finish the poem that day: too many obvious adjectives and too many unnecessary adverbs for my taste. Being reminded of Benet’s existence did make me think about my plans for today, though.

“A Minor Poet” was first collected in Benet’s early (if not first) full-length book Young Adventure, for which he won the 1917 Yale Prize before it was a few years later changed to the Yale Younger Prize. I imagine the poem was a kind of self-conscious testimony from a poet who was only 20 years old and unsure of his future as a writer. After this acclaim, though, he would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his book-length poem John Brown’s Body and to become the judge for the Yale Younger, selecting first books by poets including Paul Engle, Muriel Rukeyser, and Margaret Walker. He was elected a fellow to the Academy of Arts and Sciences and won a second Pulitzer posthumously in 1944. He had died a little less than a year before this announcement. I’m not sure what this list of commendations meant for a poet of Benet’s time, especially since they were all much newer recognitions and, therefore, maybe not as prestigious as they would come to be considered decades later.

(To be completely honest, I’m not at all sure what we collectively think of these honors today—that we being the men and women who are writers on the ground obsessed with every keystroke and not with pats on the back from golden hands. As a descendent of black people—and in so many ways of the Black Arts Movement—my own ambivalence about mainstream modes of acknowledgment always comes in the form of the way I’m supposed to feel vs. the way I feel vs. the way Kalamu ya Salaam might feel about me vs. authentic gratitude vs. the fact that Phillis Wheatley can join Dickinson and Whitman in saying she never won a prize.)

Given all of this, though, I’d like to think that Benet met death with the assurance that people loved his work and it would continue to be read widely for lifetimes to come. In Benet’s case, such ongoing acclaim doesn’t seem to have manifested. Certainly, he must not have imagined my black queer ass giving cruel and haughty glance at his “Minor Poet.” As a matter of fact, this is the first time I’ve ever caught myself saying his name to other writers, and I’m 100% sure I’ve never heard another writer say his name to me. It seems that Benet died in the shadow of too many Modernist greats we’d rather read whether or not we understand their fragmentation, their subversion of form, or their heavy use of allusion.

I’m sort of fascinated by this because his inclusion in literary history does, at least, allow me the chance to turn away from his work; allows the Academy of American Poets to post his poems, however ironically. If we don’t talk about Benet, it’s because we don’t want to, not because we have little or no access to his name.

I say all of that to say that I’m worried I might be here for the wrong reasons. People have had the nerve to ask me in public interviews how it feels to not be considered for this or that prize and/or how it feels to be a finalist who walks out of the ceremony holding nothing but the printed program. I’ve been asked enough to have an answer at the ready, and here it is:

“Poetry is not about how many prizes you win, and it’s not even about how many people buy your books. Poetry is about how much space any one poem holds in any human heart.”

That is the true answer, but I know it can sound a little too good to be true. Still, if that is my answer, is there really any such thing as a neglected American master? If I know that, besides the Bible, one of the biggest influences for my second book, The New Testament, was Bob Kaufman’s Golden Sardine, what then are my motives for trying to get more people to read and teach and know and learn the work of Bob Kaufman? Hasn’t he done the work he needs to do in my individual human heart if I know that my work exists because his work exists, and if I know that his work helps me to better see this world in ways distorted enough for me to see it real?

Or am I talking about Kaufman today because I don’t really believe my answer? Do I actually (and more subconsciously) think of him as a doomed figure? A figure always in need of saving? And if I do, do I think of him this way because he was Black? Because he was born in the South? Because he was Buddhist? Because he chose to be a performer of his work who often refused to write the words down for an establishment that to this very day respects the written word over the spoken word? Because he took a 10-year vow of silence, beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy and ending with US troops finally pulling out of the Vietnam War? Do I wish he was less righteous and more vocal during these years of intensity in American history? Do I call Kaufman “neglected” because I blame him for being exactly who he meant to be?

Of Kaufman’s intentions for himself, Harryette Mullen has said, “…he very deliberately chose a marginal life rather than having marginality imposed on him…[Kaufman] declared and dedicated himself to what I call the antithesis of a literary career.” And Ken Kesey’s first memory of Kaufman seems an example of this marginal antithesis, “I can remember driving down to North Beach with my folks and seeing Bob Kaufman out there on the street…He had little pieces of Band-Aid tape all over his face, about two inches wide, and little smaller ones like two inches long—and all of them made into crosses. He came up to the cars, and he was babbling poetry into these cars. He came up to the car I was riding in with my parents, and started jabbering this stuff into the car. I knew that this was exceptional use of the human voice and the human mind.”

The terror that his poems incite in me is real but sometimes eclipsed by the terror of what I know of the poet…because it’s all information I’ve had to research as opposed to information we come to know quite automatically by getting an MFA or attending AWP. For instance, no one seems to have taught us how Plath or Sexton died, nor did we have to look hard to find out. Yes, Kaufman lost England’s Guinness Poetry Award to Eliot. Yes, he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson a few times in the 1970s. Yes, he coined the term “beatnik” and was a cofounding editor of Beatitude magazine. Yes to what I know his poems have done in my human heart. Still, I am fool enough to ask myself: If there seems little place other than the occasional ironic poem-a-day feature for what came of the literary life led by Stephen Vincent Benét, then how can we ever do anything other than neglect the work that came out of the life of the purposefully antithetically marginal Bob Kaufman?

And ultimately, aren’t my questions about Kaufman really just questions that come from my own ego, questions asked by a younger poet who has had recognition enough to share this panel with these brilliant poets? Are my worries about Kaufman—one of my greatest influences—really just cover-ups for my worries about myself and my own death?

Kaufman is often forgotten as the important figure he was to the Beat Generation because he was black. He is often forgotten as a Black poet because he was so decidedly a proponent of the Beat Generation. And maybe this leads to what I love most about his poems. Kaufman’s work could easily be called psychedelic because of his use of surreal imagery, for example in “A Terror Is More Certain,” “I confess to all the crimes committed in the month of April, but not to save my own neck, which is adjustable, & telescopes into any size noose.” Or in “‘Michaelangelo’ the Elder,” “In one ear a spider spins its web of eyes,/In the other a cricket chirps all night.” This is what we often hear about Kaufman’s poetry; this and its improvisational nature, a quality of playful humor that makes it seem as if the poems write themselves as lyrics to a score of jazz playing in Kaufman’s head. For example in “Oct. 5th, 1963”:

Arriving back in San Francisco to be greeted by a blacklist and eviction, I am writing these lines to the responsible non-people. One thing is certain I am not white. Thank God for that. It makes everything else bearable.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is due to the oneliness of the Long Distance Runner, that uniqueness that is the Long Distance Runner’s alone, and only his. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is the only reason for the Long Distance Runner’s existence. Short distance runners run, they finish neither first nor last, the finish, that is all that can be said about them, nothing can be said for them, an ordinariness, that is their closest proximity to the truly unique. Men die, as all men come to know, sooner or later, at any rate either way, men die. On that all men can depend.

Kaufman’s surreal nature and improvisational genius are enough to make him a poet to love. But for me, he’s an American master because these are only tools he uses in poems meant to make present a persona who falls through the cracks of identity that America forces upon all of us. This is what I miss in the poetry of Stephen Vincent Benét. This is what I want from the poetry of Jericho Brown.

Trouble is that Bob Kaufman is an American master because he is neglected. Kaufman’s iconoclastic nature is his greatest gift as it becomes the basis for a speaker caught in dire circumstances at the beginnings and endings of almost every one of his poems. “A Terror Is More Certain…” begins, “A terror is more certain than all the rare desirable popular songs I know…” and ends, “…who wants to be a poet if you fuck on t.v. & all those cowboys watching.” “‘Michaelangelo’” the Elder” begins, “I live alone, like pith in a tree…” and ends, “I would die for Poetry.” “Slight Alterations” begins, “I climb a red thread/To an unseen existence…” and ends, “The floor is a palate of surprise/Watching me eat the calendar.” And “Oct. 5th, 1963”—which I’ve already quoted the beginning of—ends, “…it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in between, its sound is Bob Kaufman, Poet.”

Originally Published: April 24th, 2015

Jericho Brown is the recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), was named one...