Devil’s poetry

Pub date May 20, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

AFRO-SURREAL Sadly, the mythology of poet Bob Kaufman almost rivals all we have left of his poetry. However, to place Kaufman within a mere "cult of personality" (along the lines of some of his contemporaries) undermines the innovation of his process and what it brings to the tapestry of American poetics and the complicated and surreal orality of his poems.

Called "the American Rimbaud" by the French, Kaufman lived as a poetic assassin. A frequently arrested union organizer, like Stagger Lee wielding a .44 of devil’s poetry, Kaufman assaulted the willing and unwilling (even white police officers) with verse. If you were cool, you knew his assault was meant as a cipher, a juxtaposition of rhythm, image, and sound meant to invite the listener into a dialectical examination of identity, even the identity obtained from syntax: "I went to a masquerade<0x2009>/ Disguised as myself<0x2009>/ Not one of my friends recognized."

Kaufman’s poetics were Kerouac’s spontaneous prose without the notebook, taken literally. Think an un-choreographed version of "Amethyst Rocks," the prison yard scene in Slam (1998) where Saul Williams stops a would-be beatdown with poetry. Except for Kaufman the beatdown was always real, inevitable, and though sometimes provoked, never for the camera.

Kaufman was the spirit of true North Beach bohemia: the street poet who stood "on yardbird corners of embryonic hopes drowned in a heroin tear," panhandling "with moist prophet eyes" free styles of surrealism, the blues and duende, meant to disturb, disrupt, and ultimately liberate.

Kaufman’s "crackling blueness" is distinctly Californian. In poems like "Carl Chaessman Interviews the PTA," Kaufman filters the "west of the west" through absurdist reflections that juxtapose outlaw figures such as Chessman (a 1960s serial killer on San Quentin’s Death Row) with figures from California’s mythology, all to the rhythms of a radio announcer calling a ballgame: Carl Chessman is in sickly California writing death threats to the Wizard of Oz, his trial is being held in the stomach of Junipero Serra, at last the game starts, Chessman steals all the bases & returns to his tomb to receive the last sacraments from Shirley Temple.

Ultimately, according to poet and scholar Nathaniel Mackey, what Kaufman creates is a cross-cultural poetics difficult to categorize. Though he lived in North Beach and is credited with coining the phrase "beatnik" — and infused his poetry with jazz and Eastern religious influence — Kaufman transcends the singular categorization of "Beat poet." By aligning himself with the pain of "all losers, brown, red, black, and white; the colors from the Master Palette," Kaufman creates a new American poetics — a hybrid poetics of projective California duende blues, an examination of the exhaustion that comes from the persistence of breath.


PIXEL VISION: Bob Kaufman’s poem "Heavy Water Blues"