Skip to main content
Bob Kaufman Portrait

The introduction to Bob Kaufman's selected poems tells us that he was born in New Orleans; his father, who was half African American and half Jewish, worked as a Pullman porter for the railroad that ran between New Orleans and Chicago. His mother, a black woman from an old Martinique family, the Vignes, was a schoolteacher. "His Jewish surname and Creole-like features," the introduction notes, "were shared with twelve brothers and sisters . . . Up until his death from emphysema in January of 1986, Kaufman was known as a mostly silent, wiry black man who walked the streets of San Francisco's North Beach district day and night, often appearing as a mendicant, madman, or panhandler. Yet various schools of American poetry have sung his praises." His working life began at sea; he was a cabin boy on the Henry Gibbons. Based in New York and San Francisco, he worked on Henry Wallace's 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign, during which he was arrested and thrown into jail; early on he connected with the Beat poets and became one of the notable figures of the movement. At the end of the 1950s City Lights Books issued three of his broadsides, including the widely read "Abominist Manifesto."

Kaufman would declaim his poems and manifestos at poetry readings and in other public places; often enough the police would arrest him. Eventually he began to drink under the strain; back in New York he was arrested and given shock treatments against his will. After President Kennedy was shot, Kaufman took a vow of silence, maintaining it for a decade. Then he began writing again; the poems were rescued from a hotel fire by a friend and published as his third book in 1981. By the end, he had been a Beat poet, a surrealist, a sound poet, a jazz poet, and a poet of black consciousness.