“I am writing the Great American Suicide Note,” Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) once declared. He was a street poet, an African-American surrealist and one of the original Beats — he founded a magazine with Allen Ginsberg. Kaufman had a natural aptitude for subversion and distinctive utterance. He was arrested umpteen times in San Francisco on disorderly charges, and spent time in psychiatric institutions. He appeared before the world as if in angry comic dishabille. In a poem titled “Suicide,” he wrote: “The first man was an idealist, but he died, / he couldn’t survive the first truth.”
A new book, “Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman,” is the most comprehensive selection of his verse to date, a volume that contains a lot of previously uncollected work. It reminds us that Kaufman had his weaknesses; his poems could tip over into splintered whimsy. Yet this book makes a case for him as a perceptive and eccentric American original, a man who seems to have fallen out of the sky like a meteor.
Kaufman was among those lucky poets who looked like a poet; he seemed his own voice made dryly manifest. As the writer and curator Raymond Foye writes in an afterword, to gaze at the many photographs of Kaufman is to intuit “the power of one man, small in stature, staring into you with dignity and defiance, tenderness and humor. His face is a map: of Africa, of the West Indies and the Caribbean, of his beloved New Orleans and the birth of jazz. It is the face of a holy man on Earth as a hero and a martyr, in the guise of a hipster and flâneur.”
Kaufman was born in New Orleans. He joined the merchant marine as a teenager, then studied at New York’s New School for Social Research before moving to the West Coast. He often didn’t bother to write his own jazz-inspired poems down; his wife, the poet Eileen Kaufman, was wise enough to do that, often scribbling them on napkins and paper sacks.