In North Beach, in a six-block area from lower Grant Avenue to upper Grant Avenue, there existed a large number of bars, cafes, and coffee houses, frequented by poets, artists, and jazz musicians. While Grant Avenue was the center stage of creativity, the bevy of coffee houses and bars extended from Broadway and Columbus, all the way to the produce district, where the self-proclaimed King of the Beats, Eric Big Daddy Nord held court in a large warehouse on the fringe of the old produce district. Kaufman and his wife Eileen were frequent visitors to Eric’s pad, joining in on the festive activities.
Kaufman seldom talked about his childhood and upbringing in his native New Orleans, but we know from Eileen Kaufman that he was the youngest of thirteen children, born on April 18, 1925, the son of a German Orthodox Jew and a Black woman from Martinique. His grandmother came to the U.S. on a slave ship from the gold coast of Africa, and he was proud of his African roots. As a child, his mother saw to it that he regularly attended Catholic mass, but he would also join his father in the synagogue on the Sabbath, while at the same time learning about the voodoo beliefs of his grandmother. Kaufman’s religious upbringing was nothing less than a spiritual mosaic, although in later life he would mock God in several of his poems.
Kaufman was arguably the most intelligent of all the Beat poets and writers, including Ginsberg. He boarded a ship at a young age, and for twenty years sailed with the U.S. Merchant Marines, traveling around the world several times. It was during one of these trips to Greenland that he suffered frostbite, causing him to lose 40% of his hearing.
Kaufman’s literary education began at sea when a first mate gave him books of the masters to read, among them the works of Jack London. His formal education was obtained at an elementary school in New Orleans, and, he later attended the New School of Social Research in New York City. It was while spending time in New York that Kaufman met Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, but it wasn’t until later, in Big Sur, California that he met Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady.
In May 1958 Kaufman met a young woman named Eileen, and a short time later they were married. In 1959 City Lights published a Kaufman broadside, Abomunist Manifesto, and shortly thereafter a second broadside, Second April, was published. A year later City Lights published a third Kaufman broadside, Does the Secret Mind Whisper. These early broadsides earned Kaufman a cult following in San Francisco’s North Beach District.
In early 1959 Ron Rice directed a film titled The Flower Thief, which was shot in San Francisco, starring the North Beach bohemians, with Kaufman playing a leading role. The film was later shown in Italy, where it received critical acclaim.
In late 1959, and into the early part of 1960, Kenneth Tynan produced a film titled Dissent in the Arts in America. Kaufman appeared in the film, which was never shown in the U.S., after Tynan was called to appear before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. It was, however, shown in Europe, which partly accounts for Kaufman’s popularity abroad. During the early Sixties he read his poetry at the Gaslight and other popular coffee houses in New York’s Greenwich Village, but returned to San Francisco in 1963.
On a November afternoon in 1963, Kaufman watched on television the assassination of President Kennedy. Many of Kaufman’s friends have said after watching the assassination that Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence, which lasted nearly twelve years, until the end of the Vietnam War. This is only partly true, for Kaufman did occasionally speak with friends, even if it was only to say hello or to bum a cigarette.
Kaufman was not a prolific writer, but his poetry books are generally regarded as among the best verse written by any of the Beat poets. His first book, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, was published in 1965 by New Directions, and caused an immediate stir in local literary circles. The book consisted mainly of early poems written while he traveled from New York to San Francisco and back again. It would later be published in France, in 1975, and helped him gain a larger foreign audience. Kaufman’s second book, The Golden Sardine, was published in 1967 by City Lights, which earned him a solid reputation in the U.S., England, and France.
By the late Fifties, Ginsberg, Corso, and the rest of the Beat gang had left North Beach, leaving behind Lawrence Ferlinghetti to tend City Lights Book Store. Other than Ferlinghetti, Kaufman was the last of the recognized original gang of Beats too regularly make the rounds of North Beach.
Kaufman would not see another book of his in print until 1981 when New Directions published Ancient Rain, which consisted of previously published poems alongside unpublished poems written between l973-l978.
In October 1982 Kaufman emerged from near obscurity to read one of his poems on the PBS television show Images, and from that time on rarely read his work at local literary events.
Jack Micheline, a Beat poet friend of Kaufman, said in an interview I did with him in the eighties that he considered Kaufman to be an original jazz poet, a poet deeply steeped in the jazz tradition. His work is essentially improvisational, and was at its best when he read with various jazz musicians.
His poetic technique resembles that of the surreal school of poets, ranging from a powerful, lyrical vision to the more prophetic tone that can be found in many of his political poems.
Golden Sardine contains a striking political poem on the death of Caryl Chessman, a convicted kidnapper, robber, and accused rapist, who many even to this day feel was wrongly sentenced to death for crimes (kidnap and rape) for which he was innocent. The tone of the poem is one of anger against a system intent on destroying the mind and body. Kaufman’s defiance parallels Chessman’s own defiance, evidenced by Chessman refusing to admit his guilt, and be spared from the gas chamber.
Carl (sic) Chessman knows the Governor of
California knows. Good Johnny the Pope
Knows, Salvatore Agron knows & all the
Leaky eyed poets know. In their poems
No one is guilty of any thing at any time
Anywhere in any place
The difference between Kaufman’s anger and the anger expressed by other Beat poets is that he could move from anger to humor in a matter of seconds. But even within the humor we find a biting message of condemnation of what the poet considered a system speaking of honor and God on the one hand while practicing rape and plunder on the other.
Death is a familiar subject in many of his poems. His obsession, perhaps awe, with death is evident in such early poems as Results of A Lie Detector Test, which appeared in the Golden Sardine.
From the sleeping calendar I have stolen a
I am afraid to look at it. I don’t want to know
Clenched in my fist I feel its frost. Its icy
I cannot face the bewildered summer with a
pocketful of snow
I imagine the accusing finger of children
who will never be born
How to shut out the cries of the suffering
Death wishers, awaiting
The silent doors of winter tombs, deprived of
I shall never again steal a month…or a week
or a day or an hour
Or a minute, or a second, unless I become
You won’t find any pretension in Kaufman’s poems. There is no attempt at word play. The poems fall naturally without a hint of strain to them. His early poems still ring true today, even after two-plus decades have passed.
Kaufman also spoke of a driving force of love. Many of his poems speak of dreams and the imagery the mind produces, as if the poet realizes it is the dream that keeps the artist going, and keeps at bay the imperfections and pain.
But Kaufman saw clearly through the dream, as evidenced in a stanza from another poem from The Golden Sardine, “The Mind For All Its Reasoning.”
The mind for all its complicated reasoning
Is dependent on the whim of the eyelid
The most nonchalant of human partsOpening and closing at random
Spending its hours in mystique
Filled with memories of glimpses
His work is particularly harsh toward the church. In Early Loves, he closes his poem with “Tears will wash away her dirty murdered soul/God will be called upon to atone for his sins.”
To have had the privilege of reading Kaufman’s work, or to have shared a drink with him, or to have read with him, or spent time with him in his small North beach hotel room, with little or no conversation taking place, was an experience not easily forgotten.
(Stay Tuned for Part 2)
(first appeared at emptymirrorbooks.com)