American poet Bob Kaufman was born on this day in 1925. That he remains one of the least known writers associated with the Beats is partly due to his reluctance to condemn his work to paper. His poetry was an ongoing product of his life, a one-man oral tradition. With a phenomenal memory for the work of other poets, he would recite it at length and fold his own verse into the mix.
If Kaufman can barely summon a second glance from posterity he was highly visible in his daily life, “appearing as a mendicant, madman or panhandler” in San Francisco. Being black, outspoken and married to a white woman in the 1950s and 60s, he was the subject of continual police harassment; in one year alone he was arrested 36 times. He either coined the term “Beatnik” or was the first to wear it, depending on who you believe. Certainly the hyperactive twitching and caffeinated bebop patter that was the residue of the Beatniks once they had gelatinated into media cliché had their origin, in part, in Kaufman’s very real neural agitation.
While there’s no book-length study of Kaufman, the wide-ranging radio biography of him produced in 1991 is more than just a consolation prize, it’s a highly appropriate vehicle for the story of one of the greatest modern troubadours. There’s a total of two hours’ worth of recollections from friends, family members, fellow writers; if you don’t have time to listen now, it’s worth coming back to later.