My head is a bony guitar,
Strung with tongues,
Plucked by fingers & nails.
This poster is our tribute to Bob Kaufman, who was among North Beach's most beloved poets, and one of its most eccentric. An embodiment of the Beat values of spontaneity and the poet as outsider, Kaufman's work is often surrealistic, sometimes absurdist (in the tradition of the Dada), and best accompanied by jazz. He could be found day and night, wandering the streets of North Beach reciting poetry, and to the uninitiated, appeared crazy. To those who knew him, however, he was one of the most brilliant, visionary minds of his time.
After the Kennedy assassination, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence, declaring he wouldn't again speak nor write until the Vietnam war ended. He remained silent until 1973, when in Palo Alto he began reciting Eliot's “Murder in the Cathedral,” followed by his own “All Those Ships That Never Sailed.” He was unique among poets in that he kept few notebooks, no journals, and no correspondence. What precious little of his work exists was published in three volumes of poetry, Golden Sardine, The Ancient Rain, and Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, all published by City Lights, and Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman (Coffee House Press). These publications he accomplished largely due to the insistence of his wife, Eileen. Kaufman was also instrumental in the creation of Beatitude, a mimeographed journal he produced with William Margolis.
Kaufman's life was often beset by poverty, poor health, and at times addiction. He moved frequently between fleabag hotels, and often relied on the kindness of neighbors, friends, and strangers for sustenance and shelter. He was also harassed constantly and brutally by the police. He feuded often with the leader of SFPD's so-called “Beatnik Squad,” Officer Bigarani, and was jailed frequently, to the extent that cans marked “Bob Kaufman Defense Fund” often appeared on coffeehouse counters.
As poet Jack Micheline said:
He knew how to rumble. He knew how to live it. He lived it quick. He lived it fast. He was a real poet. How many real poets can you meet in your life? He was close to what was happening, and he was out of it. He was into some magic of his own. He had real magic. The man was a magician. He had beautiful magic.
Bob Kaufman died on January 12, 1986, of emphysema.