Analysis of Bob Kaufman’s Poems

As presented in Bob Kaufman’s (April 18, 1925 – January 12, 1986) Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, “Abomunist Manifesto” is a sequence of eleven parts. The title plays on The Communist Manifesto (1850) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but in the conversion of “com” to “abom,” Kaufman calls attention to the world’s focus on the A-bomb, or atomic bomb. The Abomunists contrast with communists and capitalists and have a modified language and special world perspective that Kaufman’s manifesto humorously and provocatively discloses. For example, the Abomunists “vote against everyone by not voting for anyone.” Never accepting candidacy, the Abomunists insist, “The only office Abomunists run for is the unemployment office.” The worldview of the Abomunists is suggested in apparent contradictions: “Abomunists do not feel pain, no matter how much it hurts.” Kaufman adds, “Laughter sounds orange at night, because/ reality is unrealizable while it exists.”

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Kaufman lends the sequence dramatic proportions when he indicates that the author is “Bomkauf,” apparently a fusion of “Bomb” and “Kaufman” that humorously suggests the atomic bomb and the author’s name, but also supplies a variation on dummkopf, a German word meaning idiot. Bomkauf extends the dramatic proportions of the poem when he indicates that “Further Notes,” the third part in the sequence, is “taken from ‘Abomunismus und Religion’ by Tom Man,” apparently a reference to Thomas Mann, and, for some readers, Tom Paine.

“Excerpts from the Lexicon Abomunon,” the fifth part of the sequence, is a brief comical dictionary of Abomunist terms “compiled by BIMGO,” or Bill Margolis, who, among others, collaborated with Kaufman on the editing of Beatitude, the mimeographed magazine in which “Abomunist Manifesto” first appeared. Kaufman’s lexical game is shown in entries such as “Abomunize,” which means “to carefully disorganize.” An “Abomunasium” is a “place in which abomunastics occur, such as bars, coffee shops, USO’s, juvenile homes, pads, etc.”

The speakers in “Still Further Notes Dis- and Re-Garding Abomunism” include Bomkauf (with his associates, since he says “We”), who provides an introductory passage for five diary entries by Jesus from “the Live Sea Scrolls.” The entries comically chronicle the last days of Jesus, who speaks in hipster language, complaining, “Barabbas gets suspended sentence and I make the hill. What a drag. Well, that’s poetry, and I’ve got to split now.”

For “Abominist Rational Anthem,” a sound poem that defies logical interpretation, Schroeder, the child pianist from the comic strip Peanuts, is cited as the composer of the music. “Abomunist Documents,” which includes two pieces of eighteenth century correspondence, one written by Hancock (founding father John Hancock) and the other by Benedict (traitor Benedict Arnold), is material that, according to Bomkauf, was “discovered during ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Draftdodger.” The final entry in “Abomunist Manifesto” is “Abomnewscast . . . on the Hour . . . ,” in which an unnamed newscaster presents comical headlines that refer to people, current events, and history. The newscast is “sponsored by your friendly neighborhood Abomunist.” Kaufman satirizes society’s quest for material gratification even as society stands on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse. The newscaster refers to a bomb shelter available in “decorator colors” with a “barbecue unit that runs on radioactivity.” In a cemetery, one can acquire “split-level tombs.” Norman Rockwell’s charming interpretation of American life in “The Spelling Bee” becomes “The Lynching Bee” in the newscast, and the image is so American that the Daughters of the American Revolution give the work an award. The world spins forward with its population explosion, Cold War, arms race, and television programs, and the newscaster warns that the pending “emergency signal” will not be a drill. He advises, “. . . turn the TV off and get under it.”

Bagel Shop Jazz

Kaufman frequented the Co-existence Bagel Shop in San Francisco, and the shop became a forum for his presentations. In “Bagel Shop Jazz,” Kaufman analyzes and describes the “shadow people” and the “nightfall creatures” who populate the bagel shop and give it a special atmosphere. Among the people at the shop are “mulberry-eyed girls in black stockings.” The girls are “love tinted” and “doomed,” yet “. . . they fling their arrow legs/ To the heavens,/ Losing their doubts in the beat.” There are also “angel guys” who have “synagogue eyes.” These men are “world travelers on the forty-one bus” and they blend “jazz with paint talk.” They are “lost in a dream world,/ Where time is told with a beat.” In contrast to the guys and girls are “coffee-faced Ivy Leaguers, in Cambridge jackets.” These men discuss “Bird and Diz and Miles” (jazz musicians Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and Miles Davis) and flash “cool hipster smiles” even as they hope that “the beat is really the truth.”

Though the community of bagel-shop patrons poses no apparent threat, these people become “brief, beautiful shadows, burned on walls of night” because “the Guilty police arrive” and end the interaction the bagel shop encourages. The patrons are probably Abomunistic in their attitude, and society, as represented by the police, cannot tolerate their individuality and edginess.

The Ancient Rain

The title poem of The Ancient Rain is topical and prophetic, satirical and tender, as well as symbolic and surreal. A prose poem set in stanzas that often begin with the refrain “The Ancient Rain . . . ,” Kaufman’s “The Ancient Rain” honors the history of the United States and decries social injustice. The falling of the Ancient Rain is an apocalyptic event that strikes down evil and honors the righteous. The Ancient Rain has godlike powers: “The Ancient Rain is supreme and is aware of all things that have ever happened.” Kaufman adds, “The Ancient Rain is the source of all things, the Ancient Rain knows all secrets, the Ancient Rain illuminates America.” Kaufman foresees a destructive world war, but he also sees that the Ancient Rain will prevail over the war, giving righteous triumph to those who are just.

Among the heroes Kaufman names in the poem are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nathan Hale, Crispus Attucks,Hart Crane, Federico García Lorca, Ulysses S.Grant, John Brown, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Among the villains are George Custer, D.W. Griffith, the members of the Ku Klux Klan, Julius Caesar, Robert E. Lee, warmongers, and bigoted and hypocritical immigrants. Kaufman draws his greatest inspiration from Attucks, the black man who was the first to die in the American Revolution, and García Lorca, whose poetry lifted Kaufman into “crackling blueness” and led him to “seek out the great Sun of the Center.”

Bibliography
Anderson, T. J. Notes to Make the Sound Come Right: Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004.
Christian, Barbara. “Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman?” In The Beats: Essays in Criticism, edited by Lee Bartlett. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1981.
Damon, Maria. “‘Unmeaning Jargon’/Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet.” In The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
_______, ed. “Bob Kaufman: Poet A Special Section.” Callaloo: A Journal of African American and African Arts and Letters 25, no. 1 (Winter, 2002): 105-231.
Henderson, David. Introduction to Cranial Guitar, by Bob Kaufman. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1996.
Kohli, Amor. “Black Skins, Beat Masks: Bob Kaufman and the Blackness of Jazz.” In Reconstructing the Beats. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Lawlor, William T. “Cranial Guitar.” In Masterplots II: African American Literature, edited by Tyrone Williams. Rev. ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2009.
Thomas, Lorenzo. “‘Communicating by Horns’: Jazz and Redemption in the Poetry of the Beats and the Black Arts Movement.” African American Review 26, no. 2 (1992): 291-299.
Winans, A. D. “Bob Kaufman.” American Poetry Review 29, no. 3 (May-June, 2000): 19-20.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry

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