Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bob Kaufman - Part One

One of the more unfortunate aspects of Spicer Mania during the past ten years has been the long shadow it has cast upon the careers of certain other San Francisco poets who have not enjoyed the same kind of stellar biographical and editorial treatment. I think particularly of Bob Kaufman, who was born the same year as Spicer, and who like him hung out on Grant Avenue, read poems at the Coffee Gallery, and worshipped Bacchus immoderately in North Beach in the late 50's and early 60's.

More than Spicer, Kaufman was really up against it, suffering mental distress that probably not many of us would be able to endure—poverty, drugs, jail-time, involuntary electroshock therapy, more or less the whole panoply of mid-century American punitive psychoterror. It may be that the extremely uneven quality of Bob Kaufman's work reflects his struggles, and yet he managed to bring off a few really masterful poems, such as:


Sweet beats of jazz impaled on slivers of wind
Kansas Black Morning/ First Horn Eyes/
Historical sound pictures on New Bird wings
People shouts/ boy alto dreams/ Tomorrow’s
Gold belled pipe of stops and future Blues Times
Lurking Hawkins/ shadows of Lester/ realization
Bronze fingers —brain extensions seeking trapped sounds
Ghetto thoughts/ bandstand courage/ solo flight
Nerve-wracked suspicions of newer songs and doubts
New York altar city/ black tears/ secret disciples
Hammer horn pounding soul marks on unswinging gates
Culture gods/ mob sounds/ visions of spikes
Panic excursions to tribal Jazz wombs and transfusions
Heroin nights of birth/ and soaring/ over boppy new ground.
Smothered rage covering pyramids of notes spontaneously exploding
Cool revelations/ shrill hopes/ beauty speared into greedy ears
Birdland nights on bop mountains, windy saxophone revolutions.
Dayrooms of junk/ and melting walls and circling vultures/
Money cancer/ remembered pain/ terror flights/
Death and indestructible existence

In that Jazz corner of life
Wrapped in a mist of sound
His legacy, our Jazz-tinted dawn
Wailing in his triumphs of oddly begotten dreams
Inviting the nerveless to feel once more
That fierce dying of humans consumed
In raging fires of Love.

One has to know first of all that Bob’s son Parker is named after Charlie Parker, and that the title suggests that father and son are walking home together, so one might guess that the musician’s “legacy, our Jazz-tinted dawn,” is being transmitted here from father to son.

What jazz actually meant to this generation of North Beach poets has been told many times, not the least in Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody," but in this poem a line is drawn from the sax players Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young to Bird Parker’s “boppy new sound,” all arisen from the pain of “ghetto thoughts” and “black tears.” This “Jazz corner of life” is nightmarish: it is filled with dayrooms of junk, melting walls, circling vultures, money cancer and flights of terror.

But as for John Coltrane, it is also a place of redemption, a place where the dying of humans is consumed in raging fires of Love, where a Jazz-tinted dawn might arise even in the hearts of the nerveless.

Bob Kaufman reads at The Coffee Gallery in 1959. Note photographer Imogen Cunningham seated on the right. Photo by C.R. Snyder, many thanks to FoundSF. Click to embiggen.

[Walking Parker Home is included in Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, New Directions, © 1965 by Bob Kaufman. The poem appears also in The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, 2006.]

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