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Bob Kaufman (1925–1986) was an American Beat poet and surrealist inspired by jazz music. In his lifetime, he was an influential, albeit underground, figure in the Beat movement and was known as the "black American Rimbaud."

Literary Background

Born in New Orleans to a German Jewish father and an African American mother, Kaufman was immersed in a multiplicity of cultural influences from a young age. His exposure to jazz, with its inherent complexity and improvisational style, profoundly shaped his aesthetic sensibilities. He joined the Merchant Marine as a young man, which allowed him to travel extensively and deepen his exposure to various cultures and literary traditions.

Early Influences

Kaufman’s early influences include the surrealists, particularly André Breton and Aimé Césaire, the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, and the jazz music that permeated his home city. The improvisational nature of jazz is evident in his spontaneous, free-flowing poetic form.

Poetic Schools or Movements

Closely associated with the Beat Generation, Kaufman's poetry embodied the spirit of non-conformity and countercultural protest that characterized the Beats. His work reflects the movement’s fascination with spirituality, its embrace of spontaneity, and its resistance to societal norms. He was also heavily influenced by Surrealism, which can be seen in the dreamlike, often illogical sequences in his poetry, and by Buddhism, which informed the spiritual quest evident in his work.

Poetic Oeuvre

Kaufman's poetry is noted for its oral quality; in fact, he often performed his poetry in the coffee shops of San Francisco's North Beach and rarely wrote his poems down. His first collection, "Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness," was published in 1965. He produced a significant body of work, including two more collections, "Golden Sardine" and "The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956–1978."

Themes in Kaufman’s poetry include:

*Jazz and Improvisation: His work is often likened to jazz, particularly in its rhythmical complexity and spontaneous creation.

*Social Critique: Kaufman’s poems frequently address issues of racism, poverty, and social injustice.

*Existentialism: There is a strong element of existential thought, reflecting on the absurdity of life and the search for meaning.

*Spirituality: His poetry often touches on spiritual themes, reflecting his interest in Buddhist philosophy.


Kaufman’s influence is seen in the way he combined the rhythms and improvisational aspects of jazz with surrealist techniques to create a distinctive form of American poetry. While not as widely recognized as other Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, Kaufman's work has a fervent following among those who celebrate his innovative style and his contribution to the legacy of African American literature.


During his lifetime, Kaufman did not receive significant formal recognition, and he remained largely outside the mainstream literary scene. However, his work has been increasingly acknowledged posthumously for its contribution to American poetry and the Beat movement.


Bob Kaufman's poetry is an amalgam of the rich cultural influences he absorbed throughout his life, from jazz to surrealism. His work captures the essence of the Beat Generation’s spirit—its defiance, its experimentalism, and its relentless quest for freedom. Although his name may not be as familiar as some of his contemporaries, Kaufman's poetic voice remains unique, resonating through the subversive undercurrents of American poetry. His legacy lives on in the spontaneity and vibrancy of his verse and the influence he continues to have on poets and artists seeking to capture the ineffable in their work.

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