It is the birthday of the man who inspired the word “beatnik” in the 1950s: poet Bob Kaufman (books by this author), born Robert Garnell Kaufman, in New Orleans, Louisiana (1925). Kaufman’s mother was a Roman Catholic woman from Martinique who loved to play the piano and buy books at auctions. His father was a German Jew; “my Negro suit has Jew stripes,” Kaufman often said of his lineage. Details of his life are hazy because he didn’t keep a diary or leave behind any letters, and while he completed three volumes of poetry, he preferred to recite his poems in coffee houses rather than write them down.
As a teenager, he joined the Merchant Marine. In his 20 years as a sailor, he circled the globe nine times and survived four shipwrecks. On his first ship, the Henry Gibbons, he became friends with the first mate, who lent him books and encouraged him to read.
It was at sea when he first read about the Beat poets, many of whom also had maritime ambitions. Gary Snyder wanted to experience the culture in port cities around the world, and he worked as a seaman during the summer of 1948 and again in the mid-1950s. When Jack Kerouac, as a freshman at Columbia, failed chemistry and lost his scholarship, he joined the Merchant Marine to make money to re-enroll. Allen Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia for fighting with his dormitory housekeeper, and he followed Kerouac into the Merchant Marine. (Ginsberg tried marijuana for the first time on his maiden voyage.) When he was 22, Lawrence Ferlinghetti fell in love with the sea when he lived on the Maine coast for a summer and worked scraping moss off rocks. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enrolled in Midshipmen’s School and was deployed at different lighthouses and naval watch posts throughout World War II.
When Kaufman was back on land, he studied briefly at the New School in New York City, where he met William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg. The three eventually moved to San Francisco and joined Gregory Corso, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti to form the heart of the Beat movement.
Improvisational jazz influenced Kaufman’s street performances and earned him the nickname “The Original Bebop Man,” but it also earned him the attention of local police. In 1959, he was tossed into jail 39 times for disorderly conduct. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen said he had Kaufman’s spontaneous oral poetry in mind when he created the word “beatnik.”
Later, Kaufman cofounded Beatitude magazine, which helped launch the careers of many other poets, but he continued to live a mostly itinerant life, filled with drugs, a stint at Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent electroshock treatments, and continued police harassment. By the mid ’60s, he had published two volumes of poetry — Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and Golden Sardine (1967) — and in the early ’80s, his friends gathered old recordings and notes and had them published as The Ancient Rain: Poems 1958 – 1978 (1981).
When President Kennedy was shot in 1963, Kaufman took a vow of silence and didn’t speak again until he walked into a coffee shop in 1975 and recited his poem, “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” He said:
All those ships that never sailed
The ones with their seacocks open
That were scuttled in their stalls …
Today I bring them back
Huge and transitory
And let them sail
His wife encouraged Kaufman to write down his many poems, but he wished to stay hidden from history.
He said, “I want to be anonymous. My ambition is to be completely forgotten.”