"I want to be anonymous…My ambition is to be completely forgotten."

Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, one of twelve children of a half black, half-Jewish Pullman car porter and a black schoolteacher from Martinique. He served in the merchant marines for twenty years and became involved in union organizing, political activism, and the jazz scene on both coasts. He finally settled in San Francisco, married a Irish woman named Eileen Singe, and had a son, Parker, named after jazz musician Charlie Parker.

Kaufman quickly became an integral part of the San Francisco counterculture, operating mostly around the Co-Existence Bagel Shop in North Beach. His outrageous antics, including jumping on tables and cars to shout poetry, made him a target (as did his interracial marriage) for police beatings, harassment, and arrest. In 1959 alone, he was arrested almost forty times, including once for urinating on an especially offensive policeman. This was the guy Herb Caen was thinking about when he coined the term "beatnik".

Kaufman (a devout Buddhist) was so stunned by the assassination of President Kennedy that he took a vow of silence and kept it for ten years. He surprised everyone by, on the day the Vietnam War ended, suddenly jumping up at an exhibition and reciting first the speech of Thomas à Becket from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and then his own poem, "All those ships that never sailed".

He remains the most underrated of the Beat poets, far more appreciated in France, where they call him "the American Rimbaud", than he is in the United States. He did not promote himself, and in fact did everything he could to remain unknown. He wrote down relatively few of his poems, preferring oral performance to the written word. Many of the ones we do have were transcribed by his wife or from tape recordings of poetry readings. This is a terrible shame, because his poetry is a potent mix of surrealism, jazz rhythm, improvisation, and spontaneity, and his African American and Creole roots.

He died in 1986 of emphysema. In New Orleans, a marching band paraded down Grant Avenue to the Marina Green, where three boats waited. His ashes were scattered in the bay and a huge rainbow appeared in the sky.

"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 magic. The man was a magician. He had beautiful magic." – Jack Micheline

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