As We Knew Him

Jazz, Jail and God: an Impressionistic Biography

of Bob Kaufman

By Mel Clay

Androgyne Books

Third printing, 2001

111 pages, $15


Special to the Beat


                April has come and gone. Bob Kaufman, eminent sprite-spirit-poet and author of the marvelous prose poem "Second April" may be gone, but he remains a blessing for these North Beach environs in May 2003 as I write. His remains remain.


                The poems he wrote blast off the pages of illuminated books, "Golden Sardine," "Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness" and "The Ancient Rain." These collections should be sought by all who live by the rhythms of the muse, suffused as they are with the authority of curious, original and unabashedly free-spirited "voice." In life, Kaufman helped make the streets of the North Beach he loved step lively 24 hours a day. Those of us who knew him could truly say that Bob Kaufman never closed down.



                A few years after Kaufman's death the poet and playwright Mel Clay wrote ."Jazz, Jail and God: an Impressionistic Biography of Bob Kaufman." Locally published, it rings a loud bell for the life of the poet in lyrical prose that is so much more captivating than the academic essays that pull Kaufman's poetic bones apart in a way that cannot give much of a roadmap to the truly spiritual essence of his work.


                Kaufman was a pagan in the way that Francois Villon was, or Rimbaud, two of his heroes. Yet there is a dimension of the sacred that permeates the work. "Creation is perfect," wrote Kaufman some years ago. He meant that a joyous creator throws him or herself into the deep vortex  of time and space, of language and memory, to come out with the gold, or, as he put it, "to be like a stone."


                Mel Clay adds his own wild and wise hand to the ever-emerging myth of Bob Kaufman, the Beat poet. Knowing Bob personally, he gives us a vision of the poet's soul. This is a biography that is more than just impressionistic, as the title suggests, but it also is like a long jazz riff cutting down through the beatitudes to touch us all. I can only recommend that the reader of Bob Kaufman pick up Clay's book to enhance the reading of the poet and the poet's poem.

Neeli Cherkovski is writer in residence at New College of California where he teaches literature and philosophy. His latest book of poems, "Einstein Alive, "

will be published later this spring.


Page 14 North Beach Beat June 2003