Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Lonely Rimbaud (Book review) by Alison Ross

Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness by Bob Kaufman
Reviewed by Alison Ross

To be called "The American Rimbaud" is an honor so coveted it would make my head swirl. These cerebral spinnings would cause me to lose all pretense of poise and soar into dimensions of euphoria scarcely apprehended by mortal souls.

Bob Kaufman, though, seemed to manage this praise pretty well. His established poetic persona was as a modern incarnation of the French forerunner of surrealism. His poetry called forth comparisons to Rimbaud, and he dealt with it. As far as I know, he was pleased with the comparisons, but did not allow them to disorient his (presumably stable) sense of self.

Rimbaud, for me, represents the be all and end all of poesie. His precociousness alone is staggering enough, but the darkly metaphysical verse he crafted, with its obsessive introspection, magical metaphors, dizzying phrasing, and jarring, otherworldly imagery, sends me reeling. Upon reading Rimbaud I feel violently ebullient, as though I can conquer the world with words.

So anyway. Bob Kaufman was one of the lesser known Beat poets, and yet he wore the mantle of "The American Rimbaud," a crass contradiction if there ever was one. Kaufman was the most versatile, the most original, frankly the most gifted of all the Beat poets, and yet Ginsberg, Kerouac et al were more well known.

Part of this must have to do with the fact that Kaufman did not seem to seek poetic notoriety, as he did not take the trouble to transcribe most of his verse to actual paper. Kaufman reveled in reciting his poetry out loud and that is where, I suppose, he believed that verse truly thrived. Perhaps for him poetry was an ephemeral whisper or shout rather than something that should be permanently inscribed and eternally enjoyed.

Luckily for us, Kaufman's wife saw fit to transcribe his poems to paper, and hence we have a few published collections of his mind-blowing verse to savor.

Solitudes Crowded with Verse is one of those collections. Here, Kaufman lays out wildly psychedelic rantings that alternate with more restrained pieces that calmly jolt the senses. His poetry is infused with jazz jargon and rhythms and swims in surrealistic visuals. Indeed, I would argue that Kaufman forged a hybrid genre with his poems - Beat Surrealism. While certainly other Beat poets sampled surrealism, Kaufman's verse is positively submerged in it. His poems are boisterously and whimsically surreal at times and yet charged with a lyrical elegance. To wit:

"My face is covered with dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
Bitter raisins drip haphazardly from my nostrils
While schools of glowing minnows swim from my mouth."

Such bizarre imagistic juxtapositions, of course, are what evoke the Rimbaud comparisons.

But Kaufman was so much more than that, too. He was a black poet among mostly white counterparts: And yet this fact is almost an afterthought, since he appears rarely to be grouped with African American writers. He was a political poet: His poems can be viciously anti-establishment. He was a zen poet: His pieces can showcase achingly mellow moods ("Sometimes, when the wind is blowing in my hair, I cry, because its coolness is too beautiful.") He was a funk poet, before funk even properly existed: His verse has a kinesthetic edge ("Black leather angels of/pop-bopping stallions searching/In the corners of peace/For violence/That exists/Deep in their/Own sexless breasts"). And so on.

Kaufman deserves to be more well known, but then, I think, he likely wouldn't want it this way. He likely preferred the paradox of his persona: being continually likened to a famous French author while not actively seeking celebrity. Poetry for him was, like with Rimbaud, a necessary means of expression, but not a vehicle for fame.

Indeed, at 21 Rimbaud abandoned poetry altogether. Kaufman wrote his verse on napkins and abandoned them at cafes.

Both poets should be revered, nonetheless, for their prodigiously visionary verse.

1 comment:

George said...

Nice tribute to Bob Kaufman, with appropriate reference to Rimbaud.