Remembering Bob Kaufman

Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) photo: Robert E Johnson)

April 18 is the birthday of the late great Bob Kaufman  Cranial Guitar, his Selected Poems from Coffee House Press, is certainly a good place to start – and check out in there the very useful (28-page) introduction by poet David Henderson (in fact, check out, if you can find it, Henderson’s 1991 NPR documentary (co-produced with Vic Bedoian), “Bob Kaufman, Poet”, it’s a remarkable work in and of itself). Another useful secondary source is A.D. Winans memoir, posted hereJack Hirschman, at the “Does The Secret Mind Whisper?” celebrations, a few years back, adds his thoughts, and Harryette Mullen, both sets the scene and reads Kaufman’s immortal “All Those Ships That Never Sailed”.

Here’s Marty Matz giving a spirited reading of “The Poet” and Ian Dury (we’ve featured him here before, reading Gregory Corso), giving a quirky-but-effective reading of “Bagel Shop Jazz”, but the real treat is the voice of the man himself, buried away on this little gem, following a talk (similarly rare) by another San Francisco legend, Philip Lamantia.

The seminal Beatitude magazine was begun in 1959 with John Kelley, William Margoll and Allen. (“Kaufman was there on the mimeo machine, doing the actual work of putting out Beatitude. I think that was the first time I met him”). “We’re blessed by the ghost of Bob Kaufman who’s spirit exists ever breathing in the earth” – Mel Clay, in his “Impressionistic” biography, Jazz – Jail and God, quotes Allen’s estimation.

Happy Birthday in Eternity, Bob.


  1. Which reminds me, the Foye-edited Kaufman collection The Ancient Rain (New Directions, 1981) is still in print, inexpensive and a remarkable read.

  2. Thanks for your query, Ulrich. We ran this by Bob's editor (for "The Ancient Rain"), Raymond Foye,
    who had this to say:
    ""All the ships" was composed on the tongue circa 1973 and came out in a North Beach poetry anthology not too lang after that. I agree the similarities are uncanny. Bob could well have borrowed and riffed on the Leonard Cohen text. In fact Bob really disliked it when people taped him & transcribed the poems because often he was freely quoting other poets as was his manner, and when the material got published with his name on it, he would get mad, because it made it look like he was the author, and he knew he was not. He was a sampler before it was fashionable!"
    Hope this clears up some of your perplexity. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  3. I have found a song by Leonard Cohen, “The flowers that I left in the ground”, published in 1961, which correlates astonishingly to Kaufman’s “All those ships that never sailed”. Can you please tell me, when Kaufman wrote his?

    Here is Cohens poem:
    The flowers that I left in the ground
    By Leonard Cohen
    The flowers that I left in the ground,
    that I did not gather for you,
    today I bring them all back,
    to let them grow forever,
    not in poems or marble,
    but where they fell and rotted.
    And the ships in their great stalls,
    huge and transitory as heroes,
    ships I could not captain,
    today I bring them back
    to let them sail forever,
    not in model or ballad,
    but where they were wrecked and scuttled.
    And the child on whose shoulders I stand,
    whose longing I purged
    with public, kingly discipline,
    today I bring him back
    to languish forever,
    not in confession or biography,
    but where he flourished,
    growing sly and hairy.
    It is not malice that draws me away,
    draws me to renunciation, betrayal:
    it is weariness, I go for weariness of thee,
    Gold, ivory, flesh, love, God, blood, moon—
    I have become the expert of the catalogue.
    My body once so familiar with glory,
    My body has become a museum:
    this part remembered because of someone’s mouth,
    this because of a hand,
    this of wetness, this of heat.
    Who owns anything he has not made?
    With your beauty I am as uninvolved
    as with horses’ manes and waterfalls.
    This is my last catalogue.
    I breathe the breathless
    I love you, I love you—
    and let you move forever.

    Kindest regards

  4. I don't doubt Bob was paraphrasing Leonard Cohen's poem. When Bob recited poetry he used to mix his own work with other poems he loved: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Charles Olson, Stephen Spender, Langston Hughes, Lorca etc., It actually used to bother him quite a bit when people would record or transcribe those recitations, and then publish them (as happened with the Janice Blue chapbook), because it made it look like he was plagiarizing other poets, when in fact he was not. It was a mix of his work & others and quite intentional. He once told me that all poetry was out there in the world, swirling around his head, and he just reached out and grabbed the images.

  5. Maybe you could explain the meaning the third and the sixth (the last) stanzas of Bob Kaufman's "…All Those Ships That Never Sailed…": what allusions there are made ("All in three flag swept days…" and "dancing" "Jewish queen"), or, in other words, how do you interpret those lines? Maybe Mr.Foye could elaborate on that?

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