The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cranial Guitar is a posthumous collection of poems by Bob Kaufman that includes all of the poems from Golden Sardine (1967), selections from Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965), selections from The Ancient Rain: Poems, 1956-1978 (1981), and additional works previously unpublished in book form. The poems in Golden Sardine challenge readers with unconventional expression, even absurdity, but Kaufman’s purpose is to affirm life. In “Carl Chessman Interviews the P.T.A. in His Swank Gas Chamber Before Leaving on His Annual Inspection of Capital, Tour of Northern California Death Universities, Happy,” Kaufman protests the state’s execution of Chessman, asserting, “No one is guilty of anything at any time anywhere in anyplace, ask those Hebrew ecstatics up there on the trees of sorrow.” In “The Enormous Gas Bill at the Dwarf Factory. A Horror Movie to Be Shot With Eyes,” Kaufman produces an absurd film scenario that resumes his challenge of the death penalty for Chessman. Kaufman pays homage to the executed Chessman, who “was an American buffalo filled with glistening embryos.”

Kaufman’s protests against capital punishment leave him uncertain and troubled. Kaufman, in “A Terror Is More Certain,” says, “I want to be allowed not to be.” In “Walking Hot Seasons,” the poet confesses, “Everything that never happened is my fault.” In “Results of a Lie Detector Test,” Kaufman regretfully says he has “stolen a month” and “faces the accusing fingers of children who will never be born.” He pledges not to repeat his theft of a month, but qualifies his pledge, admitting that desperation may drive him to repeat the act.

Emerging from doubt, Kaufman finds joy in love and jazz. In “Come,” he proclaims, “All that I touch,/ Blossoms from/ a thorn,/ arosearose.” In “Round About Midnight,” jazz references combine with references to “a jazz type chick” to create an atmosphere of music and intimacy. This combination of jazz and sensuality recurs in “Jazz Chick,” a poem that speaks of “Rivulets of trickling ecstasy/ From the alabaster pools of Jazz.”


(The entire section is 887 words.)

Cranial Guitar Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Anderson, T. J. “Body and Soul: Bob Kaufman’s Golden Sardine.” African American Review 34, no. 2 (2000): 329-347. Studies Kaufman’s appropriation of the rhythms and tones of jazz.

Cherkovski, Neeli. “Celebrating Second April: Bob Kaufman.” In Whitman’s Wild Children. Venice, Calif.: Lapis Press, 1988. Cherkovski recalls his friendship with Kaufman.

Christian, Barbara. “Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman.” In The Beats: Essays in Criticism, edited by Lee Bartlett. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1981. Calls attention to the importance of social protest and jazz in Kaufman’s work.

Damon, Maria. “Bob Kaufman, Poet: A Special Section.” Callaloo: A Journal of African American and African Arts and Letters 25, no. 1 (Winter, 2002): 105-231. This special section in Callaloo presents articles on Bob Kaufman by Aldon Lynn Nielsen, James Smethurst, Amor Kohli, Jeffrey Falla, Rod Hernandez, and Horace Coleman.

Henderson, David. Introduction to Cranial Guitar, edited by Gerald Nicosia. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1996. Summarizes Kaufman’s career and quotes extensively from a two-hour radio documentary on Kaufman.

Kohli, Amor. “Black Skins, Beat Masks: Bob Kaufman and the Blackness of Jazz.” In Reconstructing the Beats. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Sees Kaufman’s use of jazz performance as a form of protest.

Thomas, Lorenzo. “’Communicating by Horns’: Jazz and Redemption in the Poetry of the Beats and the Black Arts Movement.” African American Review 26, no. 2 (1992): 291-299. Draws a connection between jazz artists and the rebellion against conformity.

Winans, A. D. “Bob Kaufman.” American Poetry Review 29, no. 3 (May/June, 2000): 19-20. Offers a compact review of Kaufman’s life.