Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Kaufman was an oral poet; that is, he recited his poems from memory in public, sometimes in clubs and cafés, sometimes on the streets. His process of composition was far from formal, and he often wrote poems on napkins or scraps of paper. He took no interest in developing a career as a writer and made little effort to gather his works or seek publication. His wife, Eileen, strove to create a written record of Kaufman’s poetry. In some instances, tape recordings of the poet’s readings were transcribed. Various poets and scholars maintained respect for Kaufman’s inventive imagination. Eileen Kaufman joined with Gerald Nicosia to gather works for Cranial Guitar, and with the cooperation of Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, Nicosia edited this volume of selected poems.

When Golden Sardine and Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness appeared, literary critics and academics found nothing worthy of attention. Because Kaufman was outlandish in his public recitations and rejected society’s conventions, he was an outsider—an easy target for abuse by police. Persistent in his dedication to poetry, Kaufman nevertheless won the respect of the bohemian community and now endures as a key figure among Beat writers.

Kaufman’s Jewish surname and varying descriptions of his heritage obscured the poet’s African American identity. Although he referred to the troubles of the South and the concerns of African Americans, he did not make African American issues the driving force of his work.

In American literature, Kaufman holds a strong place in the revival of oral poetry in the middle of the twentieth century. He was influenced by Andre Breton, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Guillaume Apollinaire, as well as a range of visual artists and jazz musicians. These influences led Kaufman to become a surrealist poet and jazz writer.