Golden Sardine

Golden Sardine by Bob Kaufman


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  • Chapbook
    Golden Sardine

    Golden Sardine is a full-length collection by the poet Bob Kaufman (1925 – 1986) that was released nationally by City Lights in its first printing in 1967. While Golden Sardine exceeds the shorter page count and limited print run that traditionally distinguishes a chapbook from a standard collection, the book is central to our Chapbooks of the Mimeo Revolution project in representing the ways in which independent presses grew out of local literary communities, providing outlets to voices operating outside of literature’s mainstream and ultimately expanding and diversifying literary histories. Scholar and poet Maria Damon, who has written extensively on the Beat Generation and Bob Kaufman, provides an overview of this book and the poet himself. 

    Golden Sardine by Bob Kaufman was published as #21 in City Lights’ Pocket Poets series. Kaufman had already entered a long period of silence that extended from 1963 to 1972, during which he published nothing and appears to have written little, though previously unpublished poems were included in his 1981 volume The Ancient Rain

    Artist Mary Beach, who worked in in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights publishing office, discovered the manuscript of Golden Sardine and insisted on its high literary value (because of Kaufman’s debt to Dada and the Surrealists, she considered his work superior even to Ginsberg’s). Her husband, the poet and translator Claude Pélieu, published it in French before Beach urged Ferlinghetti to issue it in his famous series, one of the foundational publishing imprints of Beat literature. Kaufman was well-known in Beat circles in San Francisco’s North Beach scene, but this was his only City Lights book during his lifetime. The press also published notable broadsides of his poems “Abomunist Manifesto,” “Second April,” and “Does the Secret Mind Whisper?”. Later this year, City Lights will release the Collected Works of Bob Kaufman.

    Golden Sardine is Kaufman’s second of three full-length, nationally-released books, wedged between Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981), both published by New Directions. (Coffee House Press’s Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman would be published posthumously in 1995.) It marks a clear progression from a more tightly lyrical style to a longer, more open line and an increasingly adventurous approach to form, possibly influenced, like Ginsberg’s “America,” by the socially oriented comedians at the time, especially Lenny Bruce, but consistent in the manically biting, surrealistic social humor, jazz-immersive sensibility, and subtle, introspective expressions of deep pain that marks all his work.

    The first and third pieces especially, “Carl [sic] Chessman interviews the P.T.A. in his swank gas chamber…” and “The Enormous Gas Bill at the Dwarf Factory: A Horror Movie to be Shot with Eyes,” both of which riff on the notorious Caryl Chessman case, the latter in filmic format (“Reel I,” “Reel II,” and so on), take the form of dramatic shtick to the edges of permissible satire of the time. With mordant wit, they imitate the language of newscasts and continue the satirical antics of Solitudes’ “Abomunist Manifesto,” also a stand-alone City Lights broadside, which in its time was as acclaimed, popular, and iconic of Beat literature as “Howl.”

    Between these tours de force and the final, devastating poem in the form of a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, Kaufman includes a series of fragments, looped experiments, more conventional lyrics, and, as is to be expected from him, a substantial number of jazz poems that not only explicitly thematize bebop and its adjacent subgenres, but also enact the spirit of improvisation-on-a-motif, collectivity, and virtuosity of his favorite subject.  Possibly the most experimental of these is “Crootey Songo,” a nonsensical sound poem that approximates and suggests, without exactly duplicating, extant scat-singing conventions and jive argot’s extensive drug vocabulary. Participating in a tradition of African American humorous-but-provocative sound poems intended to decolonize language and/or mess with the oppressor’s relationship to his own language through a radical estrangement (a tradition that includes Langton Hughes’s “Syllabic Poem”), “Crootey Songo,” first included in the “Abomunist Manifesto” under a different title, was later used as the epigraph for one of the volumes of Ishmael Reed’s journal Yardbird/Y’bird (1977–1979). Other poems, such as “A Terror is More Certain,” “Tidal Friction” with its trenchant lines “The Tragedy is, an over abundance …. of color, & a total lack of black,” and “Unhistorical Events,” reference the nightmarish aspect of American life that is never far below any linguistic or experiential surface for him. Still others bear his characteristic dissociative perspective: “I wish that whoever it is inside me, / would stop all that moving around” (“I WISH…”).

    The final poem of the book, “Oct. 5, 1963,” a letter Kaufman sent (or at least addressed) to the San Francisco Chronicle about his return to San Francisco to a “blacklist and eviction,” is a serious, non-ironic, but still linguistically playful indictment of an American social context that simply cannot recognize his centrality to the fabric of its being.  He continues, “One thing is certain I am not white. Thank God for that. It makes everything else bearable.” Asking then rhetorically, “Why are all blacklists white?” the poet goes on to brilliantly posit a continuum between silence, the pulsations of history and culture, and the figure of the black poet/himself, while also subtly reminding the California to which he has recently returned of the inevitability of a (social? musical? racial? even geological) earthquake:

    Perhaps because…the colors of an earthquake are black, brown and beige, on the Ellington scale, such sweet thunder, there is a silent beat in between the drums.

    That silent beat makes the drumbeat, it makes the drum, it makes the beat. Without it there is no drum, no beat. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. His is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in beatween, its sound is

                                                                            Bob Kaufman, Poet

    Though the “vow of silence” kicked in a bit less than two months after this powerful declaration, silence is configured in Golden Sardine’s final salvo as a powerful prima causa, the ultimate weapon of the poet, who embodies the beaten drum, as well as the force that precedes, subtends, and survives all historically abusive noise. Golden Sardine holds this transitional and foundational inbeatween space in Kaufman’s oeuvre, the tight, slight, silent center that radiates—under its cool, self-protective, golden skin of humor—life, mystery, ambiguous death, and most of all, poetry.

    Maria Damon is a Professor at Pratt Institute in the Department of Humanities and Media Studies, as well as in the Writing Department. She is the author of two books of poetry scholarship, The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry and Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries. She is also the co-author (with mIEKAL aND and Jukka-Pekka Kervinen) of several books, online and in print, of poetry; author of two chapbooks of cross-stitch visual poetry; and co-editor (with Ira Livingston) of Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader.


    Bob Kaufman

    Bob Kaufman (1925–1986) was a founding architect and exemplar of the sensibility of the Beat Generation, a Cold War sub- and counter-cultural phenomenon that attempted to embody dissent in artistic and everyday practice; New York and San Francisco were its primary sites. However, as a Black poet in America, he also suffered from the racism–sometimes romantic Negrophilia and sometimes out-and-out violent prejudice–of his mostly white milieu. Subsequently, he has been overshadowed by his white, formally-educated confrères Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. In addition to his status as a Beat poet, Kaufman participates in a lineage of New World Afro-diasporic surrealists, including Aimé Cèsaire, Ted Joans, Wilson Harris, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, Kamau Brathwaite, and Will Alexander. His work was anthologized by Langston Hughes, Clarence Major, LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, and Dudley Randall in a range of African American poetry anthologies, and he has been closely studied by not only the Black Arts poets of the 1960s and 1970s, but by subsequent poetry collectives such as Umbra and the Darkroom Collective.

    Bob Kaufman at Cafe Trieste-Copyright A.D. WinanThe details of Bob Kaufman’s life have been enhanced, occluded, and/or drenched in mystique (some of it self-generated) that is only now starting to find a comfortable ratio of fact to legend, thanks in part to Billy Woodberry’s haunting 2015 documentary on Kaufman, And when I die, I won’t stay dead, and to scholars such as Mona Lisa Saloy and James Smethurst. Kaufman’s thumbnail profile, as it appeared in his books and still in some online bios, tells us that he was born and raised in New Orleans, one of thirteen children, to a German-Jewish father and a “Roman Catholic voodoo mother from Martinique,” and that he served in the Merchant Marines for twenty years. In fact, he was brought up in a high-achieving, middle-class Black Catholic family with a schoolteacher mother from the prominent Vigne family and a father who was either a Pullman porter or a waiter in a high-end restaurant. Kaufman became a union activist for the National Maritime Union (in which he served for far fewer than twenty years), which led to his being blacklisted when the AFL and CIO merged; left-leaning elements of the union were driven out, and people of color were systematically purged from leadership positions. After a period stumping for Henry Wallace in the South, he reinvented himself as a Beat poet in the late 1950s in San Francisco.

    bob kaufman with beatsAt the Beat movement’s apex (1955–1960), Kaufman was a central and galvanizing poetic force on the streets of San Francisco’s North Beach district. His broadside “Abomunist Manifesto” rivaled Ginsberg's “Howl” in its status as signature Beat text, and the term “beatnik” was coined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen to describe Kaufman. In 1959 Kaufman co-founded the significant Beat mimeo-journal Beatitude, which has continued to appear sporadically into the present day. While he was known for his brilliant improvisatory riffs on extant literary texts, which he folded into his own in an avant-la-lettre form of rap-style sampling, he also composed at the typewriter and longhand, leaving the collection and publication of these documents to others.

    Kaufman's first book, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965), was compiled, edited, and sent off to New Directions publishers by his wife Eileen Kaufman, and his second volume Golden Sardine would be published by City Lights in 1967. But by 1963, Bob Kaufman had lapsed into a silence that lasted approximately ten years. This long period of silence has been variously characterized as a formal “Buddhist vow” in response to his grief and disillusionment after the Kennedy assassination and also as a less formal result of the grief and disillusionment attendant on being a frequently beaten and jailed Black person in the United States. He occasionally mourned what he believed to be the loss of his considerable lyrical powers. “I want Bob Kaufman back,” he would sometimes say in his later years, even after the spell of silence was broken.


    Kaufman’s career underwent something of a revival in the early 1980s, when Raymond Foye helped him to get an NEA grant that resulted in the gathering and publication of The Ancient Rain. In September 1981, Kaufman read in public for the first time in many years at the San Francisco Art Institute with fellow surrealist Philip Lamantia, a major occasion captured by Gerry Nicosia’s TV film West Coast: Beat and Beyond. Bob Kaufman never really lost Bob Kaufman. His visionary writing became, if anything, more urgent and incendiary over the course of his life, culminating in “The Ancient Rain,” the bicentennial poem that crowns the final and eponymous book. Figuring a position that flickered between the spontaneity of the “live performance,” the historically urgent topicality of broadsides and other ephemera, and the seriously and self-consciously “literary,” Bob Kaufman’s contribution to the postwar era continues to resist categories and inform American poetics.

    —Maria Damon

    Maria Damon is a Professor at Pratt Institute in the Department of Humanities and Media Studies, as well as in the Writing Department. She is the author of two books of poetry scholarship, The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry and Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries. She is also the co-author (with mIEKAL aND and Jukka-Pekka Kervinen) of several books, online and in print, of poetry; author of two chapbooks of cross-stitch visual poetry; and co-editor (with Ira Livingston) of Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader.

    City Lights

    Ferlinghetti_In_Front_Of_City_LightsCity Lights has been a revered independent bookstore and publisher of innovative writing for over 60 years. Poet and writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded the bookstore in 1953 with Peter D. Martin; two years later, Ferlinghetti took over as sole owner and established City Lights Publishers, carrying forth a vision for both enterprises as avenues for the dissemination of progressive, countercultural literature and ideas. The press became a propelling force of the Mimeo Revolution, putting young avant-garde American authors, including the Beats, into print for the first time for national audiences to discover, as well as publishing leading experimental writers from around the world.

    Born in Bronxville, New York, in 1919, Lawrence Ferlinghetti grew up between New York and Strasbourg, France. He studied journalism at the University of North Carolina in 1941 and joined the Navy during World War II. On his return to the U.S., thanks to the G.I. Bill, he completed a master’s degree at Columbia in English Literature, then a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris. Again returning to the U.S., he would move to San Francisco. He explained: “I was from New York and I tried to settle down there at the end of the war. I tried to get a job at publishers and newspapers, but everything was sewed up. Whereas in San Francisco, it was still wide open. It was still the last frontier in the ‘40s. It seemed like it was possible to do anything you wanted to out here.”Poets at City Lights

    Once settled on the West Coast, Ferlinghetti set about creating a meeting place for writers to gather and for new writing to be discovered with the establishment of the bookstore. Originally called City Lights Pocket Bookshop, it sold only paperback books, a choice intended to broaden the audience for literary work. Ferlinghetti has said that “the idea for the bookstore was to have it function like a community center.” Unlike most bookstores at the time, City Lights was open on weekends and late into the night, encouraging greater access. The store policy was to let people stay and read for as long as they liked. Furthermore, they stocked periodicals—another uncommon practice—that focused on radical politics, and Ferlinghetti has said that the Italian immigrant population of North Beach would flock to get the Italian anarchist newspapers unavailable anywhere else.

    howl-ginsberg-city-lights-pocket-poetsThe press, established in the basement of the bookstore, grew out of this interest in creating alternative communities for writers and political thinkers in resistance to the cultural conservatism of the early postwar era. “It was an attempt to record a certain dissident part of the voice of our time,” as Ferlinghetti put it. It began with the Pocket Poets Series in 1955—a series of distinctive small-format books by contemporary poets and writers—and soon widened its list to include not only literary poetry and novels but also works on environmental and political issues.

    The Pocket Poets Series set the stage for the press’s political and social engagement. The first book in the series was Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World (1955). The following year saw Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956) as Number 4 in the series, after Ferlinghetti heard Ginsberg perform the poem at the Six Gallery. This publication thrust the young press into a maelstrom of controversy; Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried on charges of obscenity in 1957. He was acquitted, and the trial proved to be a milestone in the protection of the freedom of artistic expression.

    The press would become the epicenter of the San Francisco literary scene of the 1950s and 60s, and was well-known nationally for publishing Beat writers, such as Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg—subversive American voices that exemplified City Lights’ efforts to provide an alternative literary outlet. And it introduced international poets to U.S. readers through such works as New Young German Poets (1959), edited by Jerome Rothenberg, and Red Cats (1962), featuring poems by three PicturesoftheGoneWorldhi-748x1024Russian poets—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, and Semyon Kirsanov—edited and translated by Anselm Hollo. Ultimately, City Lights extended the dissident tone of the Beats into an international literary network intent on questioning convention.

    Ferlinghetti’s active life as a poet, artist, and activist would take him around the globe, informing the scope of the press over the next several decades. He is the author of over a dozen books, and his volume A Coney Island of the Mind has sold over a million copies. In the 1970s, Nancy Peters, a former librarian at the Library of Congress, came on as an editor for City Lights, becoming a co-owner in 1984 until she retired in 2007. Elaine Katzenberger, who joined the bookstore staff in 1987, moved over to the publishing side in 1994, where she would take over as publisher and executive director. City Lights continues to thrive, with some 200 books in print. Its bookstore remains a landmark destination for writers worldwide.

    The press’s devotion to radical poetries endures with the publication of books by new generations of groundbreaking authors, including social justice advocates, LGTBQ voices, and experimental writers across genres. City Lights also maintains its commitment to the anti-establishment voices it first brought to light in the middle of the 20th century. In late 2019, City Lights will publish the Collected Works of Bob Kaufman.

    —Co-written by Suzanne Wise, Staff Writer at Poets House, and Jessica Fletcher, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint project with the CUNY Graduate Center. 

    Rachel Eliza Griffiths & Kevin Young Read from Golden Sardine

    You can find recordings of poets Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Kevin Young reading poems from Golden Sardine by turning to the respective pages of the digitized volume and clicking on the Listen arrow in the lower left corner.

    Griffiths reads “Come” (page 27),  “Cocoa Morning” (page 32), “‘Michaelangelo’ The Elder” (page 34), “Believe, Believe” (page 48), and “When We Hear the Eye Open . . .” (page 63). Young reads “Crootey Songo” (page 54) and “Heavy Water Blues” (page 60).

    Special note: At the conclusion of the “Heavy Water Blues” recording, click twice on the Listen arrow to activate the recording of “When We Hear the Eye Open . . .” on the opposing page.

    Kevin Young on Bob Kaufman & the Blues Form

    In this excerpt from a talk at Poets House in 2004, Kevin Young discusses Bob Kaufman's long lines and their relationship to the blues form, turning to “Heavy Water Blues” as one example. The talk was later developed into "Broken Giraffe," a chapter on Kaufman in Young's book The Grey Album (Graywolf, 2012).