19 March 2008

Cranial Guitar - Kaufman, Bob

This is a guest review by Sean Arnold. Check out sean at casinotown. He has a new book put out by sticks&stones books and casinotown press.

Upon reviewing this review, I find that as Wikepedia suggests, “the neutrality of this article is questionable”, but since there is no such thing as a “fair and balanced opinion” anyways, (FUCK YOU FOXNEWS) only silly attempts, I am surging ahead...
I ordered Bob Kauffman's Cranial Guitar off amazon.com about a month ago for cheap (the used book was actually cheaper than the shipping costs) and in lou of actually mentioning the title of the work, i did my own, inferior version of Kauffman and just went off. If you really want to know, cranial guitar is one of those "selected poems" which is like "greatest hits" for poetry, so I'm torn. On one hand, my intellect is fuckin hungry and I like to devour as much substance as quickly as possible, but on the other, I was the type of kid who would never listen to a song without first hearing the entire album over and over again refusing to evaluate it except in the greater context of the whole work. So really I'd recommend "Ancient Rain" or"Solititudes Crowded With Lonliness" before this particular work. But really Bob Kauffman kicks ass. Seriously, his barroom antics are apparrently legend.

At the st. louis poetry slam a couple months ago, I remember distinctly a poem titled “word jazz”, the poet’s white bald head reflected the rafter lights, the poem itself was pretty good, the poet obviously with a good grasp of words. What was questionable was his grasp of the term “jazz” since the poem mainly rambled off a bunch of classic rock stalwarts as its subjects, albeit in a clever order, and punctuated its catchy chorus with the words “word jazz”.

I’m an amateur regarding the term jazz, but I enjoy it and know what it means, both the music and jazz as image, synonym for a certain type of poetic spontaneity mostly showcased in a titanic movement of American poetry that if you are reading this, you should be familiar with. Bob Kauffman is definitely a member of this poetic movement, but more important, he is a jazz poet, or a poet of jazz, and he has the movement to prove it. Not the way that Kerouac was jazzy, name-checking prominent jazz musicians, describing their vibe, attempting to imitate their sounds in a deft, incredibly pleasant but ultimately, incomprehensible fashion. Kauffman riffs off of subjects the way Jazz musicians riff off of a compositional theme or Kerouac would riff off of a word or a sound, and his poetic compositions, in the order their words are placed, are both logical, non-sensical and shocking, highly rhythmic and disjointed, a cut-up consciousness that ultimately responded to a higher order of being. He was an originator and vessel for his poetry and unlike Jack Kerouac, he did not spell out his method to composition, just did it.
Sometimes it’s necessary to mention tidbits from a poet’s life to understand their work, most of the time it’s not, but to understand the jist of Kaufman, I like to recall something I read from the P.O.V. of Ken Kesey’s first meeting with Kaufman, in which Kauffman accosted Kesey in his car, knocking on his window and when Kesey met Kauffman’s demands and rolled the window down, proceeded to spit syllables in a manner we are left to assume would send any spontaneity ape-ing carefully choreographed slam poet back to his notebook for at least 10 years of silence. Kaufman did not record or attempt to publish his work, did not want fame for it, this is why he spoke his poems aloud and our records of his writing today are not his own but only what others have written down.

This brings me another point, which has not much to do with the book I’m about to review, but I found personally relevant as someone who writes poetry and is passionate about the things I put to paper or commit to the memory of a mic. Kauffman took a 10-year Buddhist vow of silence in protest of the Vietnam war. My poetry professor often questions whether a poet’s personal life has relevance in their work, conceding that sometimes it does. Allen Ginsberg wrote “America, go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” and proceeded to meditate on the tracks of trains carrying nuclear supplies to stop them from reaching their destination. John Lennon lay in bed with his wife for a while and said “give peace a chance”. Saul Williams writes letters to Oprah in defense of hip-hop. Rage Against the Machine played outside the Democratic Convention. But Kaufman did not talk for 10 years. Each of these poets did major things to change popular perceptions in a unique and memorable way, something that, no matter how serious they were about their writing, they definitely did not have to do. But something about the continued daily commitment of that 10-year vow of silence, in my humble mind, still sets the bar for symbolic and engaged activism.

Finally, as for the work itself, it is excellent. I often view poetry as the process of recording that which we care deeply about. Judging by this book, Kauffman cared deeply about breathing. Silly as that sounds, there is a love of being (and not being) in these records that left me stunned. Sometimes the language is cool-headed, especially when Kauffman speaks in hipster dialect, but even then, it is burning off the page with a kind of passion. That poets have a love of language is a given. That most worth their 3 minutes of fame on slam Wednesday have mastered it is also a given. But Kaufman masters the love of language, passion for passion’s sake. Or is it? In the Abomunist manifesto we are given an obvious subject given the satirical smirk treatment. But even then this works so memorably because Kaufman uses language and its ridiculous aspects to instruct a kind of rising above stereotypical communist paranoia that was very popular at the time he was writing.
What about “All Those Ships That Never Sailed” though…what is the subject there when he says;
all those ships that never sailed
the ones with their seacocks open
that were scuttled in their stalls…
today I bring them back
huge and intransitory
and let them sail forever

…all those wars and truces
dancing down these years—
all in three flag-swept days
rejected meaning of God—

You might not know what the fuck he is talking about, but you feel what he is describing, a kind of reckoning. That this poem allegedly consists of his first words after the 10 year silence adds mythic power, but is not necessary for knowing what is going on in this, or any of his works. He confirms the job of poet and also takes it a step further. Traditionally, you knew what the poet was saying and feeling. With Kaufman, you might not grasp what he is saying but you sure as fuck know what he is feeling, and not feeling as in the cheap sense that your junior year lit. professor taught you, conotating "emotions" such as sadness, happiness, etc..., but rather his is a poetry of feeling in its truest form, the feeling as force of nature. Indeed a reckoning, even when the form of his work dissolves into pure sound poems or telegraphs, Kauffman is a force personified by nature but rarely felt in a human vessel.
And who wouldn't enjoy reading that?

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