Snow Globe of Inequality

Bob Kaufman wrote and recited poetry often associated with The Beat Poets (Nelson 216). The Beat Poets existed as a group of poets who questioned mainstream politics and culture. They expressed this opposition towards popular culture through unconventional and abstract writing styles in hopes of “changing consciousness and defying conventional writing” (A Brief Guide). Alongside Allen Ginsberg, Kaufman founded the journal Beattitude (Bob Kaufman). Kaufman’s attraction to the atypical style of The Beat Poets makes sense. As a man born half African American and half Jewish in 1925, Kaufman was on the outskirts of both mainstream (white) American society and of the African American society due to his Jewish descent. Kaufman grew up mainly in New Orleans, Louisiana. Largely influenced by jazz, his poetry is often rhythmic causing him to recite his poetry in coffee shops and in the streets rather than write it down (Bob Kaufman). People often viewed him as a “madman” for walking the streets at all hours of the day and night (Nelson 216). 

Stanza 1 of the “from Jail Poems” begins with the speaker describing what he senses around him physically before moving towards what these physical sensations make him feel emotionally. He starts off by stating that he sits in a cell with two “evil parallels,” waiting for a thousand different versions of himself to be brought about by thunder. The speaker goes on to discuss how he wishes he could see inside of other people’s cage, but the doors loudly slam shut, He says the junkie will not open because his mind is numbed with drugs. The stinky alcoholic boasts he’s not addicted to cigarettes (as if one vice/sin is better than the other). The speaker can hear the pain of others “seeping” through the walls, tugging at his own heart strings. He feels like he is a part of a collective story. He finds comfort in the accents of criminals rather than cops who beat the souls of humans, treating them like a thing to blame for mishaps in the world (the criminals carry the negativity of the cops’ system). The speaker ends the stanza by asking Socrates what policemen eat. 

The second stanza still focuses on the senses, but in a more abstract manner. The speaker first addresses the painter, asking them to create a jail cell of rainbow water-colors. He goes on to ask the poet to write in a striking, yellow lead. He asks God to make the ceiling of his cell glass so that he can see the sky because he needs the stars to lead him through the society that is grueling chaos. The next two lines suggest a want for governmental revolution through an inversion of reality where the speaker describes the civic seesaw in line 20 as “in…out…up…down.” He then states although he’s in prison, he still exists in society.

In stanza 3, the poet begins by asking: who is not in jail in a world of cells? He answers, “jailers.” He then asks: who is not sick in a world of hospitals? He answers, “doctors.” The writer describes the abstract scene of a golden sardine swimming in his head, stating he does not know everything, but he knows about “jazz and jails and God.” In the final line, he claims that Saturday is a great day to visit jail.

Kaufman’s use, or lack of use, of structure speaks to the unconventional nature of the ideas and beliefs he wanted to express. Like a sonnet, the first stanza is 14 lines, but otherwise the poem does not follow the rhyme scheme of a sonnet nor does it follow a particular rhythm such as iambic pentameter. By subtly nodding at the sonnet through the use of 14 lines while purposely disregarding the rest of the sonnet structure, Kaufman shows how he can write both freely and outside of the expectations of the prison that is the conventional sonnet. By choosing to make a connection to the traditional sonnet through line number while deliberately not implementing the expected rhyme scheme or rhythm, Kaufman  juxtaposes the idea in the poem that people should find a way to inspire themselves to create beauty and art within the confines of both physical and metaphorical structures meant to stamp down individuality. He further plays with structure in the second stanza when he switches from long sentences to sudden line breaks, ellipses, and em-dashes. Kaufman also uses a sporadic rhyme scheme in the second stanza of: ABCADC. Because he normally read his poetry aloud, the rhythm and rhyme scheme seem to mimic the spontaneity of jazz. This spontaneous structure points to the abstraction of his poem as it relates to the real world– that society should be more free-spirited like the structure of his poem and like jazz. The third stanza has no structure and no rhyme scheme. The lack of structure combined with the abstract image found in line 23 of “a golden sardine” swimming in the head of the speaker further points to purposely unconventional choices of the poet in order to demonstrate that poetry, like life in mainstream society, should not be about structures and prisons, but about expression, beauty, and individuality.


Works Cited:

“A Brief Guide to the Beat Poets.”, Academy of American Poets, 2 May 2004, 

“Bob Kaufman.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 

Nelson, Cary. Contemporary American Poetry. Second ed., Two, Oxford University Press, 2015.

2 Responses to Snow Globe of Inequality

  1. Prof VZ August 31, 2022 at 4:31 pm #

    Thanks for this careful engagement with the selection from Kaufman’s “Jail Poems.” I especially like how you attend to the role the semi-sonnet structure plays here as Kaufman navigates literal and formal constraints. It’s a great meditation on structure and constraint, which in the poem as a whole takes many different forms. In section 27 (no included in the anthology) he writes: “I sit her writing, not daring to stop, / for fear of seeing what’s outside my head.” In this case the poetic act itself becomes, in a complex way, another kind of prison, another way of both seeing and not seeing. And yet within this prison, as you note, he uses the surreal as a way to think beyond what is already known or conceptualized, to help us see things anew. The poem ends: “Come, help flatten a raindrop.”

  2. Harris September 1, 2022 at 11:21 pm #

    I appreciate your analysis of Kaufman’s mastery and defiance of poetic form and meter. I honestly wish I had read your analysis before writing my imitation. I think I could have benefited from your point of view. I agree that the oral quality of Kaufman’s poems is undeniable. When read aloud, especially multiple times, “from Jail Poems” seems to blossom and reveal new meanings and nuances.

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