Tuli Kupferberg: Model Village Citizen, 1923-2010


Most afternoons in the 1970s, you could find Tuli Kupferberg, the poet and folksinger who died yesterday at 86, peddling his penny poems along Sixth Avenue. He would hang out at the corner of West 8th Street outside of the old Nathan’s. The poems were always little gems of anarchist menace, along the lines of his epic, “Kill, Kill, Kill for Peace,” put to music by his great beatnik rock group, The Fugs, with Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver.

The poems were often accompanied by his simple line drawings, melding the joyfully obscene with the political.

The drawings and poems would occasionally pop up in the mail at the Voice in a plain brown envelope, no note attached. The message was simply to use them as the paper saw fit. He was part of the Voice‘s extended family, which means, of course, that he was often estranged from it. His wife, Sylvia Topp, was a Voice editor for years. Son Noah was an intern.

In lots of ways, he was the Voice poster child for its model bohemian citizen: A militant pacifist, he lived for years off of Tompkins Square Park in a tenement where his friend, Allen Ginsberg, also resided. Ginsberg included a stanza about him in his most famous poem, “Howl,” although he didn’t attach Tuli’s name to it:

“who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer”

It was a true story, one that Tuli didn’t discuss except to correct the record. It was the Manhattan Bridge, not the Brooklyn, a poetic license to which Ginsberg was freely entitled.

The Times’ obit tells us that his given name was Naphtali, though I don’t remember hearing anyone use it. Ailing in his last years, he was duly celebrated this spring by his many admirers, at the Bowery Poetry Project, and at a concert at St. Anne’s.

He had the mournful face of a rabbi, matched by a Borscht belt sense of humor that skewered all things of pretension — money, power, generals, Nixon — always accompanied by bawdy jokes, and an impossibly gentle manner. The perfect, and last great, flower child.