Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Kaufman was one of 13 children. He claimed to be the son of a German-Jewish father and a Roman Catholic Black mother from Martinique, and that his grandmother practiced voodoo. At the age of 18, Kaufman joined the United States Merchant Marine, which he left in the early 1940s to briefly study literature at New York's The New School. There, he met William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.
Kaufman moved to San Francisco's North Beach in 1958 and remained there for most of the rest of his life.
Kaufman, a poet in the oral tradition, usually didn't write down his poems, and much of his published work survives by way of his wife Eileen, who wrote his poems down as he conceived them. Like many beat writers, Kaufman became a Buddhist. In 1959, along with poets Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly, A. D. Winans, and William Margolis, he was one of the founders of Beatitude magazine.
According to the writer Raymond Foye, Kaufman is the person who coined the term "beatnik", and his life was filled with a great deal of suffering. In San Francisco, he was the target of beatings and harassment by the city police, and his years living in New York were filled with poverty, addiction and imprisonment.
In 1959, Kaufman had a small role in a movie called The Flower Thief, which was shot in North Beach by Ron Rice. In 1961, Kaufman was nominated for England's Guinness Poetry Award, but lost to T. S. Eliot. He appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson four times in 1970–71.
Kaufman frequently expressed his desire to be forgotten as both a writer and a person. He took a vow of silence after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which lasted 10 years. He was believed to return to this silence in the early 1980s.
In an interview, Ken Kesey describes seeing Bob Kaufman on the streets of San Francisco's North Beach during a visit to that city with his family in the 1950s:
I can remember driving down to North Beach with my folks and seeing Bob Kaufman out there on the street. I didn’t know he was Bob Kaufman at the time. He had little pieces of Band-Aid tape all over his face, about two inches wide, and little smaller ones like two inches long -- and all of them made into crosses. He came up to the cars, and he was babbling poetry into these cars. He came up to the car I was riding in, and my folks, and started jabbering this stuff into the car. I knew that this was exceptional use of the human voice and the human mind.
His poetry made use of jazz syncopation and meter. The critic Raymond Foye wrote about him, "Adapting the harmonic complexities and spontaneous invention of bebop to poetic euphony and meter, he became the quintessential jazz poet."
Poet Jack Micheline said about Kaufman, "I found his work to be essentially improvisational, and was at its best when accompanied by a jazz musician. His technique resembled that of the surreal school of poets, ranging from a powerful, visionary lyricism of satirical, near dadaistic leanings, to the more prophetic tone that can be found in his political poems."
Kaufman said of his own work, "My head is a bony guitar, strung with tongues, plucked by fingers & nails."
After learning of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence that lasted until the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. He broke his silence by reciting his poem "All Those Ships that Never Sailed," the first lines of which are: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
In 1944, Kaufman married Ida Berrocal. They had one daughter, Antoinette Victoria Marie (Nagle), born in New York City in 1945 (died 2008).
He married Eileen Singe (1922–2015) in 1958; they had one child, Parker, named for Charlie Parker.
He died aged 60 in 1986 from emphysema and cirrhosis in San Francisco.