Diane di Prima’s (born August 6, 1934) poetry falls into two clearly distinguished chronological and thematic categories. Her works from 1957 to 1975 are suffused with the idiom of the Beat generation, the language of the hipster and personal rebellion. Di Prima considers her association with the poets of the Beat generation and the San Francisco Renaissance as seminal for her work, as she explained in an interview:
Don’t forget, however great your visioning and your inspiration, you need the techniques of the craft and there’s nowhere, really to get them . . . they are passed on person to person and back then the male naturally passed them to the male. I think maybe I was one of the first women to break through that in having deep conversations with Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara.
Further evidence of this mentoring process can be seen in the fact that Jones, through his Totem Press, published di Prima’s first collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a brief “non-introduction by way of an introduction” for it. The volume is full of Beat terminology, such as “hip,” “cool,” and “crazy.” Although she saw herself, as did most of the female Beat writers, inhibited by the “eternal, tiresome rule of Cool,” she also acknowledges that Ginsberg taught her to have confidence in her own spontaneity and emphasized the importance of technical writing skills. The best view of this phase of di Prima’s work can be found in her collection Selected Poems, 1956-1975, which extracts her favorite poems from This Kind of Bird Flies Backward to Freddie Poems.
The second part of her work covers the period after she moved to Northern California in 1970. It is characterized by a less strident tone, a gradual decline in use of the Beat vocabulary, and a growing concern with spiritual and ecological matters, particularly her increasing involvement in Buddhism and her role as a woman and mother. Much of this changing perspective can be found in her collection Pieces of a Song. Many commentators consider the long serial poem Loba the most typical work of di Prima’s mature creative period.
Dinners and Nightmares
Di Prima’s second poetry collection, Dinners and Nightmares, is dedicated to her “pads&the people who shared them with me.” The first part consists of descriptions of meals she has shared with a variety of people in the bohemian milieu of New York, and there is good reason to believe that most of these sketches are in fact based on real people and events. The second part is a collection of poetic “nightmares,” dark contrasts to the more pleasant dinners of the first section. The nightmares deal with the squalid living conditions on the lower East Side, with thwarted or hopeless love affairs, or with standing in unemployment lines:
Then I was standing in line unemployment green
institution green room
green people slow shuffle. Then to the man ahead said
folding papers bored and sticking on seals
Here are your twenty reasons for living sir.
Some of the “nightmares” are expressed in imagistic one-liners: “It hurts to be murdered” or “Get your cut throat off my knife.”
The collection concludes with a section called “More or Less Love Poems,” terse vignettes of love in the hipster pads, where “coolness” thinly disguises anguish and fear of loneliness:
Yeah that was
once in a lifetime
you gotta be clean
and with new shoes
to love like I love you.
I think it won’t happen again.
Or even more pithily:
You are not quite
the air I breathe
It is possible to see rebellion and defiance in these lines, as well as an obstinate insistence on living life on her own terms, but while there is little self-pity (that would not have been “cool”), it is impossible to overlook her feelings of anguish and isolation.
The collection Earthsong was edited by Marlowe, di Prima’s then-husband, and published by Poets Press. In the introduction, Marlowe writes, “these poems contain the hard line of the fifties, and the smell of New York winters, cold and grey, as well as Miles Davis’ jazz and the search for new forms.” Di Prima reveals her extensive classical reading in a lighthearted Beat parody of Elizabethan poet/dramatist Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1599), which she turns into “The Passionate Hipster to His Chick.” The collection also includes probably her best-known and most frequently anthologized poem. Untitled in Earthsong, the poem appears in Selected Poems, 1956-1975 as “The Practice of Magical Evocation” and is a strident response to Gary Snyder’s chauvinist poem “Praise for Sick Women” (from Riprap, 1959). In that poem, Snyder characterizes women as fertile and only confused by discipline. Di Prima’s response is an unashamed acceptance of her femininity (“I am a woman and my poems/ are woman’s: easy to say/ this”). She converts “fertile” into “ductile,” emphasizing a woman’s adaptability and strength in the face of male demands and expectations (“bring forth male children only”). Her final question, “what applause?” is rhetorical, indicating that women can expect no reward or even acknowledgment for their efforts. In Recollections of My Life as a Woman, di Prima sets the record straight when she writes:
Disappointment or loss marked the men of that world. And silence; one simply didn’t talk about it. Disappointment and silence marked the women too. But there the silence lay deeper. No tales were told about them. They did not turn from one career to another, “take up the law,” but buried the work of their hearts in the basement, burned their poems and stories, lost the thread of their dreams.
Di Prima began working on Loba in 1971, and part 1 of this long serial poem first appeared in the Capra Chapbooks series in 1973. Expanded over the next two decades, book 1 (parts 1-8) was published in 1978, and in 1998, Penguin published a full, though probably not final, version. The poem is characteristic of di Prima’s post-Beat poetry: It is an attempt to emulate the mythical wanderings of the Cantos (1925-1972) of her first mentor, Pound. The title is a reference to the figure of the she-wolf (loba in Spanish), the symbol of fierce maternal love in many cultures and particularly in Native American lore. Loba is a long journey of exploration of the feminine consciousness, beginning in primeval myths and archetypes.
Book 1 concentrates on matters of the flesh, while book 2 focuses on the soul. Di Prima has indicated that a yet-to-be-written book 3 would concern itself with the spirit. The work exhibits the poet’s vast literary background, with allusions to Iseult, Persephone, and Lilith, all contained in a loosely joined series of philosophical, humorous, and lyrical poems. In one section, di Prima invokes Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) when she writes: “who walked across America behind gaunt violent yogis/ & died o-d’ing in methadone jail/ scarfing the evidence.”
Loba is a difficult poem and should not be read with the intent of finding and recognizing all the references to literary characters and myths. The she-wolf is di Prima’s fundamental female hero, whose mythical wanderings allow the poet to touch on all her favorite subjects—politics, religion, erotic love, and ecology—and to display her great versatility in manipulating a wide variety of poetic forms and themes.
Di Prima’s poetry has been criticized as uneven and sometimes obscure. There can be no doubt, however, that most of her poems, particularly of the early period, are accessible to the average reader and live up to the definition of poetry and the role of the poet she expressed in a 1978 interview:
The poet is the last person who is still speaking the truth when no one else dares to. . . . Pound once said, “Artists are the antennae of the race.” . . . And we see very dramatically in our time how . . . the work of Allen [Ginsberg] and Kerouac in the 1950’s and so on has informed the 1970’s.
Originally published in 1971 and reissued several times before the 2007 edition produced by Last Gasp, Revolutionary Letters is one of the few significant literary efforts to emerge from the end of the hippie era. The new edition features re-edited earlier poems and is supplemented with later work.
Dedicated to her anarchist grandfather, Revolutionary Letters is di Prima’s blank-verse chronicle of the cultural upheaval that began in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s with the Beats and metamorphosed into the counterculture of the 1960’s before running out of steam in subsequent decades. Despite the apparent failure or suspension of the revolution, di Prima continues to be the standard-bearer, an army of one. She still proudly holds aloft the black, tie-dyed flag of utopian anarchy, the symbol for an idealized world in which individuals of all persuasions peacefully coexist without the necessity of government intervention or control, free to enjoy all the possibilities of mental, physical, and spiritual life to the fullest.
The earlier poems in the volume—some of them like haiku or epigrams in their brevity and impact—are upbeat and hopeful, in keeping with the ebullient, volatile nature of the late 1960’s, when they were written. Drawing from a wealth of sources (alchemy, astrology, the history of the labor movement, Asian religions, and the female experience), di Prima keenly observes the flaws of society that detract from the ultimate freedom she espouses. She attacks obsolete traditions (such as the notion of feminine inferiority), beliefs (such as the public perception that the media always tell the unvarnished truth), and condemns meek compliance and the machinations of bureaucracy. She cajoles, warns, exhorts, and advises. In one early “letter,” she confidently notes that it is not whether the revolution she envisions will happen, but simply a matter of when. In others, she reminds readers to wear shoes so they will not hurt their feet when they run away and to fill the bathtub with water in the event of government-manufactured crises. At the time of their writing, di Prima’s letters were strong, powerful statements from a pioneering female spokesperson for radical change. With the passage of the years, however, their relevance to current events has been lost, and they now seem like antique moments preserved in amber.
Later letters, in which the poet seems to realize that the revolution has failed—or is at least on hiatus—are angrier in tone, less forgiving. “Revolutionary Letter #40,” for example, paints a bleak picture of a devastated United States: burning oilfields, ruined cities, abandoned vehicles, and downed power lines. “Revolutionary Letter #51” maintains that those who submit to a system become slaves. “Revolutionary Letter: Memorial Day 2003” is essentially a listing of those di Prima contends gave their lives for some form of freedom, from Paracelsus to Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, from John Brown to Leo Trotsky, and from Socrates to Malcolm X. More contemporary letters dealing with di Prima’s concept of utopia are less grounded in reality. Her idealized, anarchistic postrevolutionary world—where men, women and children love and live off nature’s bounty without restrictions—is a wonderful concept, but in light of the human species’ penchant for contention, seems impossible to attain.
Notes Toward a Poem of Revolution
“Notes Toward a Poem of Revolution” was published in a limited edition by di Prima’s Eidolon Editions, as Towers Down: Notes Toward a Poem of Revolution (2002), and contained “Towers Down” by Clive Matson. Both poems also appeared in the antiwar anthology, An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind: Poets on 9/11 (2002). Matson’s poem is a reaction to the traumatic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Di Prima’s poem, which was reprinted in the 2007 edition of Revolutionary Letters, is a series of fourteen short pieces—similar in tone and style to the more strident poems in that collection.
As might be expected, given the poet’s lifelong anarchistic stance, di Prima, while sympathetic toward the victims of the tragedy, strongly condemns the behavior of the United States that resulted in the attacks. By aggressively seizing the role of the world’s police officer and in broadening the gap between the haves and have-nots, she seems to be saying, the United States has made such atrocities inevitable. Although such suicidal acts as flying loaded passenger planes into populated buildings are inexcusable on a human scale, they are nonetheless understandable as gestures of frustration at the inability to change the way of the world through the normal channels of negotiation and compromise; collateral damage in the continuing war for the hearts and minds of the globe’s citizens is part of modern reality. Poignantly, in a few brief lines, di Prima sums up the contemporary situation by comparing it to a child’s game: “. . . nobody/ can hog the marbles & expect/ the others to play.”
Long fiction: Memoirs of a Beatnik, 1969, 1988; The Calculus of Variation, 1972.
Plays: Paideuma, pr. 1960; The Discontent of a Russian Prince, pr. 1961; Murder Cake, pr. 1963; Like, pr. 1964; Poet’s Vaudeville, pr. 1964 (libretto); Monuments, pr. 1968; The Discovery of America, pr. 1972; Whale Honey, pr. 1975; ZipCode: The Collected Plays of Diane di Prima, 1992.
Nonfiction: “Light / and Keats,” 1978; “Paracelsus: An Appreciation,” 1979; Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, a Memoir, 2001.
Edited text: War Poems, 1968.
Charters, Ann. The Portable Sixties Reader. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
_______. “Diane di Prima.” Interview by David Meltzer and Marina Lazzara. In San Francisco Beat: Talkingwith thePoets, edited byMeltzer. San Francisco: City Lights, 2001.
_______. “Pieces of a Song: Diane di Prima.” Interview by Tony Moffeit. In Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, edited by Nancy McCampbell Grace and Ronna Johnson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Johnson, Ronna, and Nancy McCampbell Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. 1996.
Peabody, Richard, ed. A Different Beat: Writing by Women of the Beat Generation. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
Pekar, Harvey, et al. The Beats: A Graphic History. Art by Ed Piskor et al. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Waldman, Anne, ed. The Beat Book: Writings from the Beat Generation. Rev. ed. Boston: Shambahla, 2007.