Beat poet Diane di Prima died Sunday, October 25, 2020, after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease. She was 86. Brooklyn-born, a second-generation Italian-American, she attended Swarthmore College before dropping out and visited poet Ezra Pound when he was incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D.C. after his broadcasts in support of fascists. In her lifetime, di Prima published more than 40 books, including Loba, Revolutionary Poems, and the autobiographical Memoirs of a Beatnik and Recollections of My Life as a Woman.
She told me in a November 1999 interview that she knew at age 14 that she was going to be a poet:
I remember distinctly I was standing in my backyard in Brooklyn, and started to cry because it was a very sad thing to me in some ways. I knew that I'd have to not have a lot of things. Not material things, but I'd be cut off from a lot of regular human society, and being from a very large Italian family, I had a very strong sense of what that is, the regular daily life stuff. I guessed that wouldn't be part of it. I just knew that, intuitively.
A member for a time of Timothy Leary’s LSD community in Millbrook, New York, with partner Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) she edited The Floating Bear, a seminal mimeograph newsletter, started in February 1961, distributed by mailing list with a mission of speedily disseminating new work by poets such as Charles Olson, Robin Blaser, Robert Creeley, Philip Whalen, Paul Blackburn, and Ed Dorn.
Diane di Prima with Amiri Baraka
She moved to San Francisco in 1968, investigated practices like I Ching divination, became a dedicated Buddhist, and was named the city’s Poet Laureate in 2009. Her early years in The City were steeped in the counterculture, most notably as part of the Digger community, an anarchist collective that engaged in street theater, direct action, and food distribution. The Diggers ran San Francisco's first free medical clinic and included members like Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and Peter Berg. Her Revolutionary Letters were written for Digger events:
REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #4
Left to themselves people grow their hair.
Left to themselves they take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love sleep easily
share blankets, dope & children they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they speak to one another. The word coming into its own: touch of love; on the brain, the ear.
We return with the sea, the tides
we return as often as leaves, as numerous
as grass, gentle, insistent, we remember
our babes toddle barefoot thru the cities of the universe.
Perhaps her most legendary poem is Rant with its refrain, in capital letters (long before that was considered “screaming”) which stated:
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT
There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher
you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes
or you etch in light
your firmament spills into the shape of your room
the shape of the poem, of yr body, of yr loves
A woman’s life / a man’s life is an allegory
There is no way out of the spiritual battle
Her epic poem, Loba, may be her crowning poetry achievement. It has been said that the book is a visionary epic quest, a feminine response to Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl and that a wolf visited her in a dream a year before the poem’s composition began. In that 1999 interview she said she did not plan on writing an epic poem, but that it takes craziness, because the project “takes you over in a way:”
Well, especially the first eight parts of Loba, which constitute book one, which was 185 pages (it) happened over a period of six or seven years, you really never knew when Loba was going to come in. And when it did, that's what you did. You didn't do anything else. It also took me over in the sense that I wasn't writing other poems, everything was going into Loba. Now book two, spread out over a much longer period of time, from '78 to '96. And it's about the same length. And other poems were getting written, and other things were happening. The prose book, for instance, the autobiography that we mentioned, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, was happening, but it takes you over in the sense that it's the main artwork you're doing. And the characteristic of big artwork is that it uses everything. It uses everything you're learning. It uses all your experience. It uses everything you're reading. Everything in your life is going into that one piece.
O lost moon sisters
crescent in hair, sea underfoot do you wander
in blue veil, in green leaf, in tattered shawl do you wander
with goldleaf skin, with flaming hair do you wander
on Avenue A, on Bleecker Street do you wander
on Rampart Street, on Fillmore Street do you wander
with flower wreath, with jeweled breath do you wander
shining mother of pearl
in which the crescent moon
with gloves, with hat, in rags, in fur, in beads
under the waning moon, hair streaming in black rain
wailing with stray dogs, hissing in doorways
shadows you are, that fall on the crossroads, highways
With Ginsberg. One achievement didn't have to negate or compete with the other.
To raise five children, study intensely while doing so, be an active part of two remarkable countercultural milieus, in New York and San Francisco, be one of a handful of woman considered Beat poets and create such a huge body of work that will be looked at as prophetic, this is a small part of how Diane di Prima will be remembered. We will be catching up to what she did with her life force over the next two hundred years. A potent life force, indeed.
— Paul E Nelson
Paul Nelson with Diane di Prima. Respect.
Don’t Pick A Fight With A Poet ::: Madeleine Peyroux
Appelle-Moi Poésie ::: Edgar Sekloka
Revolutionary Letters #29 & #19 ::: Diane DiPrima
The Poetry Deal ::: Diane DiPrima