Remembering Diane di Prima

By | August 6, 2021

Guest post by David Stephen Calonne

Diane di Prima was born on August 6, 1934 in Brooklyn and passed on in San Francisco on October 25, 2020. Di Prima was a true national treasure, having chronicled throughout her astonishing career a momentous period of American history. Although for over six decades an indomitable force in our cultural life, Di Prima remains unfamiliar to many readers. Because she was the major female identified with the Beat movement and author of the hip-language-inflected book This Bird Flies Backward (1958) who lounged in slacks sitting atop a piano—as a famous photograph from the fifties depicted her during a poetry reading— and due to the appearance a decade later of Memoirs of a Beatnik (1968), she has been misperceived as a “Beat chick.” However, Di Prima lived at the farthest possible distance from the drug-addled, lazy, unfocused and laughable countercultural stereotype fabricated by the American mass media: rather, she was a fiercely curious, courageous, energetic intellectual of genius.

Virginia Woolf speculated concerning the life of a literary young woman during Shakespeare’s time in A Room of One’s Own:  “…any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.” Di Prima voiced a similar opinion as Woolf regarding female authors of her own generation when in 1978 she declared that “a lot of potentially great women writers wound up dead or crazy.” However, Di Prima would struggle, survive, and ultimately triumph as mother of five children, political activist, publisher and prolific author. 

Di Prima’s work reflected the entire range and scope of the turbulent, Dionysian drama of the American counterculture from the 1950s to the present. As a child, Di Prima was exposed to Dante Alighieri and the great philosopher Giordano Bruno—much beloved by James Joyce– by her maternal grandfather Domenico Mallozzi who also schooled her in communitarian, idealistic thought. He once took Diane to an anarchist rally where “he was talking about love—how if we don’t all love each other we are all going to die. Everyone will die if we don’t learn to love.” It is a moving, tender memory which shaped Di Prima’s entire life’s trajectory in her deep commitment to justice and freedom for the disenfranchised of America. Her interests in literature and philosophy now awakened by Domenico, by age fourteen the precocious adolescent was already reading John Keats, Plato, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. And like many others of her generation, Di Prima was profoundly dissatisfied with the world bequeathed to her by her elders. The dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 on her eleventh birthday; the murder of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953; the death of the “heretic” Wilhelm Reich in prison at age 60 in 1957; the Korean and Vietnam Wars; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy: all led to a deep sense of alienation and a quest for new values. Experimenting with entheogens, the fight for justice for Native Americans, African Americans, homosexuals; the search for alternative living arrangements as exemplified by the commune; challenges to conventional ideas concerning marriage and family; the anti-war movement; environmentalism; the turn towards Buddhism, Hinduism and Gnosticism; the fascination with astrology, tarot, esotericism, the occult and magic: Di Prima was at the vanguard from the beginning. 

Admitted to the elite Hunter High School in New York, Di Prima became friends with a circle of women artists including poet Audre Lorde and began her lifelong fascination with what she would later call “the hidden religions.” She spent a year-and-a-half at Swarthmore College which she found stifling and moved back to New York City, renting her own apartment. Di Prima corresponded with Ezra Pound in 1955, spent approximately two weeks visiting him in March, 1956 at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C., and proceeded to follow the recommendations in Pound’s ABC of ReadingGuide to Kulchurand The Spirit of Romance by perusing the troubadours, Guido Cavalcanti and sounding out passages from Homer in ancient Greek as well as studying medieval philosophers such as Robert Grosseteste. Di Prima founded the New York Poets Theatre in spring 1961, where one-act plays by Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, Robert Duncan, and Di Prima’s own plays were performed. Indeed, DI Prima composed several plays including Whale Honey, The Discontent of the Russian Prince, Orange Ice, Hanker, Paideuma, Poets’ Vaudeville, Monuments, The Discovery of America, Rain Fur and Zipcode in which she employed aleatoric techniques inspired by John Cage and James Waring. Her plays are often wildly absurdist, lyrical and comic and give free rein to a zany inventiveness. In 1968, Di Prima’s life and work shifted in new directions. She moved to California, as she recalled, to work with the Diggers in their efforts to help the poor and to continue her study of Zen Buddhism with Shunryu Suzuki. 

During the sixties, Di Prima would spend time in two “communes.” As she recalled: “I’ve been in two religious, and one quasi-religious commune. Tassajara, a Zen place, that has a very set practice and schedule, and an ashram in New York. And Millbrook, where Timothy Leary ran his madness for a while. That was like mostly all super-money. Super-money and weird models. It was weird because you had the sense that you had completely lost touch with reality. You just didn’t know what was happening anywhere. I mean, I used to play Bob Dylan because he was the nearest thing to reality that I could get there. I always meant to write him a postcard and tell him that. But it was like, it was interesting….I have never before, or since, been in a situation where I had absolutely no worries. I had absolutely nothing to concern myself with. It’s interesting to find out what your head does if you don’t have to worry about food, clothing, shelter, the police, anything.” As Di Prima reveals, Timothy Leary’s Millbrook, the Zen Center at Tassajara and Rammurti Mishra’s ashram in Monroe, New York would be significant places in her unfolding spiritual life. Di Prima dedicated her Revolutionary Letters—the first edition of which was published in 1968, two years after she entered Millbrook where Bob Dylan’s music had kept her company—to Dylan.

Di Prima was also active as a publisher. In 1961 she began co-editing with LeRoi Jones—later Amiri Baraka–The Floating Bear, a literary journal which became one of the most important “underground” publications of the sixties. She learned the art of operating a printing press and intrepidly founded her own publishing enterprises such as Poets Press which between 1965 and 1969 created twenty-seven books including Huncke’s Journal (1965) by Herbert Huncke; Gregory Corso’s 10 Times a Poem (1967); Allen Ginsberg’s Scrap Leaves (1968); Audre Lorde’s The First Cities (1968); John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (1968);  Robert Creeley’s 5 Numbers (1968) and Mazatlan: Sea (1969); Frank O’Hara’s Odes (1969) and Robert Duncan’s Play Time Pseudo Stein (1969). On the back cover of these books, Di Prima often featured an ouroboros—a serpent eating its own tail with a sun at the upper left and the moon at the upper right—a symbolic image she reproduced from Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, printed in Rome in 1597—thus silently signaling to the attentive reader her ongoing interest in alchemy and Gnosticism. Later, Di Prima would create Eidolon Editions which published titles by Audre Lorde as well as several books of her own. 

Because Di Prima was so astonishingly learned, her works are often virtuosic displays of allusions which may be unfamiliar to the general reader. References to Martin Nilsson’s Primitive Time-Reckoning, Sir George Frazier’s The Golden Bough, Robert Graves’ King Jesus and The White Goddess, the I Ching, John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, the Tibetan yogi Milarepa and alchemical and Gnostic texts proliferate throughout her writings. She began composing the Revolutionary Letters—which have been published in several continuing volumes—in order to address in a clear and direct way the political realities of the sixties: the Vietnam War, racism, the environmental crisis. However, Di Prima never appears overly serious or dour and one notices how often her work takes a comic turn: she is humorous as well as wise.

During the eighties, Di Prima developed a course entitled “The Hidden Religions in the Literature of Europe” which she taught every other year at the New College of California. As Di Prima revealed, she was also teaching “things like a course in John Dee, Paracelsus and Giordano Bruno, three Magicians from the Early Renaissance … It’s a very, very rich program at New College. You can really make great strides in your own work while you’re teaching. I don’t know how I would do in a regular university.”

Indeed, Di Prima’s deep studies in the “Hidden Religions”—that is, the tradition of heterodox esoteric thought which has existed through the millennia outside the framework of the monotheistic, orthodox religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam—began to become increasingly prominent in her work as we see in her frequent allusions to Gnosticism, Kabbalah, magic, theosophy, alchemy, tarot, paganism/”witchcraft” and astrology. However, Di Prima has never turned away from the world and taken refuge in escapism. She has pursued a rigorous and disciplined spiritual life, but has not attempted to hide from the terrors and injustices of “the real world.” Her poetry continued to reflect the social and political upheavals of our time and we note she composed poems on 9/11, the U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Katrina Hurricane crisis. When her daughter called to tell her about the World Trade Center: “We finished talking, and I turned on the TV. And it was the second tower coming down … Between you and me, what did we expect? How can that be so stupid not to expect it if it is happening everywhere else …” Di Prima saw America as overstepping boundaries in its imperial ambitions and thus reaping  karmic recompense for many transgressions.

Di Prima was—and remains—a vibrant, creative and indefatigable force in American letters whose example sustains all those who seek a better world. As Allen Ginsberg described her: “Diane di Prima, revolutionary activist of the 1960s’ Beat literary renaissance, heroic in life and poetics; a learned humorous bohemian, classically educated, and twentieth-century radical, her writing, informed by Buddhist equanimity, is exemplary in imagist, political and mystical modes. A great world poet in the second half of American century, she broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity.”  Di Prima’s ability to sustain a long and productive career in the face of poverty and neglect by the critical establishment is indeed nothing short of heroic. The power and integrity of Diane di Prima’s life and work should be a continuing energizing impetus towards a creative life for a new generation of readers.  

David Stephen Calonne is Senior Lecturer in English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University, USA. He is the author of William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being (The University of North Carolina Press, 1983), as well as the literary biographies Charles Bukowski (Reaktion Books, 2012) and Henry Miller (Reaktion Books, 2014). Most recently he has published The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats(Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Conversations with Gary Snyder (University Press of Mississippi, 2017).

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