It’s been a tough time for poetry.
We lost Diane di Prima in October 2020, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in February 2021, and then, in quick succession, Janice Mirikitani and Jack Hirschman — each San Francisco Poet Laureates who wore their wreaths lightly.
Di Prima’s passing, at 86, marks the end of an era. She was a literary icon whose career combined artistic and political activism with a lifelong Buddhist practice.
She eschewed the “Beat”’’ — though perhaps not the “bohemian” — label, although she was close with many of the figures associated with that world, including Allen Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure. And her work, along with that of fellow poets like Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel and Anne Waldman, provided needed counterbalance to the macho excesses of some.
It’s fortuitous, then, that City Lights is re-issuing an expanded 50th anniversary edition of di Prima’s seminal “Revolutionary Letters,” along with the long-awaited memoir, “Spring and Autumn Annals,” which serves as an elegy to her dancer/choreographer friend, Freddie Herkoe, who leapt from the window of a friend’s Greenwich Village apartment in October 1964. It’s also a portrait of a long-gone era of artistic ferment that included the writers, artists and musicians in di Prima’s circle: poet/activist Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) with whom she had a daughter), poets Frank O’Hara and Robert Creeley, and jazz musicians Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor.
According to di Prima’s husband, Sheppard Powell, she was writing until the end, even though she literally couldn’t walk for the last few three and a half years of her life.
“Sometimes the poems would be dictated, and sometimes she would use a stylus to tap them out on her iPhone,’’ says Powell, an artist and healer, adding that a major impetus for di Prima’s move to the West Coast in 1968 was her meeting with Zen Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi. “She said that if he’d been an apple picker, she would have followed him and picked apples.”
But she never shirked social involvement, helping the free-spirited Diggers strategize “how to change the world day by day,” with wild men like Emmett Grogan and outlaw poet Kirby Doyle, Powell recalls.
“Feeding people was the kind of political action she completely understood,’’ he adds. “They had a Free Bank, a shoebox full of money that she kept on top of her refrigerator. It would be filled by some of the musicians who were starting to make an obscene amount of money. Anyone who wanted could take something out of there and it was never empty.”
As for her many revisions to “Revolutionary Letters,” Powell notes: “Each edition got longer because the world never started behaving itself.’’
But di Prima’s first loyalty was always to her Muse, which she sums up in the poem “Rant”: The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.
She was a fierce, funny feminist who unabashedly celebrated sexuality — though her notorious “Memoirs of a Beatnik,” published in 1969, was admittedly semifictional in response to publisher Maurice Girodias’ frequent entreaties for “more sex.” “Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years,” published in 2001, presents a more measured account.
Philosophical about the vagaries of fame and fortune, she was sometimes snubbed by literary festivals. “Probably the reason for that was because she didn’t schmooze that much,’’ says Powell. “But if you were talking about something, she’d talk all night.”
As di Prima put it in “The Poetry Deal,” which she read aloud at her 2009 San Francisco Public Library induction as Poet Laureate:
I’d like my daily bread, however
you arrange it, and I’d also like
to be bread, or sustenance, for some others even after I’ve left.
A song they can walk a trail with.