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Diane di Prima, poet of the Beat era and beyond, dies at 86
Ms. di Prima’s startlingly erotic 1969 memoir offered a rare feminist window onto a period when men got most of the attention and sexism was much in evidence.

by Neil Genzlinger



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Diane di Prima, the most prominent woman among the male-dominated Beat poets, who after being immersed in the bohemian swirl of Greenwich Village in the 1950s moved to the West Coast and continued to publish prolifically in a wide range of forms, died Sunday at a San Francisco hospital. She was 86.

Her husband, Sheppard Powell, confirmed her death. She had been living at an elder care home since 2017 because of various health problems, having moved there from the couple’s home in the city’s Excelsior district.

Di Prima was initially known as one of the Beats; she published her first poetry volume, “This Kind of Bird Flies Backward,” in 1958, two years after Allen Ginsberg’s celebrated “Howl and Other Poems” appeared. It cost 95 cents. Lawrence Ferlinghetti provided the introduction.

“Here’s a sound not heard before,” he wrote. “The voice is gritty. The eye turns. The heart is in it.”

But her Beat period was only the beginning; over her long career di Prima published some 50 poetry books and chapbooks.

“I don’t mind that people use the Beat label,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2000. “It’s just that it’s very much of one time, a long time ago. A lot of people kept being Beat writers in terms of the language they used. I can do it sometimes but not most of the time.”

Di Prima lived a life that was light years away from the suburban-housewife world that has become the prevailing image of the 1950s — taking an assortment of lovers, doing some nude modeling to make money, courting arrest with the publications she and her circle printed. She wrote about her romantic and literary explorations in “Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years” (2001).

Earlier she had written the startlingly erotic “Memoirs of a Beatnik” (1969), which had autobiographical elements but was more novel than memoir. A French publisher, Maurice Girodias, had contracted her to write an erotic take on the Beat era, and, as the Tribune article noted, “Girodias kept sending back the manuscript, scrawled with notations for ‘more sex,’ and di Prima obliged with fictionalized passages of erotic acrobatics.” Yet the book attained cult status as a rare feminist window onto a period when men got most of the attention and sexism was much in evidence.

Ammiel Alcalay, one of di Prima’s literary executors, who has published her work as part of a series of books called Lost & Found, said the free-spirit elements of her life belied the serious scholarship underpinning her poetry.

“Because of the life she lived and the iconic image of the ‘Beat woman,’ the extraordinary range of sources and knowledge that went into di Prima’s writing and thought has hardly been explored,” Alcalay, a professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center, said by email. “From discovering Keats as a teenager to visiting Ezra Pound during his incarceration at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Diane was always connected to both her elders and her most vital contemporaries.”

Among her most ambitious works was a mythologically and spiritually themed series of poems under the title “Loba” that she added to and revised for decades; in 1998 Penguin published a collected version that was more than 300 pages long.

David Levi Strauss, a writer and teacher who was part of di Prima’s circle in San Francisco in the 1980s, studying with her in the Poetics Program at New College of California, recalled how seriously she took the craft.

“She taught something called Hidden Religion, which was about spiritual and political heresies,” he said by email. “The intention of the whole course of study in the Poetics Program was to give students an intellectual base to build on, and sources that they could draw on for the rest of their lives as writers.”

In 2009 di Prima was named poet laureate of San Francisco. At an event commemorating the appointment, she read a new poem called “First Draft: Poet Laureate Oath of Office.” It ended this way:

my vow is:

to remind us all

to celebrate

there is no time

too desperate

no season

that is not

a Season of Song

Diane Rose DiPrima (her brother Frank DiPrima said she adjusted the family name to lowercase the “di” and put a space after it because she thought that was truer to her Italian ancestors) was born Aug. 6, 1934, in Brooklyn. Her father, Francis, was a lawyer, and her mother, Emma, was a teacher.

Di Prima often spoke of the influence of her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, a tailor and ardent anarchist who had immigrated from Italy. He was, she wrote in her 2001 memoir, “regarded somewhat as a family treasure: a powerful and erratic kind of lightning generator, a kind of Tesla experiment, we for some reason kept in the house.”

Her collection “Revolutionary Letters” (she wrote a series of poems under that title) included a poem about him, “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” that began this way:

Today is your

birthday and I have tried

writing these things before,

but now

in the gathering madness, I want to

thank you

for telling me what to expect

for pulling




no punches, back there in that scrubbed Bronx parlor

Yet, she wrote, her maternal grandmother, Antoinette, and the other women in the household where she grew up taught her the practicalities of survival.

“It was at my grandmother’s side,” she wrote, “in that scrubbed and waxed apartment, that I received my first communications about the specialness and the relative uselessness of men.”

Her mother imparted an early appreciation of poetry. “Our household was extremely verbal,” Frank DiPrima said in a phone interview. “My mother would speak verse every day of my life.”

Di Prima attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan and stayed three semesters at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania before leaving to join the Greenwich Village scene. In 1961 she was a founder of the New York Poets Theater, which staged works by poets and avant-garde writers. She produced a literary newsletter, The Floating Bear — at first with her lover, poet LeRoi Jones, who later adopted the name Amiri Baraka, and then on her own.

But she grew disillusioned with New York and in 1968 made her way to San Francisco to work with the Diggers, a collective known for street theater and for passing out free food and leaflets.

“I was writing ‘Revolutionary Letters’ at a fast clip and mailing them to Liberation News Service on a regular basis; from there they went to over 200 free newspapers all over the U.S. and Canada,” she said in a written version of her poet laureate talk. “I also performed them, sometimes with guitar accompaniment by Peter Coyote, on the steps of City Hall, while my comrades handed out the Digger Papers and tried to persuade startled office workers on their way to lunch that they should drop out and join the revolution.”

She had arrived in San Francisco, she wrote, with “14 grown-ups (so-called) and all their accompanying kids & pets, horns & typewriters, and at least one rifle.”

Powell, in a telephone interview, said such a caravan was not unusual. “People constellated around her,” he said. “People were just drawn to the dynamo that was Diane.”

Four of the children in that group were her own, by various fathers; a fifth came later.

In addition to her husband, whom she had been with for more than 40 years, and her brother Frank, her children — Jeanne DiPrima, Dominique DiPrima, Alexander Marlowe, Tara Marlowe and Rudi DiPrima — survive her, along with another brother, Richard; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

One of di Prima’s best-loved poems, written in 1957 for her first child, Jeanne, is called “Song for Baby-o, Unborn”:

Sweetheart,

when you break thru

you’ll find

a poet here

not quite what one would choose.

I won’t promise

you’ll never go hungry

or that you won’t be sad

on this gutted

breaking

globe

but I can show you

baby

enough to love

to break your heart

forever.

One of the poems di Prima read at the event celebrating her appointment as San Francisco’s poet laureate was “The Poetry Deal,” written in 1993. It was, she explained to the audience, about the pact she had made with the poetry muse — the “you” in the poem was poetry itself. One verse went like this:

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.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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