Diane Di Prima was an anarchist feminist Beatnik poet, who died this past weekend at 86, in San Francisco.
I didn’t really follow her work or career. But I was an early long-distance fan of the Beats, and one of her poems, part of a series of “Revolutionary Letters,” caught my attention. For my second book, Uncertain Resurrection, about the failure of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign, I included it as an epigraph and opening lament. I can still feel its sting half a century later.
Here it is, along with an excerpt from her obituary in the Washington Post:
Revolutionary Letters #19
if what you want is jobs
for everyone, you are still the enemy,
you have not thought thru, clearly
what it means
if what you want is housing,
(G. E. on the Navaho
a car for everyone, garage, refrigerator,
TV, more plumbing, scientific
freeways, you are still
the enemy, you have chosen
to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some
science fiction utopia, if what you want
still is, or can be, schools
where all our kids are pushed into one shape, are taught
it’s better to be “American” than black
or Indian, or Jap, or PR, where Dick
and Jane become and are the dream, do you
look like Dick’s father, don’t you think your kid
secretly wishes you did
if what you want
is clinics where the AMA
can feed you pills to keep you weak, or sterile,
shoot germs into your kids, while Merck & Co.
if you want
free psychiatric help for everyone
so that the shrinks,
pimps for this decadence, can make
it flower for us, if you want
if you still want a piece
a small piece of suburbia, green lawn
laid down by the square foot
color TV, whose radiant energy
kills brain cells, whose subliminal ads
brainwash your children, have taken over
degrees from universities which are nothing
more than slum landlords, festering sinks
of lies, so you too can go forth
and lie to others on some greeny campus
THEN YOU ARE STILL
THE ENEMY, you are selling
yourself short, remember
you can have what you ask for, ask for
”For Ms. di Prima, the author of more than 40 works of poetry, prose and theater, writing was “like being a hermit or a samurai. A calling. The holiest life that was offered in our world.” By her actions, she declared herself a conscientious objector to the bourgeois life of her childhood, quitting college because it distracted her from her artistic pursuits and making a name for herself, first in New York and later in San Francisco, amid the tumult of the counterculture. . . .
Diane Rose di Prima was born on Aug. 6, 1934, to an Italian American family in Brooklyn. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother became a reading teacher. An early influence on her political sensibilities was her immigrant grandfather, who, Ms. di Prima once told the Chicago Tribune, “brought over anarchism and a sense of poetry as belonging to everyone.”
“He would say that everyone had read Dante,” she recalled, “and I pictured all the housewives reading Dante.”
Ms. di Prima attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s but, to her parents’ horror, dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village.
“No matter what I will be [a] poet,” she recalled thinking, describing in her memoir the sense of purpose of which she was possessed. “Be great, whatever that means . . . I can taste the struggles. The things I now leave behind . . . leaving the quiet unquestioned living and dying, the simple one-love-and-marriage, children, material pleasures, easy securities. I am leaving the houses I will never own. Dishwashers. Carpets. Dull respect of dull neighbors. None of this matters really. I have already seen it all for the prison it is.”
In New York, she absorbed influences from jazz music to avant-garde stage works and helped found the New York Poets Theatre. She experimented sexually and with drugs and lived for a period at a commune in Millbrook, N.Y., led by Timothy Leary, who promoted use of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. She published an early prose work titled “Memoirs of a Beatnik” (1969).
Ms. di Prima was 22 when she decided to have a baby outside of marriage as a single mother. In her poem “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” she wrote:
I won’t promise
you’ll never go hungry
or that you won’t be sad
on this gutted
but I can show you
enough to love
to break your heart
Ms. di Prima’s subsequent marriages to Alan Marlowe and Grant Fisher ended in divorce.
Survivors include her partner of 42 years, Sheppard Powell; her eldest daughter, Jeanne Di Prima, from a relationship with Stefan Baumrin; her daughter Dominique DiPrima, from her relationship with Baraka; two children from her marriage to Marlowe, Alexander Marlowe and Tara Marlowe; a son from her marriage to Fisher, Rudi Di Prima; two brothers; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Ms. di Prima taught at several universities in California and co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. The family statement announcing her death described her as a devout Buddhist.
She continued writing poetry every day until the final two weeks of her life, calling up the creative forces that powered the Beat movement.
“It’s not a generation,” she wrote in her poem “Keep the Beat.”
“It’s a state of mind . . . a way of living, gone on for centuries, a way of writing, too.”