Today San Francisco’s own Beat poet Diane di Prima celebrates her 80th birthday, and so it is our pleasure to dedicate today’s post to the recognition of her contribution to the landscape of the revolutionary Beat Generation. Happy Birthday, Diane, from City Lights Books!
Di Prima was born in Brooklyn and spent most of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in Manhattan, where she first became involved with poets like Jack Kerouac, Audre Lorde, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg. A natural born activist (her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist often associated with Carlo Tresca and Emma Goldman), di Prima managed to elegantly combine political commentary with spiritual practice, but with obvious special attention to poetics and structure. She was already corresponding with Ezra Pound at the age of 19! Allen Ginsberg said of di Prima,
“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 woman poet in second half of American century, she broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity.”
While editing her publication (with Amiri Baraka) The Floating Bear in New York, she was persistently harassed by authorities for her radical content, and on one occasion was even arrested by the FBI. In the late 1960’s she eventually settled in San Francisco and served as a channel between east and west coast artists. Di Prima read two of her poems at the legendary performance of The Last Waltz by The Band in 1976, and after authoring over 40 books, went on to be named the Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 2009.
Find 2 poems from Revolutionary Letters below, first published by City Lights in 1971 – and big news on her newest publication with City Lights, coming this Fall.
“Revolutionary Letter #47”
TO BE FREE we’ve got to be free of
any idea of freedom.
Today the State Dept lifted the ban on
travel to china; and closed
“Revolutionary Letter #60”
Look to the cities, see how ‘urban renewal”
tears out the slums from the heart of town
forces expendable poor to the edges, to some
remote & indefensible piece of ground:
Hunter’s Point, Lower East Side, Columbia Point
out of sight, out of mind, & when bread riots come
(conjured by cutting welfare, raising prices)
the man won’t hesitate to raze those ghettos
& few will see, & fewer will object.
In September she will release The Poetry Deal with City Lights, the first full length collection of poetry by di Prima in decades. It is number 5 in the City Lights San Francisco Poet Laureate Series, published by the City Lights Foundation. Follow the link here to go to the book’s main page, where you can sign up for an alert when the book comes out.
Diane di Prima is an ongoing contributor to the arts and a treasure to the catalog of 20th (and 21st!) century American writers. Please check out her other titles which includes her memoirs – a must have for those interested in feminist literature. Revolutionary Letters was number 27 in the City Lights Pocket Poet Series.