Onetime San Francisco Poet Laureate and one of the only feminist voices to keep company with the Beat Generation, Diane di Prima, has died. Despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease and severe arthritis in the last decade, living in a nursing facility near her own home in the Excelsior district, she was reportedly writing up until the end — and she died on Sunday at SF General at the age of 86.
Di Prima lived a pioneeringly liberated life for her time, quitting college because it was distracting her from her art, and hanging out in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. She would later fall in with hippie culture, joining the Diggers in SF and ultimately moving here permanently. She penned 40 books of poems in her lifetime, and for three decades she taught poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and in the Masters-in-Poetics program at the New College of California.
She's also the author of one of the first books about the Beat Generation by a female member — 1969's Memoirs of a Beatnik, which she says is mostly true but the "sex parts" were fictionalized at her editor's insistence.
An anecdote that's been mentioned in several obituaries, including the Washington Post's, comes from the 2001 memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. Di Prima recalls being at a boozy, marijuana-filled party one night in New York with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and a group of others, and she announced she needed to leave at 11:30 p.m. to relieve her babysitter.
“DI PRIMA,” Kerouac reportedly shouted, “UNLESS YOU FORGET ABOUT YOUR BABYSITTER, YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE A WRITER."
It's of course a telling moment about the world she was a part of and yet not quite a part of because of her gender — and the fact that she began having children, though she did not marry the fathers of the first two (she ultimately had five, including LA-based activist and radio personality Dominique di Prima, whose father is Amiri Baraka). But di Prima also laughed it off in a subsequent 2017 interview with the Post, saying, "Jack wanted me to hang out because everyone [at the party] was gay and I was straight. He was probably hoping to get laid later."
She also wrote in the memoir of her conscious decision to be a poet and to shake off all that society otherwise had planned for her. "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," she wrote. "Dishwashers. Carpets. Dull respect of dull neighbors. None of this matters really. I have already seen it all for the prison it is."
Di Prima's poetry stands apart from many of her contemporaries for its singular voice, and what the Dictionary of Literary Biography calls "the expression of a strong, sensitive, intelligent woman during more than two decades of social and artistic ferment," and her depictions of "life outside the mainstream of middle-class America." She was also, like Ginsberg, a follower of Buddhism and fond of Buddhist imagery and references in her work.
In a poem published in the 1990 collection Pieces of a Song (City Lights), titled "Song for Baby-O, Unborn," she writes:
when you break thru
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
but I can show you
enough to love
to break your heart
Left to themselves people
grow their hair.
Left to themselves they
take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love
share blankets, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love;
on the brain, the ear.
Di Prima was named SF Poet Laureate in 2009, and she gave a speech at the time saying that all art and poetry from all time were of one piece that "cuts through time and cuts through space, and we have no idea what it is — it's so wonderful and large." Her full inaugural address is below.
And she was especially articulate in describing how she and her generation saw themselves when they were living through a time that has become the stuff of legend, especially for younger English majors and poets.
Writing in that 2001 memoir, di Prima said, "Certain times, certain epochs, live on in the imagination as more than what they ‘actually’ were... They are, if you look close, times when the boundary between mythology and everyday life is blurred. This meeting of world and myth is where we all thought we were going."
Top Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images