Diane di Prima, feminist poet and Beat generation force, dies at 86

Steve Marble
·5 min read
Diane di Prima
Diane di Prima (Courtesy of Diane di Prima's Family)

Just 22 and working as a file clerk on Wall Street to support her poetry habit, Diane di Prima turned heads when she mailed in several of her works to City Lights, the legendary San Francisco bookstore and publishing house.

City Lights had just spun the literary world off its axis with the release of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," and it seemed audacious that an unknown poet from Greenwich Village would be seeking the attention of a publisher that had become a citadel for an emerging generation of poets, novelists and deep thinkers.

Curious, Ginsberg and author Jack Kerouac drove to New York to meet her, impressed by her verse and her spunk. The three became lifelong friends and cohorts in the Beat movement, dramatically changing the course of 20th century literature.

Prolific and daring until the end, di Prima died Sunday in San Francisco, said Sheppard Powell, her partner of 42 years. She was 86 and had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

A free spirit who viewed life as a candy sampler of opportunities and pleasures, Di Prima published more than 40 poetry collections, novels and memoirs, championed other feminist authors, was arrested for obscenity, read a fiery one-line poem titled "Get Yer Cut Throat Off My Knife" at the Band's final concert, once lived at Timothy Leary's psychedelic commune in upstate New York and was named San Francisco's poet laureate by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.

“I wanted everything — very earnestly and totally — I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body,” she explained in an interview with Jacket magazine.

Di Prima was born Aug. 6, 1934, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the lone daughter of an attorney and a school teacher. Her parents had lofty and rigid expectations of their daughter, who was more drawn to the impulses and activism of her maternal grandfather, an Italian immigrant and self-proclaimed anarchist.

She said she began writing when she was 6 and knew she wanted to be a poet by the time she was 14. She attended a distinguished elite high school that drew academic high achievers from the city's five boroughs and put in two years at Swarthmore College before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village, then alive with jazz musicians, writers and counterculture artists.

Early on she met with Ezra Pound, the acclaimed poet and critic who was then confined to a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. She visited him daily, often over lemonade. And she wrote verse at a furious pace.

Her first collection of poems — "This Kind of Bird Flies Backward" — was followed rapidly by "Dinners and Nightmares," a collection of short stories, and "Memoirs of a Beatnik," which became an underground classic for its raw portrayal of the early Beat years.

But it was the multipart epic poem "Loba" that was held in the highest regard by her admirers. First released as a work in progress, the poem was seen by many as the female counterweight to Ginsberg's "Howl."

"How was woman broken?

Falling out of attention.

Wiping gnarled fingers on a faded housedress.

Lying down in the puddle beside the broken jug.

Where was the slack, the loss

of early fierceness?

How did we come to be contained

in rooms?"

She also co-founded the Floating Bear, a newsletter that ultimately got her arrested when she published several poems that the government regarded as obscene, including a piece by William S. Burroughs, the elder statesman of the Beat generation. The charges were later dropped.

She raised five children and took pride in being a dutiful mother. When she left a cocktail party early one evening to look after her daughter, she said Kerouac screamed, "Unless you forget about your babysitter, you're never going to be a writer."

She disagreed, saying that raising children helped give her the discipline to organize her schedule and set aside time for writing. Husbands were another matter. She was married twice, each ending in divorce.

Di Prima eventually grew weary of New York City and began to roam. She moved to the Catskills, then Leary's LSD-tinged commune and spent a year traveling the country in a VW bus, reading poetry in storefronts, galleries and universities. She finally landed in San Francisco as the Summer of Love was fading. She never left.

In San Francisco, she became a member of the Diggers, a group of street activists who collected food for the lost souls who wandered Haight-Ashbury. She studied Buddhism, Sanskrit and alchemy. When pressed on her political leanings, she allowed she was likely an anarchist, much like her grandfather. In 2009, she was named poet laureate of her adopted hometown.

"At the root of it, she was a scholar and an off-the-charts genius," Powell said. "When she got interested in something, she'd want to get to the core of it."

Her final major collection of poems, "The Poetry Deal," was published in 2014. As often was the case, City Lights was her publisher.

Di Prima continued to write until weeks before her death, though her arthritis forced her to use a stylus on a cellphone to write. Sometimes, Powell said, she'd dictate her verse, often to him.

She is survived by Powell, two brothers, five children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.