Diane di Prima: Recollections of
My Life as a Woman: The New York Years

by Dale Smith

She speaks to those uncanny forces that so mark a life. She explores with candor the accumulated history of her past, fronting a careful narrative from the deeper mystery that rarely confronts the active, daily “I.” From the confusing, combative, inspired age of the American Renaissance—the 50s and 60s arts movements of the avant garde in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles—she retrieves a gift for those who continue to struggle through the vagaries of life and art today. The terms have changed radically under harsher economic pressures, but her compressed statement of poetics remains actively valid: “The requirements of our life is the form of our art.”

Strongly identified—perhaps overly so—with the Beat generation, poet Diane di Prima was born during the Great Depression, grew up in a Sicilian American household wedged between the abusive demands of parents and the spirit-invoking beauty of art. “What we knew, most of us, was we came from a maddened people,” she writes of her childhood. “Our parents, destroyed by depression, war, fear, greed. By being immigrants in a land of conformity. Turned on us daily, we had only each other” (74). It’s when she discovers poetry and the world of the mind that another alternative, a saner world, presents itself to her. “I am certain of nothing, but the Holiness of the Heart’s Affections and the Truth of the Imagination,” she writes, quoting Keats, turning this into a personal mantra of inspiration that keeps her on art’s path. At Hunter, a High School for ace students she attended in Manhatten, her love of art deepened as her friendships extended to include other talented young women of the time, Audre Lorde among them. It was an inspired period where, free of domineering home life, she and her friends could study, wander New York book shops and coffee bars, “sheltered by some European understanding of i studenti” (85).

“At that time I didn’t recognize ‘good taste’ for what it was: cultural oppression—a kind of racism, in fact” (81). In the years to come she would test the limits of herself and her art, pushing through those ideas of “good taste,” both in her writing and in her social life.

After dropping out of Swarthmore college to pursue the life of a poet in 1950s New York City, free finally of family and their influence, she explored that city during a period of singular convergence. Painters, poets, playwrights, actors and critics met, argued, played, loved and extended ideas of creative mythology in that victorious twilight after World War II. Beatniks, freakniks, addicts, hipsters and fringe figures provided the street education di Prima valued. Against this was set a rigorous study of dance and poetry. When she visited Ezra Pound, then incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D.C., she was impressed by the “purpose, an urgency” of art. “The question of what could be saved, as civilization went down” (144). Inspired by the singular genius of Pound, she began publishing Floating Bear in 1961 with LeRoi Jones, (now known as Amiri Baraka), and continued production of this seminal literary magazine through 1969. Through this era of her life run lovers, children, personal conflicts, drugs and more. “That the work is a part of the life, and you have leave to stop it, become a hobo, a mother, disappear, get sick, strung out, and you have leave to go back to it” (224)….

As she matured as a writer, her attentions became more directed with purpose throughout the chaos of the early 1960s. “I had no clear sense of the pressures of my daily life in New York,” she writes, the “only value was in the Work itself” (262). By 1964, after three children and a love affair with LeRoi Jones that by now had ended for good, di Prima entered a new phase as a working artist. With Alan Marlowe, to whom she had entered a marriage of convenience, she operated Poets Theater in various lower eastside locations. This was “a time when the archetypes stalked the streets of Manhattan, numinous and often deadly. When angels, incubi, and other dreams of what could be settled in your hair and refused to be brushed aside” (368). As the craziness of that period of life escalated she managed to write several books, Seven Love Poems from the Middle Latin, Freddie Poems and Calculus of Variation among them. She also bought an off-set press, printed books, managed a large household, navigated entangled literary and personal relationships, survived the death of close friend Fred Herko and, despite this, somehow thrived. 

There was great risk in di Prima’s world. And there were great artists, Frank O’Hara, Merce Cunningham, Larry Rivers and Jim Dine among them. She documents a period of Renaissance, a rare time of compressed creative energy. It focused on a city, in a time of rare balance, set between ideas of who artists were and how they should engage the world they lived in. So much of that radical experimentation seems to have gone now, except for smaller, less socially evident pockets of creative groundwork. The demands of economy subsumed a greater world. Nine to 5 became standard, even for the avant-garde. But di Prima shows another way and another time, and with frank and candid prose retrieves a vast portion of that period of vital energy. Her unpretentious prose is a gift, and she sees through her resistance of making a finely written book to display a rare candor instead. As matron of an obscure but culturally invaluable art, she re-enacts that magic of the imagination in an effort to re-member her world.