Diane di Prima Essay - Critical Essays


Diane di Prima’s poetry falls into two clearly distinguished chronological and thematic categories. Her works from 1957 to 1975 are suffused with the idiom of the Beat generation, the language of the hipster and personal rebellion. Di Prima considers her association with the poets of the Beat generation and the San Francisco Renaissance as seminal for her work, as she explained in an interview:Don’t forget, however great your visioning and your inspiration, you need the techniques of the craft and there’s nowhere, really to get them . . . they are passed on person to person and back then the male naturally passed them to the male. I think maybe I was one of the first women to break through that in having deep conversations with Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara.

Further evidence of this mentoring process can be seen in the fact that Jones, through his Totem Press, published di Prima’s first collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a brief “non-introduction by way of an introduction” for it. The volume is full of Beat terminology, such as “hip,” “cool,” and “crazy.” Although she saw herself, as did most of the female Beat writers, inhibited by the “eternal, tiresome rule of Cool,” she also acknowledges that Ginsberg taught her to have confidence in her own spontaneity and emphasized the importance of technical writing skills. The best view of this phase of di Prima’s work can be found in her collection Selected Poems, 1956-1975, which extracts her favorite poems from This Kind of Bird Flies Backward to Freddie Poems.

The second part of her work covers the period after she moved to Northern California in 1970. It is characterized by a less strident tone, a gradual decline in use of the Beat vocabulary, and a growing concern with spiritual and ecological matters, particularly her increasing involvement in Buddhism and her role as a woman and mother. Much of this changing perspective can be found in her collection Pieces of a Song. Many commentators consider the long serial poem Loba the most typical work of di Prima’s mature creative period.

Dinners and Nightmares

Di Prima’s second poetry collection, Dinners and Nightmares, is dedicated to her “pads & the people who shared them with me.” The first part consists of descriptions of meals she has shared with a variety of people in the bohemian milieu of New York, and there is good reason to believe that most of these sketches are in fact based on real people and events. The second part is a collection of poetic “nightmares,” dark contrasts to the more pleasant dinners of the first section. The nightmares deal with the squalid living conditions on the lower East Side, with thwarted or hopeless love affairs, or with standing in unemployment lines:

Then I was standing in line unemployment green institution green room green people slow shuffle. Then to the man ahead said clerk-behind-desk, folding papers bored and sticking on seals Here are your twenty reasons for living sir.

Some of the “nightmares” are expressed in imagistic one-liners: “It hurts to be murdered” or “Get your cut throat off my knife.”

The collection concludes with a section called “More or Less Love Poems,” terse vignettes of love in the hipster pads, where “coolness” thinly disguises anguish and fear of loneliness:

Yeah that was once in a lifetime baby you gotta be clean and with new shoes to love like I love you. I think it won’t happen again.

Or even more pithily:

You are not quite the air I breathe thank God. so go.

It is possible to see rebellion and defiance in these lines, as well as an obstinate insistence on living life on her own terms, but while there is little self-pity (that would not have been “cool”), it is impossible to overlook her feelings of anguish and isolation.


The collection Earthsong was edited by Marlowe, di Prima’s then-husband, and published by Poets Press. In the introduction, Marlowe writes, “these poems contain the hard line of the fifties, and the smell of New York winters, cold and grey, as well as Miles Davis’ jazz and the search for new forms.” Di Prima reveals her extensive classical reading in a lighthearted Beat parody of Elizabethan poet/dramatist Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1599), which she turns...

(The entire section is 2141 words.)