By David Nilsen
SMASH THE MEDIA, I said,
AND BURN THE SCHOOLS
so people can meet, can sit
and talk to each other, warm and close
no TV image flickering
– page 9
So wrote Diane di Prima in 1968 in a poem titled Revolutionary Letter #11. The legendary feminist poet had just moved to San Francisco from Manhattan, and forty years later she would be named her adopted city’s poet laureate. This poet and the City by the Bay seem meant for each other, each reflecting the other’s countercultural confidence and scathing but optimistic commentary on the broader culture. It’s hard to picture where else di Prima would have found a permanent home for her writing, teaching, art, and activism. It is similarly difficult to picture some of her works published so fittingly by any other than City Lights, the iconic bookstore and publishing house of so many groundbreaking poets and revolutionaries.
Diane di Prima’s life has spanned several of the major countercultural movements of the twentieth century, and her prolific writing serves as a time capsule for the Beat movement and the hippie culture of the 1960s. She continues to be one of the more accessible voices of feminist anarchism. The Poetry Deal: San Francisco Poet Laureate Series No. 5 gives us di Prima’s vision as she looks back at a life lived truly and looks out at a society she still has hope for even as it grieves its failings.
The book opens with a transcript of her inaugural address as poet laureate, a speech in which she reflects on her decades in San Francisco, the hope that characterized the city upon her arrival, and the loss of some of that hope over the years. The address concludes with a manifesto of sorts for her vision for the city, an extended lists of attributes for a society in which human beings live in harmony: “So, a San Francisco where all sexual preferences are good, all pleasure and delight is wonder-full as long as there is joy and communication and no one cares about marriage and no one by the way wants to join the Army, any Army! Why would you do that?” This bohemian, anarchic vision is dominated by a formless idealism, but a deeply beautiful one.
The political core of these poems is not perhaps profound, but their simplicity and, most importantly, their impish optimism are refreshing to those who find themselves weary from looking around at a culture that seems intent on perpetuating its own worst traits and habits. Racism is still deeply imbedded, it’s a major victory when a law is passed that gives LGBTQ individuals something even approaching equal rights, our prison system is a civilian war crime, and we spend more money on the machines of war than most of the rest of the world combined. All of this is true, di Prima concedes. But music is lovely, and what good friends we have. Maybe things will get better. It is a rare spirit that can maintain across its life not only a clear-eyed awareness of the awful things that happen in our society on a daily basis, but also a glowing hope for where we might get to if we figure it out in time, a giddy excitement at what human beings are capable of at their best. Di Prima’s anarchism (as expressed in her poetry, at least) has less to do with organized political theory than with the desire for people to actually see each other, to sit down to meals together, to recognize each other’s humanity, to talk.
In the lines of Revolutionary Letter #11 preceding the excerpt that opened this review, di Prima speaks to this desire, expressing her belief that irrational prejudices are the product of a capitalist political engine that profits from our anger and fear, and if we could sweep that aside, we would find a common humanity in those we see as enemies:
so uptight about, it’s not
your hair, not really, it’s just
what the TV tells him about hippies
got him scared, we got to
come out from behind the image
sit down with him, if he
sat down to a beer with you he’d find
a helluva lot more to say than he’ll find
with the man who makes your image
he’s got nothing in common
with the men who run his mind, who tell him
what to think of us
– page 9
Diane di Prima, eighty years old and recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, will not see the day when her bohemian, anarchist, feminist and free vision is the rule of our society. She knows this, and I suspect her answer to it would be No bother. She doesn’t have time to grieve our present misdeeds. Her time belongs to what might be. Her writing, for half a century and more, has been working toward getting us there.
The Poetry Deal is available now at Greenville Public Library.