Great strength and character animated her conversation. She spoke about her visit to Ezra Pound in 1955 while he was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s for his wartime radio broadcasts, and what an inspiration he had been to her. Di Prima was keen to impart foremost that we had to do things ourselves. No one else, she said, could publish the poems for us. No one would support our vision unless we acted on it. She told the story of Pound discovering Vivaldi’s music in a library in Italy, and how important it was to follow your enthusiasms. Without Pound we would not know Vivaldi, she said. The various institutions that support the arts, she was insistent to say, do not make new discoveries: poets must take charge of their curiosities — and act on them.
Such a practical vision seems also essentially idealistic when viewed from this side of the Cold War, and 10 years into a new war, now one on terror. David Meltzer argues how he “always considered the Beat Generation as a dissident movement, a kind of resistance movement, anti-materialist, pro-civil rights, early poetic ecology, a whole bunch of things, and that it came out of a very complex postwar American culture.” The term “Beat” as literary marker for larger cultural phenomena fails to convey the active public and private engagements those mid-century artists moved forward. The notion of art and life, public and private, indeed, blurred for writers like di Prima, Meltzer, and others. While Beat adventures are reanimated in popular culture through film (Viggo Mortenson as William Burroughs and James Franco as Ginsberg in separate movies), it’s tempting to idealize and celebrate people who responded to the new forms of urbanization and political control at mid-century with art. The dissonant moments are the ones that stand out though. Looking through the cracks in the narratives expose something that might be useful to reflect on now, and di Prima, in her self-invention as a woman, exposes the raw, fragilely mediated experience of a person inspired by poetry.
In an essay on the visionary modernist H. D., di Prima describes her critical process as “a circling / and a zigzagging: a backtracking in and out of the material.” While she hesitates to put her “thoughts out in this way — are they after all, ‘only’ subjective, a woman’s mind? — [she] finds an echo in her own questioning of [H. D.’s] work/her life.” The subjectivity at stake is fluid, improvised, and accessed through an effort to achieve self-perfection. “What we tend so eagerly to forget is that poesis, especially visionary poesis, is a religious path, sought and chosen,” she writes.
The “religious path” for di Prima is one of secular vision. But it’s curated by a passion to influence the immediate experience of culture. It’s hard not to read her “zigzagging” and “backtracking” as fundamental strengths in the stories she tells. Di Prima reaches into a confused and exacting moment in our cultural history to reinvent something that maybe wasn’t there at all: a genuine social commitment to cultural change through visionary poesis. Di Prima’s not so much in control of the stories she tells. Instead, she participates creatively in inherited narratives. Her poems and memoirs document relationships that often remain unresolved in terms of how we understand the Cold War era and its social manifestations. The events and relationships she describes suggest contradictory and often confined experiments with democracy in postwar culture. It comes down to how to live in a modern world based on “assault:” from drones killing children in Pakistan to guns killing them in our schools closer to home. Similarly, healthcare remains something one “owns” through a job. The struggle is to challenge the constant global aggressions that have defined in many ways the postwar period, from conflicts in Vietnam to Afghanistan, or, closer to home, the ongoing injustices of our health and education systems. Di Prima’s current situation in terms of her own health and its costs reminds us that our commitments to satisfying human needs remain uncertain. Even so, new archetypes of some future are yet to be born.