Diane di Prima, a poet and writer who was regarded as the most significant female member of the Beat Generation, the male-dominated countercultural movement of the 1950s to which she lent her feminist, sometimes anarchist sensibility, died Oct. 25 at a hospital in San Francisco. She was 86.
She had Parkinson’s disease and Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder, according to a statement from her family.
For di Prima, the author of more than 40 works of poetry, prose and theater, writing was “like being a hermit or a samurai. A calling. The holiest life that was offered in our world.” By her actions, she declared herself a conscientious objector to the bourgeois life of her childhood, quitting college because it distracted her from her artistic pursuits and making a name for herself, first in New York and later in San Francisco, amid the tumult of the counterculture.
“Certain times, certain epochs, live on in the imagination as more than what they ‘actually’ were. . . . They are, if you look close, times when the boundary between mythology and everyday life is blurred,” she wrote in her 2001 memoir, “Recollections of My Life as a Woman.” “This meeting of world and myth is where we all thought we were going.”
The Beat movement, epitomized by the works of such writers as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, was largely a male preserve, although it did make room for female poets including Joanne Kyger and Anne Waldman.
Di Prima made her poetic debut with the collection “This Kind of Bird Flies Backward” (1958). City Lights, the venerable San Francisco bookseller and publisher co-founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, describes her collection “Revolutionary Letters” (1971) as “a series of poems composed of a potent blend of utopian anarchism and ecological awareness, projected through a Zen-tinged feminist lens.”
Her work “is the expression of a strong, sensitive, intelligent woman during more than two decades of social and artistic ferment,” reads an entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. “Unfettered by the conventions of academia or society, she speaks of life outside the mainstream of middle-class America,” charting “the shifting streams of America’s fringe culture.”
Di Prima had five children – including one with LeRoi Jones, the influential African American poet later known as Amiri Baraka – while publishing her writings, co-founding with Jones a mimeographed literary newsletter, the Floating Bear, and pursuing the self-discovery that the freedoms of the counterculture promised. But she described maternal responsibilities as imposing on her life the discipline that made writing possible.
In her memoir, she recalled a Beat party in New York, with alcohol and marijuana readily available, which di Prima left at 11:30 p.m. to tend to her daughter.
“DI PRIMA,” she recalled Kerouac shouting, “UNLESS YOU FORGET ABOUT YOUR BABYSITTER, YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE A WRITER.”
(Asked years later about the incident, di Prima said that she did not attribute Kerouac’s comment to sexism. “Jack wanted me to hang out because everyone was gay and I was straight,” di Prima told The Washington Post in 2017. “He was probably hoping to get laid later.”)
Di Prima moved in 1968 to San Francisco, where she joined the Diggers, an anarchist group in the Haight-Ashbury district that provided free food, clothes and theater to the poor, and continued her writing. “Loba,” an epic poem published in installments beginning in 1973, centers on a wolf goddess and is often described as the female answer to Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955).
Di Prima lived for the rest of her life in San Francisco, becoming the city’s poet laureate in 2009 and, by the time of her death, one of the few surviving members of the Beat generation. Kerouac had died in 1969, Burroughs and Ginsberg in 1997. Baraka died in 2014.
Diane Rose di Prima was born on Aug. 6, 1934, to an Italian American family in Brooklyn. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother became a reading teacher. An early influence on her political sensibilities was her immigrant grandfather, who, di Prima once told the Chicago Tribune, “brought over anarchism and a sense of poetry as belonging to everyone.”
“He would say that everyone had read Dante,” she recalled, “and I pictured all the housewives reading Dante.”
Di Prima attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s but, to her parents’ horror, dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village.
“No matter what I will be a poet,” she recalled thinking, describing in her memoir the sense of purpose of which she was possessed. “Be great, whatever that means . . . I can taste the struggles. The things I now leave behind . . . leaving the quiet unquestioned living and dying, the simple one-love-and-marriage, children, material pleasures, easy securities. I am leaving the houses I will never own. Dishwashers. Carpets. Dull respect of dull neighbors. None of this matters really. I have already seen it all for the prison it is.”
In New York, she absorbed influences from jazz music to avant-garde stage works and helped found the New York Poets Theatre. She experimented sexually and with drugs and lived for a period at a commune in Millbrook, N.Y., led by Timothy Leary, who promoted use of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. She published an early prose work titled “Memoirs of a Beatnik” (1969).
Di Prima was 22 when she decided to have a baby outside of marriage as a single mother. In her poem “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” she wrote:
I won’t promise
you’ll never go hungry
or that you won’t be sad
on this gutted
but I can show you
enough to love
to break your heart
Di Prima’s subsequent marriages to Alan Marlowe and Grant Fisher ended in divorce.
Survivors include her partner of 42 years, Sheppard Powell; her eldest daughter, Jeanne Di Prima, from a relationship with Stefan Baumrin; her daughter Dominique DiPrima, from her relationship with Baraka; two children from her marriage to Marlowe, Alexander Marlowe and Tara Marlowe; a son from her marriage to Fisher, Rudi Di Prima; two brothers; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Di Prima taught at several universities in California and co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. The family statement announcing her death described her as a devout Buddhist.
She continued writing poetry every day until the final two weeks of her life, calling up the creative forces that powered the Beat movement.
“It’s not a generation,” she wrote in her poem “Keep the Beat.” “It’s a state of mind . . . a way of living, gone on for centuries, a way of writing, too.”