By Emily Langer
Oct. 26, 2020
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 Ms. 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.
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.
Ms. 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.”
Ms. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. 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,” Ms. di Prima told The Washington Post in 2017. “He was probably hoping to get laid later.”)
Ms. 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).
Ms. 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, Ms. di Prima once told the Chicago Tribune, “brought over anarchism and a sense of poetry as belonging to everyone.”