Diane di Prima (1934–2020)
Prolific feminist beat poet and cultural icon, whose revolutionary work continues to be relevant.
Diane di Prima, one of the last surviving beat poets, has died in San Francisco at the age of 86. Of the few women associated with the Beat movement, Di Prima’s work reflects the upheaval and rebellion of the 1960’s from a feminist point of view. Her life’s work includes more than 30 collections of poetry, and she also wrote plays, short stories and nonfiction. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages, and she was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in 2009.
Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Di Prima began writing at the Hunter College High School in New York City. When she was 19 she was mentored by Ezra Pound, whom she visited at a psychiatric hospital in Washington. She went on to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, but dropped out two years later to join a bohemian community in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Her most famous work Memoirs of a Beatnik (Penguin, 1969) recounts this period of her life, where she was a contemporary of, and became friends with Jack Kerouac, Alan Gisnberg, John Ashbury, Denise Levertov and Frank O’Hara, and became part of the Beat movement.
Her first poetry book was entitled This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (Totem Press) and published in 1958. Three years later she co-founded the New York Poets Theatre and became co-editor of the Floating Bear, a mimeograph newspaper.
Her subjects were often contentious – feminism, class and counterculture, and Di Prima was regularly targeted by the authorities. She was arrested by the FBI in 1961 for publishing two obscene poems in the Floating Bear, but the case was dismissed. Alan Ginsberg praised the radical slant of her work, declaring her “heroic” and “brilliant”, and stating that she was “a learned humorous bohemian, classically educated and twentieth-century radical, her writing, informed by Buddhist equanimity, is exemplary in imagist, political and mystical modes.”
Di Prima founded the Poet’s Press in 1964, and moved to California, where she taught at various colleges and arts institutes, and was formative to Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
She died on October the 25th 2020, in hospital in San Francisco.