Diane di Prima was writing and publishing controversial work on the subject of rape and incest when it was considered indecent for a young woman to live alone. She was taking drugs and having orgies when the rest of her peers were learning shorthand and awaiting marriage proposals. It comes as no surprise then, that when she was first publishing in the 50s, her work was way ahead of its time.
A contemporary of Beat writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Imanu Amari Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), di Prima’s writing covers similar ground to theirs. She is obsessed with the lies and pains of civilisation and our birth right to freedom, though much more likely to focus on the utopian, futuristic and mystical than her Beat compatriots. Her Revolutionary Letters (beginning in the 60s and progressing through to the 00s) denounce all that puts limits on this freedom: conformity, bureaucracy, decorum, and the majority of them are exciting.
Di Prima makes the revolution real for us. She talks about the importance of wearing shoes in which we can run and keeping our baths filled with water in case of government initiated emergencies. She tells us which foods to buy that will keep for longest in case of a boycott and congratulates us on not being complacent and greedy like the rest of America:
remember we are all used to eating less
than the ‘average American’ and take it easy
ever notice we’re hungry the rest of the folk will be starving
used as they are to meat and fresh milk daily
She includes us in her pack of svelte, proactive revolutionaries, inspiring us with her words. The question is what to do next. And this is where di Prima falls down, even more so because we are reading her work with the benefit of hindsight. It is all too clear that her revolution doesn’t lead anywhere. And as the Revolutionary Letters progress she seems to move further and further away from what is possible, looking towards an entirely fictional world post-revolution.
This later vision of post revolutionary life is merely a utopia: a beautiful impossibility where women and men make love under trees abundant with fruit and children roam the land unthreatened. As the chance of real revolution diminishes, Di Prima’s poetry finds solace in the unreal.
Di Prima hasn’t lost her edge, but the rest of the world has caught up with her ideas, and there’s still no sign of revolution. Despite this, Revolutionary Letters contains strokes of genius. Di Prima’s stark free verse cuts into you frequently, stopping you and demanding to be read again. Her poetry stays in your head for days.
But it is often the least politically charged writing that is most impressive. In "April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa" di Prima remembers her grandfather, the activist who inspired her to devote her life to invoking change. It is the simple gentleness here – so rare in her poetry – that makes it stand out.
The idealist radicalism that di Prima is famed for rings out throughout the book, but forty years later, it has lost much of its power. The issues she covers remain as relevant as ever, but her approach to them is no longer avant-garde. Her ideas have been overworked and underproductive, her main themes no longer sound revolutionary but jaded, obvious, elementary. She hones in on capitalist discontentment perfectly, but she is one of many. The only thing that makes her stand out is the fact that she once believed revolution was possible. For that alone, then, this collection may be a testament worth owning.