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Lust for Life

May 18, 1997|DIANE DI PRIMA | Diane di Prima is author of numerous books, including "Memoirs of a Beatnik" and the long poem "Loba."

I met Allen Ginsberg's work a few months before I met Allen himself. Soon after "Howl" came out in 1956, a friend came to dinner in my Hell's Kitchen apartment in Manhattan and brought me a copy. I was moved and delighted. For several years, I had been writing poetry and stories in the "hip" argot of the period--much to the horror of everyone I knew--and now, here it was: Language I loved had broken into print. I felt strong and vindicated.

It's probably hard for anyone now to realize just how much that book meant to us writers and artists who were in our early 20s back then. It was a difficult time. We had all had our Carl Solomons: Some friend locked away in prison or madhouse or, worse, dead or disabled from electric shock. There was no one in my generation who didn't carry some such tale in mind and heart, so Allen immediately and at once spoke for all of us. It was his special gift.

If artists are "the antennae of the race," then poets are articulate antennae, and Allen throughout his life had a particular knack for speaking the concerns that were as yet only on the periphery of consciousness.

I was just 22 and I acted with the quickness of that age: I wrote to Ginsberg in care of City Lights Books in San Francisco, and I sent some work. Not to publish especially, just to share something with like-minded folk. I got an encouraging letter from Lawrence Ferlinghetti almost immediately and a few months later Ginsberg himself appeared at my door. He arrived unannounced (we had no phone in any case) and stayed for a couple of days. He brought several friends with him, including his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and Jack Kerouac. They were all on their way to Europe and Morocco.

Many things transpired in the short time that they were at my house, but suffice it to say that betwixt and between satisfying various voracious and youthful appetites, we talked writing and read our work to each other, morning, noon and night. It was a great feast of the word.

When Allen and Peter returned from that journey, I was living on Houston Street on the Lower East Side. It turned out they had taken an apartment two blocks away. I helped them move in and occasionally came by (I remember that all the kitchen cupboards were full of books), but I had a child by then and didn't have as much time to hang out. Whenever we did get together, though, the conversation resumed seamlessly: We discussed poetry and sometimes politics, but the subtext was always how to do the work and take care of the growing tribe. It was something we both cared passionately about.

Some years later, Allen returned from a long trip to India sporting a beard and many tales of his encounters with gurus. I was then presiding over a domain that included a husband and three children, a theater and innumerable writing projects. Allen was frequently in and out of my house in those days, asking forthright questions as I chased a baby down the hall (How was my sex life?) or settling in for the evening to lead us all in a satsang. It was a time when we, all of us, cared about mantras.

By 1966, after many adventures and some not inconsiderable battles, my theater was gone. I moved to upstate New York with my family, first to a rented farmhouse, then to Timothy Leary's community at Millbrook. Allen and Timothy were good friends, and it was at his urging that I kept a detailed journal of daily life there. Millbrook was, he told me, a typical American social experiment, equal in importance to the 19th century utopian communities.

The next year brought a summer of many urban riots. My family and I were back in Manhattan for a brief time, ensconced in the Hotel Albert on University Avenue. This was a time of multiple causes and petitions: Allen and I worked together on many of them.

There was some sense, I think on both our parts, that we could rely on the other in such endeavors. We shared an ethos in some odd way. It was inherited and familial: Allen's was Jewish and socialist, and mine Italian and anarchist, but when it was time to act, we mostly tended to see eye to eye. And beyond that, Allen had this passion for what William Burroughs recently called "openness," for not concealing anything at all. Speaking it, writing it, singing it, laughing it, talking about it, bringing everything human into the light of day. And exploring anything at all. What we all knew at that time--were certain of--was that experience itself is good, that we had the right to all possible human experience. And the right to talk about it.

On summer solstice in 1968, I moved tothe West Coast to be closer to my Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, and to work with the Diggers and others on the social and economic changes we deemed to be not only possible but imminent. I've been there ever since.

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