Lamantia, Philip

(1927–2005)
   A misfit and a rebel for most of his life, and certainly from the time he became a teenager, Philip Lamantia achieved fame as a poet a full decade before his Beat contemporaries. “To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets!,” he wrote in 1943 at the age of 16. For the rest of his life he continued to rebel in as many different ways as he could imagine. From the mid-1940s until the late-1990s, he wrote hundreds of poems—many destroyed by his own hand. He published nearly a dozen books, but his complex and enigmatic poetry never reached a wide audience, and he remained the least known of the major poets of the Beat Generation. Born in San Francisco on October 23, 1927, to a working-class Catholic family, Lamantia broke from the church, discovered the world of the macabre and the grotesque in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and as a precocious adolescent wrote inspired love poetry. After viewing an exhibit of the paintings of Juan Mirò and Salvador Dali, he cast himself as a member of the avant-garde and left San Francisco, which struck him as a cultural wasteland. During World War II, he settled in New York where the exiled French surrealist poet André Breton took him under his wing and promoted him as a literary genius.
   His first book, Erotic Poems (1946), exhibits the visionary surrealist element that Breton found compelling. But the lukewarm, largely patronizing introduction by kenneth rexroth, then the leading advocate for California artists and writers, hardly helped Lamantia or his work. As the title suggests, these poems explore sex and love, often in the manner of Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who wrote The Drunken Boat. The cautious poetry world of the mid-1940s refused to embrace the young, iconoclastic Lamantia, and he became notorious for such lines as, “I am a criminal when your body is bare upon the universe.” In California again, he finally graduated from high school, then studied at the University of California at Berkeley, and moved in anarchist circles. In the mid-1950s, he gravitated toward the poetry scene that was just then emerging in San Francisco’s North Beach—energized by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s fledgling City Lights Bookstore and publishing company and by the arrival from the East Coast of two young poets, jack kerouac and allen ginsberg. Lamantia appeared onstage at the legendary poetry reading that took place at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955, when Rexroth served as M.C. and Ginsberg first performed the first part of his signature Beat poem “howl.” Oddly enough, Lamantia did not read his own work, though he was the only poet on the program with a published book of poems to his name. (John Suiter has revealed that after experiencing what he thought was a near-death experience after a scorpion bite in Mexico in early 1955, Lamantia called to the Madonna of Guadalupe for help. Questioning his renunciation of Catholicism when Lamantia read at the Six Gallery, he did not feel comfortable reading his earlier poetry and read the work of John Hoffman, a friend who was rumored to have died from a peyote overdose.) From that moment on, until his death at the age of 78 on March 7, 2005, Lamantia played an integral and influential role in the San Francisco literary scene—occasionally teaching poetry and reading his own poems in public—but he rarely assumed a commanding presence at the center of the literary scene. In 1970 he married Nancy Peters, an editor at City Lights, which published several of his works, including Selected Poems 1943-1966 (1967), Becoming Visible (1981), Meadowlark West (1986), and Bed of Sphinxes: New and Selected Poems, 1943-1993 (1997). Lamantia published five other volumes: Ekstatis (1959), Narcotica (1959)—an unapologetic defense of narcotics—Destroyed Work (1962), Touch of the Marvelous (1966), and The Blood of the Air (1970). The titles hint at the author’s preoccupations with visibility and invisibility, extreme states of consciousness, the mysterious and the occult. Like many of his Beat contemporaries, Lamantia experimented with illegal drugs—including heroin and peyote—embraced jazz—especially the music of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk-and traveled to Mexico and Morocco, eulogizing the downtrodden of the Earth and lambasting global capitalism. Like Ginsberg, he explored the apocalyptic and the catastrophic. Like gary snyder, he captured California’s rare natural beauty-its mountains, rivers, and forests. What makes Lamantia’s poetry unique is his willingness to blend the opaque and the transparent and to experiment unremittingly with language, form, and voice. Eschewing the linear, his poetry achieves its power and beauty through digression and accretion, weaving odd bits and strange pieces into asymmetrical wholes. Reading a Lamantia poem often feels like hearing a series of dissonant voices, not one single, harmonious voice.
   The author described his own ideas about poetry in a seminal 1976 essay entitled “Notes Toward a Rigorous Interpretation of Surrealist Occultation,” but his clearest, most precise views on poetry can be found in his own poems. In Meadowlark West, for example, he notes that “poetry is wedded to silence” and that “poetry knows in the unknowing.” Students who approach Lamantia’s poetry for the first time will find it difficult. Those who have enjoyed his work—including Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti-have insisted that the effort needed to comprehend his work is worthwhile. Almost all of his poetry, even the most erotic, is infused with a sense of the spiritual, and it is not surprising that near the end of his life he returned, in some measure, to the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church into which he was born.
 Bibliography
■ Frattali, Steven. Hypodermic Light: The Poetry of Philip Lamantia and the Question of Surrealism. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.
■ Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’sHowland the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
■ Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002.
   Jonah Raskin

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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