Philip Lamantia (1927-2005)by John Yau
Philip Lamantia, whose poetry is “set like stars in snow,” became an enduring source of inspiration for a number of poets, myself included, in the 1960s, when his work was included in the landmark anthology, New American Poetry (1960), edited by Donald Allen, and his book Selected Poems, 1943-1966 (1967) was published by City Lights Press and cost a dollar and half. Although he was never one to trumpet his biography, avid fans learned that Lamantia was suspended from junior high school for “intellectual delinquency.” His crime was immersing himself in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. It was gratifying to learn that reading was considered a crime because it explained why so few people in America read and why you, as a reader, were called names. He was 15 when he published his first poems in the legendary journal, View: A Magazine of the Arts. In 1943, when he was 16, he dropped out of high school and moved from San Francisco to New York, where he worked as an assistant editor for View, and met Andre Breton, who declared his was “a voice that rises once in a hundred years.” It was this connection that caught the attention of any teenager getting interested in poetry in the sixties. In 1946, he published his first book, Erotic Poems (Bern Porter, 1946) and moved back to San Francisco, leaving New York shortly before Jackson Pollock became a legend and Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery moved to Manhattan. Not yet twenty, he had finished with the first phase of his poetic career in which he wrote poetry unlike anyone else’s in America. In his biographical note included in the New American Poetry, he wrote: “broke with surrealism by 1946.” Not only had Breton welcomed him into the surrealist movement, but also he was able to leave it behind. This put Lamantia in especially good company. An omnivorous reader who was largely self-taught, he could have settled into the style that he had mastered as a teenager, but he didn’t. In his writing, he kept moving and never made being a poet into a career.
Lamantia’s association with the Beats marks the second phase of his career. And while they received far more attention than he did, Lamantia’s independence was unrivaled. He didn’t need public adulation and didn’t know how to make small talk. While others made pronouncements, he “read the spells of Egyptian patiently.”
In the early 1950s, in San Francisco, he met Lawrence Ferlinghetti who would later start City Lights Books and bookstore, and, starting with Selected Poems, published four of Philip’s books between 1967 and 1997. According to Ferlinghetti, Philip was “writing stream of consciousness Surrealist poetry, and he had a huge influence on Allen Ginsberg. Before that Ginsberg was writing rather conventional poetry. It was Philip who turned him on to Surrealist writing. Then Ginsberg wrote “Howl.” He participated in the peyote-eating rituals of the Washoe Indians of Nevada, and began traveling to Europe, Mexico, and Morocco, all of which he admitted into his poetry.
The gods are vomiting
I am entering earth I am walled in light I am where song is
Shot into my eyes O hypodermic light
It is during the fifties that Lamantia’s poetry becomes anti-literary as well as subverts the conventional strain of surrealist syntax. He breathed life into surrealism, got it back into the world, where it belonged all along.
I have given fair warning
I have given fair warning
Chicago New York Los Angeles have gone down
I have gone to Swan City where the ghost of Maldoror may still roam
The south is very civilized
I have eaten rhinoceros tail
It is the last night among crocodiles
Albion opens his fist in a palm grove
I shall watch speckled jewel grow on the back of warspilt horses
Exultation rides by
A poppy the size of the sun in my skull
I have given fair warning
At the time of corpses and clouds I can make love here as anywhere
In October 1955, Lamantia was the first to read at the Six Gallery, San Francisco. The other readers that momentous night were Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg, who read “Howl” for the first time. It is this watershed event, and the publication of “Howl” by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press in 1956 that changed America’s literary landscape. For one thing, it transformed poetry into a clarion call for rebellion. That night, in typical Lamantia fashion, Philip chose to read the work of John Hoffman, a friend of his who had recently died of a peyote overdose in Mexico. In Dharma Bums (1957), Jack Kerouac described Lamantia as the “delicate Francis DaPavia” who read poems typed on “delicate onionskin yellow pages.” In the 1990s, he let Garret Caples publish selections from Hoffman’s original manuscript in a small edition of twenty-six copies, which was given to friends.
Shortly after the Six Gallery reading, Lamantia seemed to go “underground.” He didn’t go to the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963. His poems appeared only occasionally in small magazines. Blood of the Air was published in 1970, followed eleven years later by Becoming Invisible (1981). It was not lost on some poets that Lamantia chose not to become a public figure. And there is the poetry, dazzling, irreducible, and elusive. This is the last line from “From The Front,” written before 1961: “Motorcycles of atonal venetian blind dust of wind roof top!” No wonder Lamantia’s poetry remains largely unwritten about. He didn’t make it easy for the reader. He didn’t package his poetry in any theory, didn’t write work that could be explicated, didn’t try to convince anyone of anything. Language became hallucination, and he knew that you couldn’t be programmatic about that.
In 1997, after reading my review of his second selected poems, Bed of Sphinxes, Selected Poems 1943-1993 (City Lights, 1996), Philip called me and we talked for a couple of hours. I had never met him and certainly never thought I would. In 1994 and ’95, while I was living in Oakland and teaching at UC Berkeley, I learned from the poet and translator Andrew Joron that Lamantia was prone to long, debilitating bouts of depression, and that during those periods he became even more reclusive than usual. As Philip told me on the phone, he had emerged from a long depression, and was very happy, and wanted to meet me. He had become friends with a number of younger poets who were friends of mine and who would accompany him to church and elsewhere over the next few years, before his depression returned. They watched over him, cared about him, worried about his state of mind. We all knew this state of openness wouldn’t last.
In 1998, Andrew, Garrett, Jeff Clark, and Anna Naruta introduced me to Philip. We all ate in Chinatown, not far from his apartment. Chris Felver was also there and took photographs. Philip talked for hours, “in a way humming through crystals of light most unexpected.” It all made sense and it was all exalted, passionate, funny, and intense. The rest of us, who weren’t exactly slouches in the department of all night talking, could barely keep up with him. How could you with a “Charmed Bird, zephyr of High Crags?” By the end of the night, which was dawn, we left his apartment convinced we had all ingested a life-changing drug. The drive back to Berkeley was memorable because none of us spoke, not wanting to cover over what Philip had said. That’s the Philip I remember, a man who was sweet, tender, and vulnerable, but who spoke with an authority that held us all in thrall.
Garret called to tell me the news. Philip had died peacefully in a chair; he had just come back from getting the mail. There was no sign that he had suffered. A day later Jeff Clark sent me a jpeg of Philip, as well as the clip from a Maya Deren film in which he had a role. Joe Donahue sent me an email, as did Albert Mobilio and others. Jeremy Sigler left a message on my answering machine. There is a hole in our lives and we all know it.
Philip Lamantia’s poems showed Ginsberg and others what language can do. As Ginsberg acknowledged, Lamantia was his “teacher.” This is from his poem, “Hypodermic Light,” which was included in Destroyed Works (1962):
That the total hatred wants to annihilate me!
it’s the sickness of american pus against which I’m hallucinated
I’m sick of language
I want this wall I see under my eyes break up and shatter you
I’m talking all the poems after God
I want the table of visions to send me oriole opium
A state of siege
It’s possible to live directly from elementals! hell stamps out
vegetable spirits, zombies attack heaven! the marvelous put
down by martial law, America fucked by a stick of marijuana
paper money larded for frying corpses!
Here comes the Gorgon! There’s the outhouse!
Come up from dead things, anus of the sun!