Poetry That Matters

Revolutionary Letters, Diana Di Prima (191pp, £13.99, Silver Press)

This new U.K. edition of Revolutionary Letters gathers up fifty years of Di Prima’s anarchic and insightful series of poems which she started writing back in 1968. Moving to New York City in the 1950s she embedded herself in the alternative culture of the Beatniks in Greenwich Village before embracing the Black Panther movement, drugs, feminism, counterculture politics, direct action, and what we now call small press publishing.

The book contains freeform rants, comments upon topical events, advice to friends and/or would-be revolutionaries, lists, cynicism, utopian ideologues and utopian dreams. Somewhat surprisingly, alongside the down-to-earth survival techniques she shares there is also the presence of the spiritual weaving through her work alongside questioning insight:

   You cannot write a single line w/ out a cosmology
   a cosmogony
   laid out, before all eyes


   There is no way out of the spiritual battle
   the war is the war against the imagination
   you can’t sign up as a conscientious objector.
      (‘Revolutionary Letter #75’)

   As soon as we submit
   to a system based on causality, linear time
   we submit, again, to the old values, plunge again
   into slavery.
      (‘Revolutionary Letter #51’)

At other times, however, she is jubilantly optimistic and proclaimative:

   I will not rest
   till we walk free & fearless on the earth
   each doing in the manner of his blood
   & tribe, peaceful in the free air
      (‘Revolutionary Letter #20’)

Other poems offer dialogue with other poets – be they famous or unknown, or immediate responses to local (the NYC police clearing Tompkins Park of the homeless, her neighbours’ need for money or food) and international events such as 9/11, The Gulf War, or The Occupy movement:

   Occupy the planet
   the Oceans
   as well
               as the Land

   Mind is unlimited
   Can go anywhere

   Occupy the Night Sky,
   Mother Nuit

   Occupy your breath
   Your Body & remember
   We are one Body

   Occupy with Love
      (‘Revolutionary Letter #108’)

I like the fact Di Prima is often angry, sometimes anti-technology (‘did you ever try to email chicken soup?’) informative and instructive, and that her work includes both elation and despair. She cuts through the crap of political rhetoric, points out what is actually important in society – be that local or international, and reminds us that we can change the world as individuals, starting with where we live, how we live and who we live with or next to. It’s easy to be cynical about poems as a container of comment or narrative, let alone as a catalyst for revolution, but words do affect us and can inspire, effect and facilitate change.

Di Prima’s work, like that of Adrian Mitchell, Kenneth Patchen and Julian Beck, can often be labelled simplistic and obvious, naive and unnuanced, but as I numbly watch the bombs fall on Ukraine and wonder what on earth I can do, it’s good to be reminded as a writer that poetry can matter:

   What matters:
                            the memory
   of the poem
                            taking root in
                            of minds…
      (‘Revolutionary Letter #110’)



Rupert Loydell

(first published at Tears in the Fence)

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