Philip Lamantia – Part 1

Philip Lamantia (1927-2005) – Photographed in 1981 by Chris Felver

Happy, immensely happy, to be able to announce the publication (long-awaited publication) of The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia

For other Lamantia-on-the-Ginsberg blog postings, see here  here and here and here and here

On this occasion, we feature…
from “The Literary History of the Beat Generation”, Allen’s 1982 Naropa lecture series – his seminar on Philip Lamantia – a full transcription  (the audio is available here (starting approximately thirty-one-and-three-quarter minutes in) and continuing

AG: So..we’ll start with Lamantia. How many know Lamantia? – I brought up a whole bunch of Lamantia’s books, didn’t I? – How many know Lamantia? [Allen looks around the class] – you do and you do and you do – How many don’t know Lamantia at all? – [Allen turns to Student] – You know, I guess, (G), don’t you?

Student (G): A little bit.

AG: I think last term, last time I went around I did some but I’ll probably be repeating some of those because it’s of that same period, if you can do it, if you can take it. I think I mentioned that he was the one person who went to New York during the time that the Surrealists were in residence during World War II, around.. near the Museum of Modern Art (they were being patronized by the Museum of Modern Art, they had a home, in a sense, and (by) galleries, Peggy Guggenheim had a gallery. Then there was the magazine, View, and there was another magazine edited by Andre Breton, the chief Surrealist called VVV)  and Lamantia had, at the age of thirteen, come to New York and met all the Surrealists and stayed over in the office of View, and published poems in View magazine and VVV, so when he was thirteen (which would be, I guess (19)45 – (19)46 maybe?

Student: He was born in 1927

AG: Yeah – (19)27, so in 1944.. let’s see, from 27 to 44 is what?

Student: (19)44, he’d be seventeen.

AG: Yeah – I was at Columbia and I opened a copy of VVV magazine and read this (not knowing who he was, but it was Philip Lamantia) – [Allen begins reading Lamantia’s “Hermetic Bird“] – “Hermetic  Bird” “The sky is to be opened/This plundered body to be loved/this lantern to be tied/ around the fangs of your heart/  Lost on a bridge/going across oceans of tragedy/across islands of inflammable women/I stand/with my feathers entangled in your navel/with my wings opalescent in the night/and shout words heard tomorrow..” – Exactly. Here we are! – “shout words heard tomorrow/ in a little peasant cart/ of the seventeenth century” – that last image is very similar to (Arthur) Rimbaud – that little “peasant cart”, carriages at the bottom of the lake, “little peasant cart/ of the seventeenth century”…”Breath by breath/ the vase in the tomb/breaks to give birth to the roving Sphinx….”…. “On the pillars of nicotine/ the word pleasure is erased by a dog’s tongue” – that’s pretty good! – “On the pillars of nicotine/ the word pleasure (in italics) is erased by a dog’s tongue/On the pillars, the bodies are opened by keys/the keys are nailed to my bed/to be touched at dawn/to be used in a dream”…”you and I/ will ride over the breast of our mother/who knows no one/who was born from unknown birds/ forever in silence/ forever in dreams/forever in the sweat of fire..” – So there’s all these opposites, Surrealist, so that’s pretty good, and that was recognized by Breton and others, and published by Breton (and Breton was, like, the arbiter of what was really truly Surrealist and what wasn’t)

Student: It’s amazing.

AG: It’s quite amazing..but..I still remember..when I was.. (so I’m a year older than him), walking, about (19)44 it must have been, around Columbia, going to the Art Library, Fine Arts School, wandering around the Art Library, and seeing these big huge beautiful Surrealist magazines with many colors and pop-ups and strange Pop Art things in them already, seeing this poem and remembering , “at the bottom of the lake, at the bottom of the lake”, the repeated line stuck in my head for..(well) thirty years or so – but, to tell you the truth, this is the first time I’ve found it again – I still remember it. I’ve looked through this book.. This is a book put out by Don Allen called Touch of the Marvelous, which is Lamantia’s early poems, published very later, after he did a lot of other things, published 1974, and taking in a period from..well..what?..(19)43?… there’s a little introduction by a fellow named Stephen Schwartz, who was a Surrealist and friend of Lamantia, saying, “Let us not forget that Surrealism first reached the English language via prodigies, the English David Gascoyne in the nineteen  thirties” – who was the one and only Englishman, American-English speaker, or English-English speaker, who was admitted to the Surrealist circle and hung around the cafes with them in the ‘thirties –  “Philip Lamantia in San Francisco in 1943, but while Gascoyne went on to adopt the role of an academic romantic” – and wound up in a bug-house for about ten years, totally silent, and  just came out in the last few years –  “Lamantia chose the difficult, precipitously exalted path of permanent dissidence. Furthermore, I’m willing to insist that among his..” – this is very Surrealist sort of rhetoric – “that among his “spectacular” post-war contemporaries (Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al), Philip Lamantia alone assimilated the lessons of the revolution in jazz, that other secret society, that coincided with his appearance”. So, later, (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti published Collected Poems, or, Selected Poems, 1943-1966. There’s a couple of copies here, so, if anybody wants to look through them. There’s also.. some stuff is in the Don Allen anthology, if anybody wants.. just give me these back when you’re done, though

Student:  That man who published him, Nicholas Calas was he a poet?

AG: Yeah.  He published (him) in View.. Greek.. he was a critic – and poet, critic and poet.  Actually, ..let me see.. when he was young, very young, he was very beautiful, tall, beautiful, and gay, and had an affair with Brion Gysin (which is rarely known), (William) Burroughs‘ friend, and so he was a gilded..

Student: Who’s this?

AG: A guy named Nicholas Calas  (who came out here the first few years at Naropa, and taught here) – He’s now very old and quite frail

Student: And straight.

AG: He’s been straight for years but he had his “gilded youth”, so to speak, in Paris (he’s Greek, originally) and in his gilded youth in Paris, he was also a member of that Surrealist circle, and then, was a sort of charter-member of some of the aesthetic intellectual circle of the (19)40’s and (19)50’s around Partisan Review, which, at that time, was a very big intellectual influence.

Student:  He liked Gregory (Corso)’s work a real lot.

AG: Yeah, Calas – [to Student] – did you have him? or did you know him?

Student: Yeah I got into a conversation with him once but he was pretty recluse.. I got to talk to him on the street. He was talking about Gregory (Corso)’s work which he went off about six minutes on

AG: Well, Gregory, I think, is one of the few poets who is a natural Surrealist.

Student: That’s what he said. He said he was the greatest Surrealist poet.

AG: Really? It’s amazing that he would recognize that. Well, he’s a great critic, you know. So, if he says so, it means something! – It means, you know, that’s a real artist. I didn’t know that. Well, Lamantia also likes Gregory, you know, and admires him. Except that they won’t  talk to each other.  They pass each other on Grant Street in San Francisco!  But I think that Gregory behaved so badly some, a few, times – drunk, or knocked-out on goofballs, or valium, or something, and Lamantia’s very proud (and he’s also an ex-junkie, but now settled down, and a little heavier weight), and he’s always been a little bit more withdrawn, retired, hermetic (hermetic, I should say). When everybody else is running around in the cafes, he’s home studying Hermes Trismegistus, Egyptian hieroglyphs, or something, cooking up some theory of the Golden Section, looking up archaic hermetic lore (because that’s his real interest). At one point, he was on junk, and then, at another point, he went into a kind of Catholic period, returned to a Catholic period, and then rejected that, renounced Surrealism and accepted Christ, and then renounced Christ and accepted Surrealism. Then, a couple of years ago, he and I had a big fight at Ferlinghetti’s house. Ferlinghetti and I, and LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], and (William) Burroughs, and Gregory (Corso), and everybody, had been to Italy, to a big.. a big poetry-reading, twenty-thousand people. There was sort of a riot when a bunch of Anarchists tried to break it up and really start a fight and hurt people. So, Lamantia was very disapproving of our being there (because it was sponsored by the Communist city government and he thought it was like a sell-out to the Commies, to the State (not so much the Communists, as to the State). And also, finally, the Surrealists and the Communists have always had some kind of a..

Student: Grudge match?

AG: Well, matched for a while, and then a grudge match..because at one point.. Well, actually, Breton was a great admirer of (Leon) Trotskyand spent time with Trotsky, and has a whole book on him, or essays on him, and so was totally Trotsky-ite, finally, by the (19)40’s, I guess, around that time, maybe even earlier?

Student: Both had such a dogmatic approach, and Breton was always,”You must do this if you’re going to be a Surrealist!”…

AG: Well, there’s a little bit of that in Lamantia (or in Stephen Schwartz’s introduction, I don’t know if you caught it, the tone, the insistence). So.. On the other hand, he loved Jack (Kerouac) a lot, they got along well, and I think I mentioned that, in 1952 (or 1950, 1951, I think), there’s a very interesting situation of Partington Ridge in Big Sur with Lamantia, Kerouac and (Neal) Cassady, all taking peyote together in a stone house of the late Jaime de Angulo, an  anthropologist-poet-story-writer, who was a friend of (Ezra) Pound and Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller, the whole Big Sur group.

Student: When was this? is it in books?

AG: Kerouac describes it a little bit in Visions of Cody.

There’s one-and-a-half pages of brilliant writing on it in that. There’s probably something in Desolation Angels but I’m not sure…or maybe it would be in.. I don’t know where else it would appear. I don’t know who else has written about it. It’s in letters. It’s in Kerouac’s letters to me I think it’s mentioned, and to, probably, letters to (William) Burroughs by Kerouac.

to be continued – here

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