Today, a guest posting from Philip’s editor, poet Garrett Caples
An Absolute Trip: A Note on Selected Poems: 1943–1966 by Philip Lamantia in Honor of His Birthday – Garrett Caples
“I always enjoy marking the birthday of Philip Lamantia (1927–2005) – 96 years ago today, as, for me, it was literally a date with destiny. Accompanied by Will Alexander and Andrew Joron, I first met Philip in 1998 on his 71st birthday; this meeting began in the early afternoon and ended sometime during the wee hours of the morning. To say that this altered the course of my life is no exaggeration, for without knowing Philip, I wouldn’t have gotten involved with City Lights Books; it would never even have occurred to me to try! But here I am, 25 years later, an editor at the press, in fact, currently preparing a new edition of Lamantia’s 1967 classic Selected Poems: 1943–1966 to restore the long out-of-print Number Twenty to the present-day ranks of the Pocket Poets Series. This is all the more pleasurable to note insofar as the most recent new Pocket Poets volume, Number Sixty-Two, was Will Alexander’s Divine Blue Light (2022). The events of that day, largely consisting of a hypomanic Philip talking nonstop excitedly over coffee, wine, dinner, more wine, in a voluminous cloud of weed and tobacco, continue to reverberate in my life, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of Lamantia.
Given the prospect of the new edition of Selected Poems, I have naturally spent some time in Lamantia’s and City Lights’ archives, which are both conveniently housed at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, going through the surprisingly robust amount of correspondence between Philip and Lawrence Ferlinghetti concerning the proposed volume. The two consider various possibilities for the book, including a selected, a collected, and a collection consisting of new work Philip had composed since his return to Surrealism in 1965. As it would turn out, Philip wouldn’t publish an entirely new collection until 1970, when Donald Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation issued The Blood of the Air. But the archives contain tantalizing glimpses of what might have been, including possible titles like The Hand Set Free to Dream, The Absolute Trip, and Wild Minutes, and a couple of multi-page poems around which Philip seemingly hoped to build this book of new work: “World Without End,” which later appears as a prose poem in The Blood of the Air, but in this proposed iteration is lineated as a six-page open field typescript, and the still-unpublished, three-page typescript “Exorcism of the Inner Itch.”
In the midst of this correspondence between Ferlinghetti and Lamantia, however, there’s a draft of a two-page letter to Allen Ginsberg, dated October 25, 1966, concerning the prospect of Philip’s submitting a volume of selected poems to Random House. This is the only reference I’ve seen to this idea, which was probably quickly dispensed with, given that Lawrence and Philip almost immediately return to the idea of a Pocket Poets selected poems and Philip sends Lawrence the manuscript by late December of that year. Yet the letter to Ginsberg is intriguing, insofar as Philip’s description of the Random House manuscript quite obviously applies to the selection he ultimately sent to City Lights.
“(The manuscript).. is heavy on my youth poems and I have kept it as surreal or para-surreal as can be – since as you will note from the new things since ‘Blue Grace’ that seems to be the main current for me. Yes, indeed. Have had singular revelations about it during the last year and guessed I have always been a kind of natural surrealist, due to the complete, innocent commitment I made at 15 and though by 17 renounced, under certain baneful influences, what was an undeniably fecund direction for me, there have been many episodic ‘returns’ like thread of the surreal all these years . . . . But this last August I finally realized after careful consideration and with the result from a long poem (still not entirely focused, but which will probably be ready for my new book with Lawrence) how true the way of automatic writing is for me. Other directions, preoccupations, to refer cerebrally or trans-personally & socially to objective-as-it-is-in-appearance-reality usually fall flat. But when I start in that trance-like passivity , then a floodgate of Black Fire occurs and out come those crazy, wild or serene – if not often beautiful – images & happenings, and it is the rational sounding or sentimental ‘nothing’ & dross that I reserve the right to strike out! This is quite different than pure spontaneity, since that could just as well be cerebral & logical, or having some kind of immediate reference to personal-social reality – this is where I often have gone wrong – since it is the mystery & discovery within a genuinely dis-related realm (dis-related to objective reality, that is) that the surreal eternity is penetrated, which is like the Dream, since it seems it is there we bridge consciousness to it, and by it perhaps to the >other> beyonds & spiritual worlds. Recent experiences are confirming this for me and so I am making fresh commitment to what I feel is same as when I was 15; it is a joyous time & poetry has become again, for sure, my true religion & sacrament – there hasn’t been any other for a long time, anyway – broke with the RC Church around 1962 – another ‘wrong’ way for me! – strange karma, no?”
I’m quite taken with this paragraph and indeed regret not having run across it when I was editing my first book for City Lights, a double volume consisting of Lamantia’s unpublished 1955 manuscript Tau and John Hoffman’s Journey to the East that was issued as Pocket Poets Number 59. In an introductory note to that edition, I wrote that “the formal preoccupations of Tau would increase through Ekstasis, Narcotica, and Destroyed Works, and my sense is he viewed none of this work as surrealist. Yet it is hard to withhold the designation from the Artaud-influenced texts of the latter two volumes, or indeed to certain poems of Tau, which opens with an invocation of the concept of ‘mad love’ so celebrated in (Andre) Breton’s book of that name” The paragraph from the letter to Ginsberg quoted above suggests that, to the contrary, Philip may have shared my feeling about the relationship of his avowedly non-surrealist output between 1946 and 1962 to the rest of his oeuvre as a surrealist poet. Presumably the inclusion of poems like “Man Is in Pain” and “Terror Conduction” from these years—in the middle section of Selected Poems titled “Trance Ports” – reflects his belief in their latent surreality.
In any case, the paragraph quoted here (dated, incidentally, two days after his birthday) is a vivid self-assessment of his body of work as of 1966.