2005-03-12 00:58:54 UTC
Visionary verse of literary prodigy influenced Beats
- Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005
Philip Lamantia, the blazing San Francisco poet whose embrace of
Surrealism and the free flow of the imagination had a major influence
on the Beats and many other American poets, died Monday of heart
failure at his North Beach apartment. He was 77.
A San Francisco native born to Sicilian immigrants, Mr. Lamantia was a
widely read, largely self-taught literary prodigy whose visionary poems
-- ecstatic, terror-filled, erotic -- explored the subconscious world
of dreams and linked it to the experience of daily life.
"Philip was a visionary like Blake, and he really saw the whole world
in a grain of sand,'' said poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City
Lights Books published four of Mr. Lamantia's nine books from 1967 to
"He was the primary transmitter of French Surrealist poetry in this
country,'' said Ferlinghetti, who first met Mr. Lamantia here in the
early 1950s. "He 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.' "
That epochal poem made Ginsberg's name and set off a revolution in
American poetry and culture. Ginsberg first read it aloud at San
Francisco's Six Gallery on Oct. 13, 1955. The other four poets on the
bill that night were Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and
Rather than reading his own works -- his first book, "Erotic Poems,''
had been published in 1946 -- Mr. Lamantia read the prose poems of his
friend John Hoffman, who had recently died in Mexico.
"Philip was one of the most beautiful poets I've ever known. He was a
poet of the imagination,'' said McClure, who lives in Oakland. "He was
highly original -- I'd call his poetry hyper-personal visionary
Surrealism -- and he was thrilling to be around. Everybody would sit
around and listen to him all night. The flow of his imagination was a
beautiful thing. ''
A man of ecstatic highs and deep, deep lows, Mr. Lamantia suffered from
depression, friends said, and had become a recluse in recent years,
rarely leaving home.
But in his younger days, he was a dashing figure who conversed
brilliantly on a wide range of subjects. An omnivorous reader, he
delved into astronomy, philosophy, history, jazz, painting,
ornithology, Egyptology and many other subjects that informed his
"He was very handsome, like a real Adonis,'' Ferlinghetti said. "He was
a brilliant talker, a nonstop associative talker like Robert Duncan
(the late San Francisco poet with whom Mr. Lamantia was associated on
the pre-Beat San Francisco poetry scene of the late 1940s and early
'50s). "He would talk in a continuous stream. One word would set him
off in one direction, and another word would get him on another trip.
He was a real polymath. And he had an encyclopedic memory.''
Born in San Francisco's Excelsior District, Mr. Lamantia worked as a
boy in the old produce market on the Embarcadero, where his
Sicilian-born father was a produce broker. He began writing poetry in
elementary school and fell under the spell of Surrealism after seeing
the paintings of Miro and Dali at the old San Francisco Museum of Art
on Van Ness Avenue.
He started reading the poetry of Andre Breton, the so-called pope of
Surrealism, and other writers in the movement. In 1943, when he was 15,
some of Mr. Lamantia's poems were published in View, a
Surrealist-leaning New York magazine. Breton gave the young poet his
blessings, describing him as "a voice that rises once in a hundred
Some months later, Mr. Lamantia dropped out of Balboa High School and
moved to New York City, where he lived for several years. He associated
with Breton and other exiled European artists such as Max Ernst and
Yves Tanguy, and he worked as an assistant editor of View.
Returning to San Francisco after World War II, Mr. Lamantia took
courses at UC Berkeley in medieval studies, English poetry and other
subjects while continuing to write and publish poetry. In 1949, he
began traveling the world, staying for extended periods in Mexico,
Morocco and Europe.
Coming back to the United States every few years, Mr. Lamantia became
part of the underground culture blossoming on the east and west coasts.
Like other poets who felt estranged from mainstream culture in the
atomic age, "he found in the narcotic night world a kind of modern
counterpart to the gothic castle -- a zone of peril to be symbolically
or existentially crossed,'' wrote Nancy Peters, who later married Mr.
Lamantia in 1978 and edited some of his books for City Lights. "The
apocalyptic voice of 'Destroyed Works' is witness to that experience.''
Published in '62 by Auerhahn Press, "Destroyed Works'' was Mr.
Lamantia's fourth book. The San Francisco house had also published the
poet's two previous collections, "Narcotica'' and "Ekstasis,''
both in 1959.
Ever searching to expand his vision, Mr. Lamantia spent time with
native peoples in the United States and Mexico in the '50s,
participating in the peyote-eating rituals of the Washoe Indians of
Nevada. The poet, who taught for a time at San Francisco State and the
San Francisco Art Institute, also embraced Catholicism. In later years
he attended the Shrine of St. Francis in North Beach.
"He had a vision of the world that was completely unique,'' said
Peters, who later separated from Mr. Lamantia, but they remained good
friends. She edited three of his books for City Lights, "Becoming
Visible" (1981), "Meadowlark West" (1986) and "Bed of Sphinxes: New and
Selected Poems, 1943- 1993.''
Andrei Codrescu, a poet and NPR commentator who knew Mr. Lamantia well,
called him "one of the great voices of our subconscious for the last 50
"He was a very pure poet in the sense that he was one of the very few
American poets who continued to pursue the Surrealist investigation of
dreams and the unconscious -- and he connected those explorations to
civic American life.''
A memorial is pending.