Monday, October 23, 2023

Philip Lamantia Day -- 2023


“and isn’t it with daydreams that poetry begins to dance?”
Ah yes!  And aha!  

Today’s the 96th anniversary of the birth of Philip Lamantia, in 1927, in San Francisco!   

Let’s celebrate!  

How about we luxuriate in and cerebrate on the rhetorical question pinned between the photos above?

The question – permit me please to repeat it –
“and isn’t it with daydreams that poetry begins to dance?”
– is a line near the end of Lamantia’s “Diana Green,” a major poem first published in 1987 and included in Bed of Sphinxes (City Lights, 1997) and Collected Poems (University of California Press, 2013).  It’s a marvelous example of Lamantia directly and evocatively suggesting, in verse, what seems to me to be a key element of his poetics.

Daydreams and creativity – free and wild creativity –  have long been linked.  See, for example, Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Day-Dream (1842)  –

     “. . . I too dream’d . . . And ordered words asunder fly”

– and Sigmund Freud, Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1908), which ties reveries and creativity back to childhood play.  And there has been – click each of the five words that follow, if you please – plenty similar in recent decades
In the half-dozen lines that follow, from his “Bile Nature” (first published in 1976), Lamantia seems to present that which came from a daydream and also suggest much about the particular poetic dance of his imaginative reverie, including its wondrous movement, power, evanescence, drama, energy, fire, speed, weirdness, mystery, and magic:
the rainbow leaps onto the gorge of daydreaming be it
ever the sandy castles
fleeting as mental blowtorches
into the crashing water
quicker than a chipmunk’s chess game
reverses the coyote’s invisible dart
I enjoy here how the first verb in these lines – “leaps” – brings to mind grand jet├ęs and the like, and thus the dance of poetic association-al daydream-y thought.

In the following lines from “Redwood Highway,” first published in 1981, Lamantia exults reverie – the “dream wide awake” – evoking via an image a drummed rhythm (dance again!) and, in this instance, a marvelous harmonic vision:
Chance to dream wide awake
With the antelope-necked tom-toms
Whose sinews of silence project
The perfect Edenic Reunion
Lamantia’s suggestion that “with daydreams poetry begins to dance” reminds me of a marvelous biographical detail concerning his maternal Sicilian grandmother that he mentioned when talking on February 27, 1999  at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California.  Calling her a “special woman,” Lamantia remembered his Nonna, age 70, tarantella-ing at a huge gathering – hundreds of people – in a forested grove, winning first prize in a dance contest.  
I also remember how Lamantia, in a 1975 essay available in Preserving Fire: Selected Prose (Wave Books, 2018), described the surrealist dance of Alice Farley as “poetry itself moving visibly” (italics in the original) and how, in the notes to his poem “Redwood Highway” in Becoming Visible (1981), he praised “the surpassing poetic beauty of the Kachina dance” which he had seen in the Hopi village of Walpi.

Let’s end with these beautiful lines, from “Pure Automatism” (a late poem, from circa 1999), which as I read them marvelously enact and describe, as they move across and down the page, the daydream dance of poetry – here an enthusiastic dendrologic / arboreal manifestation of that – while rightfully insisting that it don’t, to say the least, come easy:
words coalesce: sudden seed
            trunk, branches, then, up a whole
solar splendiferic Tree!
effervescence        A quality of
           subsumed quantum—
           there’s nothing harder to do
                                  like true love
                                  — like automatic


Philip Lamantia 
at the
Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center
Venice, California 
February, 1999
-- photo by Michael Hacker --