"Poetry as Revolutionary Praxis:
Philip Lamantia & the Surrealist Movement in the United States"
"Poetry is neither tempest nor tornado.
It is a majestic and fertile river."
— Isidore Ducasse
"The deepest river makes the least noise."
— Jean du Vergier de Hauranne
The recent passing of our close friend and fellow surrealist Philip Lamantia calls to mind the “difficult first steps” of surrealism in the United States sixty years ago. More importantly, it reminds us of Lamantia’s own dynamic, inspired and inspiring role in the current and ongoing struggle for surrealist revolution — that is, for freedom now and poetry made by all.
Back in the early 1940s — shortly after his expulsion from a San Francisco junior high school for “intellectual delinquency” — Lamantia at fifteen was the first major voice of surrealism in the U.S. André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifestoes, then living in New York as a refugee from Nazism, wrote him a letter saluting him as “a voice that rises once in a hundred years.”Beyond question, Philip Lamantia was one of the few truly great poets of our time, and a major player in the global resurgence of organized surrealism that began in the mid-1960s. His marvelous, luminous poetry is a liberating gift to definitive dreamers and seekers everywhere, resplendently anticipating what he called the “supreme disalienation of humanity and its language.” And with his poet’s passion for the freedom of all the senses, he also affirmed the crucial role of Black music in realizing that disalienation. From the mid-1940s on he was an ardent enthusiast of the magic sounds of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, in whose work he recognized a musical analogue of surrealism’s “automatic message.”
Lamantia was also far and away the most learned poet of his generation. His knowledge of the ancients, the Renaissance Italians, the Elizabethans, the great Romantics, the early surrealists, African American poetry, and a legion of near-unknowns he admired (Jones Very, for example, and Samuel Greenberg) was staggering. His invaluable contributions to surrealist theory and criticism, though almost never even mentioned in literary/academic circles, are essential reading for anyone seriously interested in social transformation and the creation of a truly free society. A revolutionary, an anarchist, the opposite of an ivory tower littérateur, Lamantia was in the profoundest sense an exemplar of poetic action.
Inevitably, newspaper and internet accounts of his life and work have been superficial, uncomprehending, full of the usual journalistic mistakes and distortions. Many of these write-ups are further obfuscated by misleading quotations from supposed “acquaintances” whose views on just about everything differed sharply from the poet’s own. No doubt the literary quarterlies and “magazines of verse,” which Lamantia heartily despised, will soon be adding still more inanity to the disinformation already mass-produced not only by the daily press, but also by a plethora of pretentious websites and blathering blogs.
The aim of this article is simply to summarize the story, heretofore unrecorded, of Lamantia’s vital role in the history of the Surrealist Movement in the United States, and along the way, to correct at least some of the more egregious errors that have proliferated about him in the press and on the internet.
“My main important mentor was André Breton”
Mainstream obits and websites galore have relentlessly trivialized Lamantia’s involvement in surrealism, not only with foolish references to Breton as the surrealist “Pope,” but with all sorts of misinformation, omissions, lies — n short, a shameful, near-total ignorance of surrealism’s revolutionary project. The truth, however, is crystal clear: Lamantia’s identification with the surrealist cause — the triple cause of poetry, freedom and love — was absolute. In his 1943 letter to Breton, published in the surrealist journal VVV, he proclaimed his “formal adherence to surrealism,” and went on to declare that
a true revolutionary poet can not help defying every appalling social and political instrument that has been the cause of death and exploitation in the capitalistic societies of the earth. If he is one for the transformation of the world, as he should be, and if he is not stupid, in relation to to a method of approaching these vital issues, the poet will not be opposed to the surrealist attitude. . .
To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets! . . .The poetic marvelous and the “unconscious” are the true inspirers of rebels and poets!
Nearly four decades later, when historian Paul Buhle interviewed Lamantia together with his old anarchist friend, Tony Martocchia, the poet affirmed: “My main important mentor was André Breton.” Meadowlark West includes these glowing lines:
The mind is a black hole of beautiful
as with André Breton the André Breton in whom Jacques Vaché is the
Birth of the revolutionary rose
Indeed, even during the gloomy years that he called his “eclipse,” his admiration for Breton was boundless.
Lamantia’s involvement in anarchism also began in his teens, and fit in well with his surrealism. (Anarchism and surrealism teem with elective affinities. Breton himself felt close to anarchism, and the founding members of the Chicago Surrealist Group were anarchists one and all.) Tony Martocchia early on had been associated with Errico Malatesta and his group, and young Lamantia was well-versed in Italian anarchism: Cafiero, Malatesta, Berneri et al., and a regular reader of L’Adunata dei Refrattari. Later he also studied the libertarian currents of Marxism, especially Herbert Marcuse and E. P. Thompson. Anarchism and libertarian socialism remained basic to his social views, but surrealism was the very essence of his life.
He regarded surrealist poetry as “the only fundamentally new and original development since the beginning of recorded literature.” Striking fire in the reader’s mind and thereby revealing hidden truths, the practice of poetry involves nothing less than attaining “the highest principle of language” — “analogy pressed to the furthest limits” so that it becomes “a transformative value.” His surrealism was always true to the spirit of Breton’s Manifestoes: unfashionable, scandalous, defiantly out of step with the timekeepers. All of Lamantia’s work liberates and advances the Pleasure Principle, mad love, play, freedom, the Marvelous, and the “Universal Harmony” of Charles Fourier, just as it also at the same time invites and urges treason and transgression against the inhuman, spirit-destroying forces of misery and miserabilism: ecocidal corporations, police states, false poets, apologists for the work-ethic, witnesses for the prosecution, the deadly cults of greed, prison, whiteness, war, and all the rest of what he called the “CIA of the mind.”
In our own dire times, such an exalted and Promethean conception of poetry is sustained by very few. Indeed, the great bulk of what passes for “poetry” today is what Lamantia ridiculed as a “retrograde sentimental-death-eating bourgeois pastime” — the merest McPoetry, or belligerent “slams,” or other state- or corporate-funded commercial/competitive swindles.
Against the “false poets,” Lamantia wrote in Arsenal 3:
When I think of the lofty (and loftily researched) findings of the great philosopher Hegel as to the nature of poetic logic, its unity encompassing all the directions of human thought, and I am reminded of a few of us who have begun to practice what amounts to a collective restoration of the powers of poetic unity and as we appear, historically together intervening on the plane of American “culture” with all the chips stacked against us, situated against the monstrous shadow of “the new poetry” and another obscurantism of the students of those moribund minds that the false vanguards alleged to displace, I know that only armed with the living perspectives of surrealism, incarnated in Arsenal, am I permitted to make distinctions, draw up a relentless criticism and inveigh against those crimes now being committed against the human spirit by mystifiers, fabricators of confusion, and all our detractors, in the certainty that my comrades and I shall not fail to be heard over and beyond if even below, the current babble and noise of the sickening purveyors of literary and aesthetic darkness.
Meanwhile, the same uninformed sources that specialize in demeaning and denying all that Lamantia loved most in the world also grossly exaggerate details of the poet’s life that he himself considered inconsequential. He often told us — Penelope and me, Paul Garon, and others in the Chicago Surrealist Group — how irritated he was by the ballyhoo regarding his “influence” on the so-called Beat Generation, a “movement” he regarded as confused at best, and in many respects outright reactionary.
In truth, Lamantia’s revolutionary verve, extraordinary intellectual depth, uncompromising integrity, and abiding modesty were antithetical to “making it” and the “beat mystique” in all its forms. After the 1955 “Gallery Six” reading he tended to avoid Allen Ginsberg’s publicity-seeking machine, made no secret of his disdain for the then-much-touted neo-Poundian “New American Poetics,” and pointedly refused to be included in the special “San Francisco Renaissance” issue of Evergreen Review, which brought the Beats to wide attention. He was that rarest of rarities: an American poet utterly indifferent to fame and glory. Significantly, at the famous “Six” reading, he chose not to read his own poems, but only those of his friend, the anarchist seaman and fellow hipster John Hoffman, who had recently died in Mexico. Almost forty years later, in a 1992 telephone call, he described Hoffman as “the only really close friend I had in my youth . . . the only one who was also a great poet.”
As his longtime companion Nancy Joyce Peters put it in a 1983 article, Lamantia’s poetry
“never quite fit the Beat canon,” and indeed was “alien to the often semiliterate, populist conventions of the Beats.” Peters goes on to stress that, in vivid contrast to the Beats’ naive faith in “American values,” Philip “never abandoned hope for a world revolution of the greatest magnitude.”As a surrealist, however, he naturally “shunned topical political poetry.”
More recently, even Beat “authorities” have had to concede that Lamantia’s “place” among their heroes was in fact marginal. Ann Charters’ Portable Beat Reader (1992) — a volume of 645 plus xxxvi pages — devotes exactly four pages to his poems, all from the mid-1950s, i.e., from the period he called his “eclipse.” Charters’s headnote concludes by acknowledging that “Lamantia is the only American poet of his generation to embrace fully the discoveries of surrealism, and is a contributing editor of Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion.”
The Marvelous Against Religion
Second only to the ridiculous myth of Lamantia as “Founding Father” of the Beat Generation is the deplorable tittle-tattle alleging his “return to the Church” — a doubly misleading accusation in that he was not, in fact, brought up in the Church.
Surrealism has always been emphatically atheist and indeed, hostile to organized religion and its authoritarian institutions. The collective introduction to the 1997 book, The Forecast Is Hot!—a text Lamantia read and approved prior to publication — sums up the surrealist approach:
It was as poets that we developed a specifically surrealist critique of religious institutions, and a strategy to oppose them.
The fundamental experience of poetry enabled us to recognize religionists as the colonizers of the Marvelous: brutal exploiters whose means and ends are explicitly anti-poetic. Before the rise of the advertising industry, churches were in fact the most virulent institutionalized expression of the hatred of poetry. Religious belief-systems, a major obstacle to individual self-discovery, exemplify the imagination in chains.
Here as elsewhere, however, surrealists continue to insist on an open-ended and dialectical approach. Our resolute antagonism to the prevailing religious powers has never diminished our sympathetic interest in a wide range of hermetic and gnostic heresies and heterodoxies.
Superseding all approaches based on rationalism, surrealism's guerrilla war on religious oppression advances on firmly poetic ground, emphasizing the freedom of the Marvelous, eroticism and humor. Our aim is not to win points in a debate, but to uproot paralyzing fears, to stimulate emancipatory desire, to open the doors of poetry for all. The practice of poetry is not only the best means of discovering the sacred (in its secular sense, of course), but also the only means of preventing its reification into religion or other forms of inhibition.
The weird tales of Lamantia’s “conversion” take us back to his “eclipse,” and even beyond. Like many anti-clerical poets before him (including Blake, Burns, Shelley, Rimbaud, and his own surrealist friends), he was acutely sensitive to the cryptic messages of gnostics, alchemists, and other adventurers in the realms of heresy and the “occult.” Since earliest childhood, moreover, he had several times been touched by what he called “poetic hallucination-ecstasy” and “fever vision,” enigmatical and mind-bending sensations that later multiplied appreciably with the help of drugs. In the early 1950s his participation in Washo Indian peyote rites, near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, led to a full-fledged “mystical” experience in which he felt “an extraordinary connectedness with others; with everything.” As Nancy Joyce Peters has described it, Lamantia saw
the great achievement of primal peoples as the creation of a living poetic structure that wove the claims of the individual, the community, and the natural world into a richly satisfying whole. The ritual was in no sense a way to have personal visions but made its participants aware of a harmonious intersubjective reality. To Lamantia, it offered a clue to overcoming antinomies and reintegrating human life in such a way that poetry and poets, in the literary sense, would be transcended altogether.
A few years later, as a heroin addict at wit’s end, consciously self-isolated from everything Western civilization considered “normal” and wandering around Mexico ready to try just about anything, he took part in a nocturnal tobacco ceremony of the Cora Indians which suddenly, at a particularly intense moment, sparked his self-identification with a strange Native American variant of Catholicism. As Peters noted, his books Ekstasis (1959) and Destroyed Works (1962) reflect Lamantia’s
heretical conflation of nonwestern and traditional religious symbols of transformation . . . [an] attempt to recover, through the powers of darkness, Eros, and the Marvelous, what had been denied by rationalism. . . . Although “revelation, in manifestation, of beauty” . . . is his intention, he does not ignore demonic magnetisms along with the celestial. . . . With a lucidity akin to Lautréamont’s in Chants de Maldoror, Lamantia carries even further a “flight to unknowable knowledge” in Destroyed Works. The poems are striking for their raw Manichaean epiphanies.
Peters rightly emphasizes the wildly heretical character of these texts, which are, indeed, subversive of Catholic dogma. Writing in 1970, Lamantia himself described the experience as “this strangest contradiction to poetry.” Too many of his readers, however, mistook him for a dutiful albeit eccentric son of the Vatican, and gibes such as “Philip just wants to get a fix at the altar” followed him around for years. What he referred to, in our first telephone conversation (spring 1973), as his “famous Catholicism,” despite the fact that it owed more to pagan Mexican Indian mythology than to the theology of Rome, had misled many people, and he had come to regret it deeply.
How he happened to break, definitively, with even the smallest link to the church, is not without charm. As he explained to Paul Buhle in 1982, for six years he had been, in his own heretical way,
interested in a theist, mystical attitude. But Europe cured me completely. There I met the Spanish anarchists. . . . I got the message around Malaga. That will cure you forever of any sentimentality concerning Christianity.
Thus Philip Lamantia, in the 1960s, returned to the outspoken, free-spirited, integral atheism of Tony Martocchia and André Breton, a position steadfastly maintained in all of his subsequently published writings.
In 1976, after a three-week visit on the occasion of the World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago, he gave me, as a going-away present, the book Massacre at Montségur: A History of the Albigensian Crusade, by Zoé Oldenbourg — a harrowing scholarly chronicle of Church terrorism against dissidents, among them many outstanding poets. He recommended the book highly, urged me to share it with others, and added: “For those who think the Church’s bloody tyranny has been exaggerated, or that the Inquisition wasn’t really so bad, this book will set them straight.”
Anticlerical, blasphemous imagery occurs frequently in Lamantia’s poetry. In "Blood of the Air," for example:
Let fly the churches of memory they’re only prisons anyway
And "Meadowlark West":
Crab gore To give capitalism its due
duck-cracker the head of a christian fart
graveyard of sanctimonious filth
And here are a few lines from “Ex Cathedra,” first published in Arsenal (1989) and reprinted in his last book, Bed of Sphinxes:
To weave garter belts with chaos and snakes,
the nun’s toenail of crimson phallus. . . .
snake oil on a eucharistic tongue
plagues of scripture blown to smithereens
The absolute pulverization of all the churches will be the grace of love’s freedom
Philip described this poem as an act of “revenge” against the nuns and priests he had encountered in childhood.
On a chilly evening in 1998, Lamantia, seriously ill, was accidentally locked out of his apartment. After wandering the streets all night he was arrested and held in jail, incommunicado, for several days. Afterward, he approached a local priest with a remarkable proposal: a special midnight service in which he, Lamantia, wearing a Cardinal’s robe, would read aloud, at the top of his lungs, from Les Chants de Maldoror. Needless to say, the proposal was denied, and this gesture of pure Lamantian surrealist blasphemy remains unfulfilled.
Return to Surreality
Lamantia’s twenty-year “eclipse” began when he was still in his teens, in 1946, with the failure of the premier attempt to form a Surrealist Group in the U.S. (in New York). Breton and most of the other European exiles had returned to their native lands. With few exceptions, the few Americans who had frequented the group went on to other, safer and more lucrative isms, and made their peace with Cold War politics. Lamantia, a despondent Sicilian-American San Francisco high-school dropout, took up a lonely nomadic existence characterized by severe depressive illness, heroin addiction, and long spells in jail. For years, he consciously abandoned writing.
And then, in 1966 — coincidentally the year that the first indigenous U.S. Surrealist Group was formed, in Chicago — Lamantia suddenly resumed the “arduous and exciting” practice of “pure psychic automatism,” which eventually led him to declare his “ultimate ‘return’ to surreality.” Fittingly, this triumphal return occurred under the sign of love, for Lamantia had met the poet/painter Nancy Joyce Peters, who became his wife. A former theater director, librarian at the Library of Congress, and researcher of Egyptian myth, Peters herself was soon recognized as one of U. S. surrealism’s finest poets, theorists, and critics. It is to her that we owe what is to this day the best interpretative study of Lamantia’s poetry.
After a lengthy sojourn in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, the couple returned to the U.S. in 1968 — one of the twentieth century’s great revolutionary years. The whole decade, and the first few years of the next, added up to an exciting, revivifying time. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) raised the demand for Black Power. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) seized Columbia University and called for world revolution. All over the country, resistance to the U.S. war on Vietnam had reached the proportions of a huge mass movement. In May, the General Strike and youth rebellion in Paris took place under the grand slogan, “All Power to the Imagination!” And the San Francisco Bay Area, where Lamantia and Peters resettled after a year in Seattle, was the home of the Black Panther Party, the armed self-defense group which, more than any other, symbolized the mid-Sixties leap from “civil rights” reform to global Black Revolution. Adopting Malcolm X’s watchword, “by any means necessary,” the Panthers soon had lively chapters throughout the U.S.
It was in that exalting and prolonged atmosphere of revolt and revolution that Philip Lamantia — the “American Rimbaud,” as Ted Joans called him — rediscovered himself as a surrealist.
His actual re-involvement in the movement, however, took a while. In his August 1972 interview with Yves Le Pellec (published in a “Beat Generation” issue of the French journal Entretiens) he spoke enthusiastically of the revival of the surrealist movement in the U.S., centered in Chicago. A few months later, in the early Spring of ‘73, Lamantia formally identified himself with our group, via an “out-of-the-blue” telephone call, in which he declared his “unequivocal agreement” and “complete solidarity” with us. Immediately he became one of the Surrealist Group’s most active out-of-town militants, and one of our most prolific and inspired correspondents. For thirty years we worked together closely in perfect harmony.
The second issue of the journal Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion (1973) featured a suite of his newest poems, preceded by a statement on surrealist poetics titled “Between the Gulfs.” Under the subhead “By Elective Affinities, Then and Now,” he summed up his surrealist trajectory:
From having initially found the key (the road opening, 1943–1946) to having lost the key (the road closed down, 1946–1966) and since rediscovering the key (the road re-opening in 1967): my solidarity with the surrealist movement, represented in this time and place by Arsenal, re-invents itself without the slightest ambiguity.
For Lamantia, the 1970s and ‘80s proved to be an exceptionally fruitful period — a time of close collaboration with surrealist friends near and far, on matters poetic, theoretical, and political, as evidenced in numerous collective publications and tracts as well as surrealist games, interventions in public events, and the organization of exhibitions.
In 1974 he co-edited (with Nancy Peters, Penelope Rosemont and me) a special “Surrealist Movement in the U.S.” section of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Anthology — a hefty volume that brought U.S. surrealism to a large international readership for the first time. Included in the 52-page surrealist section was his splendid article, “The Crime of Poetry,” on the far-reaching implications of surrealist poetic activity.
In 1976, he not only helped prepare the huge World Surrealist Exhibition at the Gallery Black Swan in Chicago, but also actively assisted in the installation, and contributed to its large-format catalog — a major anthology of international surrealism: Marvelous Freedom/Vigilance of Desire. His poem commemorating the exhibition, “The Curtain of Magic Turns Over Motors of Sleep,” later appeared in his book Becoming Visible.
The 1976 exhibition, which brought scores of surrealist friends from Australia, France, Indonesia, Japan, Portugal, Spain, and from all over the U.S., turned out to be the largest international surrealist rendez-vous anywhere in many years. It was truly an “enchanting time,” as Nancy Peters recalled it recently. For three full weeks, Philip and Nancy were our house-guests and constant companions. The discussions we had, and the games we played — at our Janssen Street place, at the Gallery Black Swan, and at various nearby restaurants — were grand, far-ranging, and ran to all hours.
Philip was charmed that the Surrealist Group held its regular meetings at a workingclass Italian restaurant, Café Roma, a few blocks from our place. (Only later did we learn that the great outsider artist Henry Darger had his breakfast there for years.)
During his Chicago stay, Lamantia contributed texts to the program for Alice Farley’s Surrealist Dance, and to the catalog for an important Gerome Kamrowski retrospective.
The 1970s/80s also saw the appearance of four splendid new books of Lamantia’s poetry —The Blood of the Air (1970), Touch of the Marvelous (1974), Becoming Visible (1981), and Meadowlark West (1986). Each of these books marked an “event” for us all, and stimulated impassioned discussion. Meadowlark West played a particularly important role in the life of the group, hastening the development of a specifically surrealist “ecology of the Marvelous.” (Penelope and I fully shared Philip’s and Nancy’s passion for birds, bird lore, and the “language of birds.”) It was Philip, moreover, who first called our attention to the Earth First! movement, in which the entire Chicago Surrealist Group soon became active.
Critics who remained fixated on the Beat past were not paying much attention, but here was a one-man San Francisco Renaissance in full cry. Not the least of his achievements in that period was his own brilliant and hard-hitting critical and theoretical work. As he wrote me on May 30, 1973: “My confidence in the great possibilities ahead also continues to spark what shall be realized, I hope, as an intensive and surprising unfoldment on the critical plane.” Two years later he became a contributing editor of the journal Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion. Along with his later collaborations on Surrealism: The Octopus-Typewriter (a one-shot Chicago Surrealist Group newspaper), the two surrealist issues of Paul Buhle’s journal Cultural Correspondence (1979 and ‘81), and the large City Lights compilation, Free Spirits: Annals of the Insurgent Imagination (1982), these publications include his most important critical/theoretical/polemical writings.
The passage of time has not significantly aged these texts. Indeed, Lamantia’s spirited essays surely will continue to help define the surrealist movement’s orientation and activities for many years to come. “Poetic Matters” (in Arsenal 3,1976) remains the most incisive criticism of what still regrettably passes for the “official” poetry in the U.S. today. And his “Radio Voices: A Child’s Bed of Sirens” (1979), focused on the subversive poetic undercurrents in The Shadow, Chandu, Mandrake the Magician, and other 1930s/40s radio serials, opened exciting new approaches to the world of “popular culture.” As the art historian Michael Stone-Richards has remarked, this special concern for what we had long ago begun to call “vernacular surrealism,” and the related field of “infrapolitics,” is in fact among the most distinctive innovations of “Chicago Idea” Surrealism.
Speaking of innovations, I want to stress the fact that Philip Lamantia was one of the most original, most open-minded, and least dogmatic individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. At seventy he seemed to me more youthful, more alert to “new tremors” in the intellectual atmosphere, than most people half his age. During the thirty-odd years that I knew him, he was receptive — indeed, zealously enthusiastic — about everything new and original in surrealism in the U.S. in our time, including the poetry of Jayne Cortez and Joseph Jablonski; Paul Garon’s writings on the poetry of blues; Alice Farley’s dance; the sculpture of Robert Green; the paintings of Schlechter Duvall, E. F. Granell, Leonora Carrington, and Penelope Rosemont; the sudden burst of automatic writing by Tristan Meinecke (an older Chicago artist who had joined our group); the photographs of Clarence John Laughlin; and Gerome Kamrowski’s wonderful windmills. When Penelope was completing her Surrealist Women anthology, Lamantia provided important recollections. He was fond of the Chicago Surrealist game, “Time-Travelers’ Potlatch,” and the first among us to include examples of it in a book (Becoming Visible). He was deeply impressed by our collaboration on the journal Race Traitor, and pleased to be represented in its pages. And in his late years he welcomed the work of younger poets and artists: I am thinking especially of Ronnie Burk and Laura Corsiglia.
More recently, Nancy Peters told me that Philip “really enjoyed” my study of Wrong Numbers, and “found it more engaging than any book he had read in years.”
In many and varied contexts, Lamantia made it a point to emphasize a simple truth overlooked by nearly all critics: that surrealism is never static — that it lives and moves and always awaits discovery.
The Last Years
The 1990s, alas, proved to be an exceptionally difficult decade. Ill health, a series of cancer operations, prolonged difficulties with medication, an increasingly depressing political climate, and what he called “all the usual problems of getting old” took their toll. His letter-writing slowed down, and eventually he gave up that form of communication except for an occasional postcard. However, a long tradition that we called our “marathon phone calls” — "marathon” not only because of their duration but also because of the amount of ground we covered — continued well past mid-decade, and these calls were invariably bursting with ideas, surprises, odd bits of information, poetry, and plenty of humor. Once we talked for four or five hours about Paschal Beverly Randolph, the nineteenth-century African-American crystal-gazer and “Affectional Alchemist,” whose books I happened to be reading at the time. Another time Philip read me a letter from a pompous academic, requesting that he “submit” some poems for some ill-conceived anthology; he also read me his hilarious reply, which began: “I shall not submit! Poets never submit!”
Although bad health diminished his active involvement in Surrealist Group activities, he did continue to suggest, co-author and/or co-sign collective declarations, most notably one “For Tyree Guyton” (the well-known Detroit African American artist whose colorful and lavishly embellished houses were systematically destroyed by a hostile city government), and a vigorous denunciation of the Columbus Quincentennial, “1492–1992: As Long as Tourists Replace Seers,” which he and Nancy helped edit, and which was signed also by surrealist groups in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, France, Spain, and Sweden.
In 1997, City Lights issued his great book, Bed of Sphinxes: New and Selected Poems, 1943–1993. His largest collection by far, it is filled with magical, moving wonders
from that dawn and night on the Nile
where all ends in a beginning
. . .
an unpremeditated pentacle of erotic song.
[“Passionate Ornithology Is Another Kind of Yoga”]
Verily, as Ron Sakolsky emphasized in the introduction to his Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings and Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States (2002), Philip Lamantia must be considered one of the central figures of U.S. surrealism, one of those “who have remained with [the group] the longest and done most to shape its evolving perspectives, [and who] have given surrealism in the United States its greatest social resonance.”
Philip Lamantia always wanted his poems to spark poetry in others. It is good to know that, through his books and scattered writings, he is still out there making trouble, “rethinking ‘the Idea’ in the commune of Anarchs,” “at the foreplay of liberty,” “where the void expands the warm heart of surrealist spring,” to quote from Meadowlark West.
In our copy of that book he added these words: “See you at the port of call. Love and poetry forever. Salud!”
In addition to Lamantia’s books and essays, cited in the text, I have drawn on the following:
Buhle, Paul. “Interview with Martocchia and Lamantia,” October 31, 1982, in the Oral History of the American Left collection, Tamiment Library, New York University; transcript.
Peters, Nancy. “Philip Lamantia,” in Ann Charters, ed., The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 16. Detroit: Gale Research/Bruccoli Clark, 1983, 329–335.
Roediger, David. “Surrealism,” in Mari Jo Buhle, et al., Encyclopedia of the American Left. Second edition. New York: Oxford, 1998, 807–809.
Rosemont, Franklin. What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings of André Breton. New York: Monad Press, 1978; new edition, Pathfinder Press, 2000.
—. “Surrealist, Anarchist, Afrocentrist: Philip Lamantia Before and After the ‘Beat Generation,’” in Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, eds., Are Italians White? How Race Is Made in America. New York: Routledge, 2003, 124–143.
—, with Penelope Rosemont and Paul Garon, eds. The Forecast Is Hot! Tracts & Other Collective Declarations of the Surrealist Movement in the United States, 1966–1976. Chicago: Black Swan Press, 1997.
Sakolsky, Ron, ed. Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States. New York: Autonomedia, 2002.