Review of Diane di Prima's Memoirs of a Beatnik

Memoirs of a Beatnik
Diane di Prima
Penguin Books

Whenever I asked anyone versed in the Beat Writers about where the women Beats were, I seemed to get the same answer: ”Well," they'd start defensively, "there was Diane di Prima!" And so, armed with intense curiosity and admittedly limited knowledge of the era of the Beat Generation, I took up Diane di Prima's Memoirs of a Beatnik, published in 1969 -- the year I was born.

It details di Prima's life beginning at the point she dropped out of college at 18 and ending at the end of the 1950s after she discovers she's pregnant (a state she more or less planned), and just shy of her move to San Francisco.

The book opens with a roiling sex scene only to back up and tell of how she met this man and how she ultimately dumped him to please the woman she was truly in love with…the one she dropped out of college to move in with.

Throughout the writing, di Prima refers often to "the scene" – the goings on of the group of Bohemian artists fixed on living in a series of drafty run-down rooms that crowded the once exclusively immigrant neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. These were people looking for and creating a culture counter to the mainstream, button-up decade of the 50s.

And, true to form and legend, there is a lot of sex. Sex takes up the majority of the slim volume. And perhaps for this reason, I expected more inventive or teasing language than was delivered. In addition, I started to become suspicious that with such a great abundance of sex and sexual partners, none at all were bad. Wow. Cool. That is a scene. It is note-worthy then that in the brief epilogue, added in 1987, di Prima admits to shoring up the memoir with extra sex as guided by her editor.

“Gobs of words would go off to New York,” she writes, “whenever the rent was due, come back with ‘MORE SEX’ scrawled across the top page in Maurice's inimitable hand, and I would dream up odd angles of bodies or weird combinations of humans and cram them in and send it off again. Sometimes I'd wander the house looking for folks to check things out with: ‘Lie down,’ I'd say, ‘I want to see if this is possible.’ And they would, clothed, and we would find out, in a friendly disinterested way, if a particular contortion was viable, and stand up again, completely not turned on, and go about our business.”

In between the sex scenes, she occasionally describes the New York of the 50s and hints of the swelling political waves that would herald in the 60s. I read these passages eagerly, but there just weren't enough of them, and I was left, ironically, unsatisfied.

Also genuinely interesting were the insights into her ruminations about their perceived isolation as a "scene" and her ultimate discovery of Ginsberg's Howl and subsequent meeting with Ginsberg and Kerouac. Personally, I would have loved to have read a book on this idea of the aggregation of a mindset and movement.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book for what it was and for its ability to make me laugh out loud - like on page six when di Prima literally leaves space on the page for the reader to write in his or her favorite types of kisses, or in describing her tumbles with a fellow named "Luke" in the back room of a Village bookstore. At this point in the story we are many loves and lovers into the story and have many more still to go. Nonetheless, without any hint of reflective sarcasm she claims of their connection "I knew I belonged to him totally."

Memoirs of a Beatnik is a snapshot. And, if the focus was sometimes odd to a thirty-something living in the 21st century, for di Prima, it paid the bills. It is a product of its time. Universality be damned.

Kathryn Petruccelli