Philip Lamantia

Surrealist poet who influenced the Beats

Philip Lamantia, poet: born San Francisco 23 October 1927; married 1978 Nancy Peters; died San Francisco 7 March 2005.

Philip Lamantia was a poet whom André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement, described as "a voice that rises once in a hundred years".

He was born in 1927 in San Francisco, the son of Sicilian immigrants. As a boy he worked at the Embarcadero market, where his father was a grocer. He discovered Surrealism through seeing the paintings of Dali and Miró at the San Francisco Museum of Art and by reading the work of the French Surrealists. In 1943, at the age of 16, he published his first poem in View, the review edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler.

Lamantia moved to New York to meet Breton and other exiled European artists and poets, including André Masson and Max Ernst. He became an editorial board member at View in 1944 and had poems published in Breton's magazine VVV in the same year. The poem "Touch of the Marvelous" brought a radical, new language in poetry, unlike any other American writer before. It begins:

The mermaids have come to the desert

They are setting up a boudoir next to the camel

who lies at their feet of rose

The title of this poem (also given to a collection of his poems published in 1966) pays tribute to the passage from Breton's 1924 Surrealist Manifesto:

Let us not mince words: the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful . . . only the marvellous is capable of fecundating works . . .

In his writing of this period Lamantia made use of what was called by Breton "pure psychic automatism", the spontaneous form of writing which created poetry as a train of mental associations whilst in a trancelike, hypnotic state.

Lamantia's first volume of poetry, Erotic Poems, was published in 1946 by Bern Porter, a disillusioned nuclear physicist who had previously worked on the Manhattan Project and who turned to writing and publishing poetry. However, in that same year Lamantia parted with View, Breton and formal Surrealism to embark on further studies at Berkeley and to travel in Mexico, France and North Africa.

He was one of the five poets who read at the now famous Six Gallery event on 7 October 1955 in San Francisco, which was to be the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl", a work brought to trial in 1957 for "obscenity". Rather than reciting his own poems, Lamantia chose to read pieces by his friend John Hoffman, who had recently died in Mexico of a peyote overdose.

A fictionalised account of the reading can be found in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums (1957), where Lamantia appears as the character "Francis DaPavia" and is described as reading

in a delicate Englishy voice that had me crying with inside laughter though I later got to know Francis and liked him.

Like his contemporary Kenneth Rexroth, Lamantia was a significant influence on the Beat movement and one of the developers of poetry and jazz, at around the same time as Rexroth, Howard Hart and Kenneth Patchen were experimenting with this art form.

The use of drugs was an important feature of Lamantia's life during the 1950s and early 1960s. The title page of Narcotica (1959) cries out:


The cover of this same book features photographs of Lamantia injecting heroin. Earlier, in the 1950s, Lamantia had also experimented with the hallucinogen mescalin, derived from the peyote cactus, whilst with the Washo Native Americans of Nevada and the Cora people in the mountains of Nayarit, Mexico.

However, in the poem "Astro-Mancy", published in Selected Poems (1967), he publicly disavows the use of drugs in the creative process, stating:

I'm recovering

from a decade of poisons

I renounce all narcotic

& pharmacopoeic disciplines

He said of this decision, and of his work at the time, that he was returning to his original inspirations "like an act of nature". Selected Poems appeared in "Pocket Poets", from City Lights of San Francisco, which also published several of his later collections. City Lights' owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti described him as

a brilliant talker, a non-stop associative talker like Robert Duncan. 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 encyclopaedic memory.

Lamantia's poetry was published in the UK in 1969 as part of the Penguin Modern Poets series, sharing a volume with Charles Bukowski and Harold Norse.

The 1970s and 1980s saw him return to Surrealism with the publication of his collections of poetry The Blood of the Air (1970), Becoming Visible (1981) and Meadowlark West (1986). In 1978 he married Nancy Peters, and from that year onwards had lectured on poetry at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Whilst Lamantia's work was never particularly well known, he acted as an essential conduit in bringing the Surrealism of France to America in the 1940s and was the only American poet of his generation to have fully embraced both Surrealism and the Beat movement.

Marcus Williamson