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Preserving Fire

Review by Allan Graubard

Preserving Fire: Selected Prose
Philip Lamantia
Edited by Garret Caples
Wave Books

Philip Lamantia was a poet of rare originality. His quick rise to prominence in 1943 at the age of 15 framed his influence thereafter through successive generations of creators in the poetic, visual, physical, and sonic arts. But what of the prose he wrote in his letters or his articles scattered through the various magazines he collaborated on and in several books, or his yet unpublished texts or notations?i

Garret Caples — who, along with Nancy Joyce Peters and Andrew Joron, edited Lamantia’s Collected Poems (California, 2013)ii — has resolved the issue. In Preserving Fire: Selected Prose (Wave Books, Seattle, 2018), Caples presents a generous portion of the prose that Lamantia wrote. The heterogeneous character of the 40 selections, each written in response to a particular context or request, provides a mixed composite of Lamantia’s arc. And whether each selection speaks of the poetic experience through writing or off the page, their relationship to magic, alchemy and the hermetic arts, Native American ceremonialism, or as a convulsive diary account — explicitly or implicitly — the fire that Lamantia will later identity as Prometheaniii and, with passion, the heart of poetry, is there.

Fronting the collection is a detailed introduction that clarifies each selection historically, along with other interesting biographical information. Caples knew Lamantia well, and the knowledge their friendship gave them he uses to effect. The perspectives that Caples provides will certainly aid readers; those familiar with Lamantia’s poetry and prose and those new to either or both.

Poignant casual photos of Lamantia filter through the book, mostly solo although with friends in several shots. First, however, there is the formal portrait of the 15-year-old poet. He’s quite a handsome young man in a white shirt open at the neck whose wide collar falls onto the lapels of a sports jacket. His eyes, perhaps a third way up from the photo midline, have a uniquely arresting quality that draws me to him and his softer facial features below. Previous, and the first prose selection, is the letter he wrote to Charles Henri Ford, most probably at the same general time the photo was taken, perhaps April 1943. After hesitantly introducing himself, he depicts what moves him most. When Ford reads the selection of poems that Lamantia includes with the letter, Ford does not hesitate. He agrees to publish five poems in View and invites Lamantia to New York.iv

In this letter Lamantia identifies two vectors to explore human expression with, which he will refine as he matures but which nonetheless are fundamental: primitive art and Surrealism. As Lamantia writes then: “Primitive art, through the untamed emotions, and Surrealism, through the world of dreams and desires, will be, after all is said and done, the only great literary and artistic movements of the twentieth century.” Despite the hyperbole, whether or not in the current era this holds true for us, in whole or in part, and why, is something to consider.

Some six months on in October 1943 is Lamantia’s letter to André Breton, which follows the photo just noted. Lamantia buttresses his stated position (to Ford) by formally adhering to the surrealist movement as defined by Breton; fulfilling an earlier request by Breton that he do so. Breton celebrates the inspiration that Lamantia possesses, or which possesses him, and which Lamantia roots in Lautremont; this voice that feeds the “fire that has begun to issue from my depths.” Along with the letter, Breton publishes three of Lamantia’s poems in VVV.v

From this vantage point, Lamantia’s growth as a poet takes off, moving through several developments, one of which is heir to his accomplishments, the Beats. Other developments, which Lamantia draws into his poetic practice include his encounters with Native American cultures, anarchism, the use of psychoactive substances to provoke visionary states, the rise of ecological awareness, an expansive study of hermetic/alchemical sources, and a late inclusive interest in birds — all in service to the “surconscious,” a state of being defined by the artist Wolfgang Paalen, as Lamantia notes, “when conscious and unconscious cease to be contradictions.”

Although not in the table of contents, which follows the chronology of texts that Caples has published, it was useful for me, at least, to group the texts into several general periods. The first, of course, encompasses Lamantia’s initial year stint in New York, where he works on View in an editorial capacity and interacts with the avant-garde scene provoked by European émigré writers, poets, artists, and intellectuals fleeing Fascist Europe — the first five selections.

The second period has Lamantia back in his native San Francisco, where he associates with the older poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth, in whose circle are also Robert Duncan, William Everson, and others who will form what we now call the “San Francisco Renaissance.” Along with Rexroth, Lamantia also singles out Henry Miller, living then in Big Sur, as an older writer of significance. The leading article in this section, “Letter from San Francisco,” sets the city, in contrast to New York, as a launching pad for a new American poetry and as a magnet for anarchist libertarian And that certainly turned out to be true.

The third period includes his two introductions to the poems of his late friend, John Hoffman, and “The Beat Generation.”vii Here, Lamantia references the influence of Bebop in the person of Charlie “Bird” Parker, along with the poet and artist animators of Beat: from John Wieners, Michael McClure and Gregory Coors to Iris Brody, Bruce Conner and Harry Smith, among others, of course; all of whom were friends of Lamantia. “RevelatNewsport” is a curious, if damning, high-octane account by Lamantia of his being jailed for five days in Morocco for possession of kif, with several other Americans. Although the author is one Raphael Kohler, we know this as an alias for Lamantia.viii

A fourth period signals Lamantia’s return to surrealism, initially through the aborted construction of a poetic and metaphysical nexus in “Notes Towards a Poetics of Weir,” which he describes in a letter to Bob Hawley, founder of Oyez Press; for which Lamantia is also preparing his revised manuscript of his early poems, retiled now as Touch of the Marvelous.ix What “weir” means is somewhat difficult to say as Lamantia seeks within it an analogy between different precipitous internal and external states that enable a “Seeing in another way beyond the ordinary, including the ‘ordinary’ fantastical or the too/obvious ornamentally ‘surreal’.” Lamantia ends the text with two premiere poetic sources: the Sphinx and E. A. Poe, citing Poe’s poem “Ulalume” as a “sonic bridge’” that performs a function similar to that of the Sphinx — returning man through riddle, or in Poe’s case, poetic resonance, to the true measure of himself. Interesting as well is Lamantia’s critique of surrealist clichés, which will also play a significant role in his major critical texts on poetry to come.

By 1970 Lamantia has publically signaled his affiliation with the surrealist movement as it has manifested in San Francisco and in Chicago. Ever seeking new sources and horizons, his realignment with surrealism is vital. His refusal to accept “previously conquered areas of association” opens up in “Between the Gulfs” a “theory of ‘volatile-negative-analogies’...through a group of poems with the title Becoming Visible.” The title is exact to what Lamantia can now sense as possible and, I might add, not only within his compass but also throughout the corpus of poetry and poetic experience.x

In this text and the related brief texts that follow — “Vital Conflagrations,” “The Crime of Poetry,” and “Harmonian Research” — Lamantia lays the foundation of a principled, risk-laden arena for poetic and social research, and the praxis they imply. One pivot of that praxis Lamantia finds in the choreographic works of Alice Farley, a close collaborator and member of the surrealist group then. He writes three texts in response to three different performances, both in theater and site specific, compelled by the “lyric-erotic gestures of her choreography….[that] presents a state of disquieting relations in space, germinations of a poeticized space of dynamic analogies and becomes poetry itself moving visibly”; in effect, as Lamantia states elsewhere, Farley’s performances are a “dream realized in space.”xi

Lamantia’s two major published texts, both fully formed and precisely written, are “Poetic Matters” and “Radio Voices: A Child’s Bed of Sirens.”xii The former is his most consequential statement on poetry and deserves serious reading. In it, he redefines the definition of poetry from “the mistaken notion of ‘image making’ or ‘image building’” to a deformational action in which imagination supersedes nature. Turning to philosopher Gaston Bachelard, he states that the “imaginative faculty must be understood as freeing us from the immediate images of perception” and that, quoting Bachelard, “‘The value of an image is measured by the extent of its imaginary radiance’.” Both points will support Lamantia’s re-visioning of poetry as the “superior principle of language,” expanding his discussion into philosophical, alchemical, and social domains.

The text offers a thorough critique of the American canon, exemplified by Ezra Pound and his emulators, which include Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, and their colleagues and followers, along with more elder poets; the “fixed form addicts...such as Yvor Williams and R.P. Warren.” As a critique of the canon, there is nothing quite like it. The sweep, passion, and epiphanic quality of its argument reveal Lamantia at the height of his powers, and with the advantage that his experience, spread now over four decades, gives him.

Clarifying the present state and needs of surrealism, Lamantia points to “our immediate precursors”: poets Samuel Greenberg, Mina Loy, and Harry Crosby. Of his living allies who are not surrealists but authentically inspired poets, and who refuse to play along as literary celebrities, there are: Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, and Daniel Moore.

Perhaps most revealing is Lamantia’s recognition of communal mythopoesis — the goal of poetry — in the Hopi Katchina ceremonies, whose masked dancers Lamantia encountered several times at Hopi mesas high over the Arizona desert. The ceremonies, which became for Lamantia a “veritable moving vehicle of the Poetic Marvelous,” transport him “straight into those regions in the mind that surrealism has always exalted.” The text continues to unfold, with a section titled “Notes Toward a Rigorous Interpretation of Surrealist Occultation” and other key commentary, but I leave that to readers.

“Radio Voices: A Child’s Bed of Sirens” takes another tack but also quite personal. Here Lamantia discusses what his listening to radio crime dramas as a growing child meant. As he puts it: “I can trace a profound awakening of the poetic sense of life and language directly to the exemplary magical myth of The Shadow and for those disquieting transgressions — veritable sagas of patricide and matricide — revealed by The Whistler.” He notes other programs with a similar charge that he, and millions of other children, listened to as well, such as Mandrake the Magician, Boston Blackie and Alias Jimmy Valentine.

Replete with noir-esque murders and private detective heroes who employ magical and other ingenious means to solve them, they emerge as “vehicles of representational non-repressive sublimation.” Ever significant supports for ego development in adolescence, as Lamantia notes, they also served “our real needs…for the pleasures and excitement of an authentic magico-poetic experience: poetry invoked and provoked.”

Steeped as we are in visual culture from our digital screens, it is important not to forget the aural character of the experience that Lamantia explores. Listening to a disembodied voice coming from a small speaker and recreating in the mind the visual tonic of the action as the story unfolds engages the imagination actively, not passively. Add in the place, whether in the family living room or, more often, disobeying parental orders to sleep by listening to the later evening “adult” dramas quietly in bed in the dark, the act takes on an additional subversive character.

Other texts of interest follow: “The Future of Surrealism,” written with his wife Nancy Joyce Peters; a brief “heraldic” celebration of the artist Marie Wilson; his poignant commemoration of writer Clark Ashton Smith; the vivid “Letter from Egypt”; his commentary on “Surrealism and Mysticism” taken from a last interview; and several more.

This book is a treasure trove, reaffirming Lamantia’s distinction. Poet, animator, voyager, seeker, magnet, observer, commentator, scholar, critic or contrarian; sometimes generous in his relationships, other times secretive or meager; lover, friend or antagonist – yes, he was all of these, and more. The extent of his experience and reading, his talents as a conversationalist able to discuss diverse subjects at length, and his effort to reveal poetry in life as on the page make this book compelling in its own right but also as context, when appropriate, for those drawn to his poetry.

Although Lamantia died in 2005, his voice sustains because of his posthumous editors: Garret Caples in this volume, and colleagues Nancy Joyce Peters and Andrew Joron in his Collected Poems. I thank them for their work. Read Phillip Lamantia.


i Phillip Lamantia’s literary estate is housed at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
ii Reviewed by Allan Graubard in 2013 (Pacific Rim Review of Books).
iii See Lamantia’s text, Poetic Matters; pp. 85-100.
iv Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler are founders and editors of View, the leading avant-garde literary and art magazine in New York, which publishes from 1940 to 1947.
v VVV, the organ of the exiled surrealist movement, is edited by David Hare, with the participation Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. It publishes four issues from 1942 to 1944.
vi This text publishes in Horizon, No. 93-94 (October, 1947, London); reprinted as “Letter from San Francisco (Coventry, England: Beat Scene Press, 2009); pp. 21-27.
vii These introductions finally appear in Lamantia’s Tau with Journey to the End by John Hoffman (City Lights, 2008); pp. 35-40. “The Beat Generation” is published here for the first time; pp. 46-48.
viii The article is first printed in The International Times (no. 38, 1968); pp. 51-61.
ix Touch of the Marvelous (Berkeley: Oyez,1966).
x “Between the Gulfs” is published in Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion, No 2 (Chicago, 1973); 77-78.
xi The three texts on Farley include: “The Oneiric Light of Alice Farley,” p. 83; “Invisible Webs,” pp.101-102; and “Alice Farley: Dancing at Land’s End,” pp.124-125. The Dance Theater of Alice Farley continues its work to this day.
xii “Poetic Matters” is published in Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion, No 3 (Chicago, 1976); pp. 85-102. “Radio Voices: A Child’s Bed of Sirens” is published in Cultural Correspondence, No. 11-12 (Providence, RI, Fall 1979). It is republished in Surrealism & Its Popular Accomplices (San Francisco, City Lights, 1980); pp.104-120.

Allan Graubard is a poet, playwright and critic. A recent play, Woman Bomb/Sade, was produced in New York in 2008.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #24