A Book Review that Nobody Asked For: Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane di Prima

Sarah Orman
11 min readSep 23, 2022

Have you ever read a book so wildly unique, so relentlessly its own thing, that, immediately upon finishing it, you want to call up every reader you know and tell them: “I just read this amazing thing and now you must read it too!”

This is what happened to me with Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane di Prima.

If you are not familiar with di Prima, let me save you the trouble of typing her name into your browser. You can find her bio here and some of her poetry here.

I encountered Diane di Prima through Heather Clark’s stunning 2021 biography Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. If you have communicated with me at any point in the last year, you’ve probably heard me talk about my passion for Red Comet. I have curbed the raving because I don’t want to become a social pariah. But Red Comet continues to inspire me, and one byproduct of my infatuation with the book was that it inspired me to learn about another American female poet from the 1950s, Diane di Prima.

As a writer and a mother, I am always interested in the choices that women make around life and creative work.* Growing up, I had this idea that my mother’s generation of 1970s feminists had changed everything for women. All battles had been fought and (mostly) won! That turned out not to be true. Now that I see how wrong I was , I find it interesting to learn about the lives of creative women in my grandmother’s generation, like Sylvia Plath and Diane di Prima, to see what wisdom I can find there.

In Red Comet, I learned that Sylvia Plath held the strikingly modern belief that she should not need to choose between family and poetry. She could marry a poet laureate, have two children, keep bees in the English countryside, and still write fiercely original poetry. Not to be glib, but we all know how that worked out.

Di Prima, whose parents were Italian immigrants, was born in Brooklyn in 1934, about a year and a half after Plath was born in Boston. She was not in the least afflicted by Plath’s bourgeois fantasies of family life. Di Prima died of natural causes in 2020, at the age of 86, and was working on two different books in the weeks leading up to her death.

Memoirs of a Beatnik is a novel based on di Prima’s life as a young woman in New York, mostly the Village, in the mid-1950s. The plot takes place between 1953, when di Prima dropped out of Swarthmore College and moved to Manhattan to write, and 1956, the year when Allen Ginsberg published his groundbreaking poem, Howl. Sensing the end of an era, after the publication of Howl di Prima left New York and decided to become a mother. As she writes:

About this time I decided that I wanted to have a baby. It was nothing that I decided with my head, just a vague stirring and impulse in my body, some will to flower, to come to fruition — and something in my cells whispering that the scene as I knew it had gone on long enough, that there were many other states to explore. I didn’t do anything about it, continued to use a diaphragm when screwing, it was just that my head was in a different place. I began to see everyone as a prospective father, and I found that many people looked ridiculous in this light.

About that screwing: Holy cow, this book has a lot of sex. If, like me, you live with young humans, you should know that it is hard to find two pages in a row that you will not want to hide from your children.

In the beginning, I was annoyed that every character seemed to immediately jump into bed with our protagonist. Contrary to the advice of every writing teacher I’ve had, di Prima does not mind introducing many inconsequential characters, some of whom are only around for one scene. The reader begins to think of young di Prima like a cuddly teddy bear at a slumber party for 10-year-old girls; no one meets her without wanting to pick her up and take her to bed. After eight or nine of these encounters, I found myself skimming over the tongues, cocks, moans, hips, buttocks, cunts, etc. I wanted her to get out of bed and go walk around the Village, because her descriptions of people and places are so delightful.

Di Prima is what Saul Bellow would call a “first class noticer.” Consider her description of a sailor she meets in the Village: “Milk-fed and dumb and on his way to Korea.” Or college: “a place of male and female stereotypes in cashmere sweaters, and of raucous, ugly beer parties.” Or walking out of her apartment on Avenue A and Fifth Street: “I ran the gauntlet of the small suspicious eyes of literally hundreds of Polish, Ukrainian, and Hungarian women, who could not tell what I was doing in their midst, but did not like it, did not like it at all.”

Memoirs of a Beatnik starts out as a series of titillating sex scenes punctuated by these razor-sharp observations. But about halfway through the book, there’s a reversal, and the plot becomes focused on di Prima’s search for the perfect “pad.” As someone who once wrote five handwritten pages envisioning the perfect house when I was 16 years old, this was my favorite part of the book.

In my teens and twenties, I moved a lot and was always looking for the perfect place. I’m now 46 and have lived in the same house with my husband and kids for six years, but I still love to remember those old apartments where I lived by myself or with roommates when I was younger. There’s something soothing about mentally mapping out the floorplans, the view from the kitchen windows, what the air smelled like when I walked outside in the morning. Memoirs of a Beatnik is shot through with a similar nostalgia — an affection for a younger self that, it seems to me, can only come about after someone has survived a season of restless striving.

In di Prima’s book, either she has no pad and is sleeping in Washington Square park, or she gets a pad for a few nights but it comes with a junkie (which turns out to be okay after they have cosmically profound anal sex), or she gets a great pad with a fireplace, a bathtub near the sink, and a shared bathroom, where she lives happily with four roommates until the building next door is demolished and the kitchen sink begins vomiting out all the displaced rats.

The sex scenes in this section are still frequent but seem less designed to titillate, more designed to pay tribute to the crazy bohemian tableaux vivants in which di Prima keeps finding herself — for example, a four-page orgy involving Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and a tampon. (I will not describe this scene — you just have to read it.)

In a chapter about di Prima’s favorite pad (the one with the four roommates, before the rats), she writes two versions of a typical night. The first version is titled, “A NIGHT BY THE FIRE: WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO HEAR,” and features a multi-gendered orgy that ends with Silver and Daddi-O, the pad cats, purring on the sated roommates’ feet.

The second version, “A NIGHT BY THE FIRE: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED,” features one roommate playing the same Stan Getz record over and over, while another roommate finishes a book by a Russian revolutionary, announces “What a shame” to no one in particular, and goes out. There is no sex, and di Prima is cold. In the end, she goes to sleep with a few roommates mostly for warmth:

We are curled up, spoon fashion, all on our right sides, facing the fire. My nose is cold. My nose is always cold, and usually numb. I stick it deliberately into Leslie’s back to warm it. He jumps a little, in his sleep.

I am no Beatnik, but I have slept in a room in Brooklyn that the heat could not penetrate because it was really a closet, in the middle of an apartment inhabited by strangers, with doors on either side. Shivering on a futon in this apartment, I have cuddled with a friend to keep warm. My heart jumped out of my chest when I read this scene.

In my edition of Memoirs of a Beatnik, released in 1988, di Prima added a new afterword, “Writing Memoirs,” in which she describes the experience of writing the book in San Francisco, where she lived in a house of counterculture types and their children.

While she moved to California planning to live on funds from a grant, “due to the vagaries of bureaucracy,” the money didn’t show up for seven months and then came in “small and relatively useless dribbles.” By this time, the reader knows that di Prima is a caretaker by nature. We’ve read about her waking up early in a frozen apartment to stoke the fire and make a pot of oatmeal for her slumbering roommates. So it is not surprising to read that she began writing a sexy novel about her life as a Beatnik in order to feed her crew. “Clearly,” she writes, “the twenty-odd large and assorted small humans who graced the halls, balconies, and banisters of my pad had to eat.”

This is the circumstance that led her to write the book that the reader has just finished reading. Or, in di Prima’s words: to sit in a bay window “turning out pages of reminiscences, whilst Black and White Panthers, Hell’s Angels, parrots, rock bands, assorted Chinese and American Indian dealers and babes without diapers wandered in and out of the room.”

Every time rent was due, di Prima would send pages to New York, and the pages would return with “MORE SEX” written across the top page in her editor’s hand. Sometimes, di Prima needed to research whether the wild positions she’d dreamed up were physically possible. No problem. She’d wander the house looking for willing models:

“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.

I was so relieved to find this explanation. Otherwise, it was hard to accept that one woman could write, of a friend’s alcoholic father, “Like most vigorous, healthy men, at least half of his problem was simply that civilized life could not contain, or in any way use, his energies.” And on the next page write about how, when the same man rapes her, “all the heavy sorry in me turned into some crazed impersonal desire that cried out for appeasement.”

One of the book’s strengths is how di Prima dissects Beatnik “cool.” (Remember, before jazz and Beatniks, the word “cool” applied strictly to temperature.) In di Prima’s world, cool is a game with unwritten rules designed to facilitate sexual relationships without emotional attachment. In one part, she writes that the “rules of the game made it impossible to seek further conversation” with a girl she likes: “to push a point when anyone was emotionally vulnerable was ‘uncool.’”

Here she describes being cool while dancing at a bar in the West Village:

The dance was the Fish, forerunner of the Twist, and much freer. You could dance it in couples, like the old folks danced the fox-trot. [ . . .] Or you could dance it free, in twos, threes, anything up to fives: then you stomped and leaped, did back-bends, splits, pirouetted and ‘froze.’ Freezing was an art. You threw your head back, arms straight out, and as you bent slowly backward you set every muscle in your body leaping and quivering separately. Not many people could do the Freeze. All this while, your air was casual, and your face betrayed no emotion at all. The dance was the Fish, and the game was Cool. Even in bed, I thought, the game is Cool.

As a narrator, di Prima is sometimes cool to a fault. Some readers might be skeptical of her idyllic description of living with three men: “I found I really dug being woman to the three men, cleaning and mending and cooking for them.” Her advice to young mothers (“Get welfare, quit working, stay home, stay stoned, and fuck”) also skates blithely over some emotional and practical pitfalls.

At the same time, I cannot argue with her overall argument that the mainstream American attitudes towards crucial questions of female health and life — monogamy, contraception, pregnancy — are not designed to promote female pleasure and autonomy. She’s speaking from the perspective of her generation, but her defense of practices like polyamory and home birth could have been written in a memoir published today. (Or maybe these ideas just keep coming back, and feeling new every time, because we keep forgetting to listen to the wisdom of our grandmothers.)

This is how di Prima describes encountering Howl for the first time:

The phrase ‘breaking ground’ kept coming into my head. I knew that this Allen Ginsberg, whoever he was, had broken ground for all of us — all few hundreds of us — simply by getting this published. [. . .] We had come of age. I was frightened and a little sad. I already clung instinctively to the easy, unself-conscious Bohemianism we had maintained at the pad, our unspoken sense that we were alone in a strange world, a sense that kept us proud and bound to each other. But for the moment regret for what we might be losing was buried under a sweeping sense of exhilaration, of glee; someone was speaking for all of us, and the poem was good. I was high and delighted. I made my way back to the house and to supper, and we read Howl together, I read it aloud to everyone. A new era had begun.

It’s a gift to be able to read about that moment through di Prima’s eyes. It makes me wonder about all the untold stories out there — stories of other young women who got caught up in a movement, a scene, or a moment, but, for one reason or another, never got around to writing about it. I’m so glad that Diane di Prima gave the world this amazing book, and I hope this book review inspires others to write their own lives. What wisdom might your story hold for future generations?

Bottom line:

  • The book is Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane di Prima. With the 1988 Afterword, it is 194 pages long.
  • Read if you like: descriptions of bohemian life and New York in the 1950s; Beat poets; interesting views on gender and creativity
  • Don’t read if you are allergic to: dated attitudes towards queerness; scenes featuring explicit sex, rape, and at least one instance of incest.

*If you, like me, are interested in reading stories about women who combine creative work with motherhood, please check out The Baby on the Fire Escape: Motherhood, Creativity and the Mind-Body Problem by Julie Phillips.

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Sarah Orman

Writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Follow me on Substack @sarahorman for twice-a-month dispatches about books and writing. More info at sarahormanwrites.com.