Philip Lamantia, 77; Poet Helped Launch Beat Era

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Times Staff Writer

Philip Lamantia, an American Surrealist poet who helped launch poetry’s Beat generation in San Francisco, has died. He was 77.

Lamantia died March 7 at his home in San Francisco of heart failure, according to Elaine Katzenberger, associate director of City Lights Books, which published several collections of his poetry.

When the city emerged as a home to artists and intellectuals in the mid-1940s, Lamantia was a high school student and one of the youngest published poets of his generation. He was 16 when his first work appeared in View, a respected literary magazine. Soon afterward, his work was included in “VVV,” the Surrealist journal edited by Andre Breton, who referred to Lamantia as “a voice that rises once in a hundred years.”


Despite this promising start, Lamantia never took his place in poetry’s mainstream. From the mid-1950s, his dependence on drugs combined with periods of serious depression limited him. He also shied away from public attention and traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa and Mexico, where he lived for a time with the Cora Indian tribe in Nayarit, experimenting with peyote. Some of his poetry suggests his drug-induced isolation.

“Stars overturn the wall of my music,” he wrote in “Hide,” included in his “Selected Poems 1943-1966.” The poem continues: “I’m mad to go to you, Solitude -- who will carry me there?”

Starting in his teens, Lamantia was fascinated by mysticism, alchemy, linguistics and obscure religious texts. Later, he became enraptured by Christianity, which he fashioned into his own eclectic mysticism.

“I long for the luminous darkness of God,” he wrote in “There is this distance between me and what I see,” published in “Selected Poems.” He ruminates on the thought and concludes, “It is nameless, what I long for.”

He wrote a number of books of poetry, starting with “Erotic” (1949), which he referred to as one of his “adventures in pure psychic automatism,” but he remained generally unknown among poetry lovers. He gained broader recognition when his work was included in “Penguin Modern Poets 13” (1969) alongside that of Charles Bukowski and Harold Norse.

Lamantia was born in San Francisco, the son of Sicilian immigrants. His father was a grocer. He became fascinated with French Surrealism as a teenager after seeing the paintings of Salvador Dali and Joan Miro at the San Francisco Museum of Art.


He dropped out of school in the early 1940s and went to live in New York City, where he worked as an assistant editor for View. While he was there, he met several of the French Surrealist artists and poets who fled Europe during World War II and settled in New York City. Among them was Breton.

“To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets!” Lamantia wrote in a letter to Breton during those years. “The ‘poetic marvelous’ and the unconscious are the true inspirers of rebels and poets.”

He returned to San Francisco around 1950 and attended UC Berkeley but did not graduate. He befriended the growing number of poets drawn to San Francisco at the time, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and founder of City Lights bookstore, a home for contemporary poets, was another friend.

In October 1955, Lamantia and four other poets gave a reading at the Sixth Gallery in San Francisco that is considered the launch of the Beat generation. Ginsberg, Snyder, Michael McClure and Philip Whelan also read that night.

Lamantia kept his distance from the Beats, however. “He never had the interest in self-promotion or the sustained creativity of Ginsberg,” Steven Schwartz, author of “From West to East, California and the Making of the American Mind” (1998), said Thursday.

“The Beats were street intellectuals. Lamantia was a serious intellectual.”

After a long battle with addiction, Lamantia managed to get off drugs.

He wrote about his struggle in “Astro-Mancy” (1967). “I’m recovering / from a decade of poisons / I renounce all narcotics / & pharmacopoeic disciplines,” he wrote.


He married Nancy Peters, the co-publisher of City Lights Books, in 1978 and continued to write intermittently. His collection “The Blood of the Air” (1970) was followed by “Becoming Visible” 11 years later. He also lectured on poetry at San Francisco State University and San Francisco Art Institute through the 1970s.

He is survived by his wife.

A memorial service will be held March 27 at 2 p.m. at Enrico’s Cafe, 504 Broadway, in San Francisco.