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Philip Lamantia

1927–2005

Philip Nunzio Lamantia was born on October 23, 1927 in San Francisco. He was the only child of Sicilian immigrants and later recounted that his earliest memories were of his grandmother telling him Sicilian folktales. Lamantia began to write poetry in middle school. Edgar Allan Poe was an early and lasting influence. By the age of fourteen, Lamantia declared himself a poet. He developed an interest in Surrealism after viewing paintings by Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, and next began reading poetry by André Breton. In 1943, Lamantia published his first poems in The View, a New York-based Surrealist literary magazine. He dropped out of Balboa High School and moved to New York. He later attended Bates School for a year to get his high school diploma. At The View, he became assistant editor and met the artists Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy, as well as the writers Paul Bowles and Harold Rosenberg. Lamantia returned to San Francisco in 1944 and met Kenneth Rexroth, who became a lasting influence and mentor, when he was sixteen. With Rexroth’s help, Lamantia registered as a conscientious objector in October 1945 to avoid going to war. Through Rexroth, Lamantia became a part of the San Francisco Libertarian Circle, a discussion group led by Rexroth and connected to his Friday night salons, which included Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason, Richard O. Moore, and Jack Spicer. Lamantia took courses in the humanities, including poetry lectures by Josephine Miles, at University of California, Berkeley. During this period, he formed a close friendship with John Hoffman, with whom he also lived for a short period. Lamantia also met the writer, linguist, and anthropologist Jaime de Argulo, who sparked an interest in Indigenous cultures that would later influence Lamantia’s work. In 1949, Lamantia began to travel globally, staying in parts of France, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, and Spain sporadically until the 1960s, when he resettled in San Francisco. During this period, Lamantia struggled with heroin addiction. This, coupled with his lifelong struggles with symptoms from bipolar disorder, caused him to stop writing poetry for lengthy periods. 

Lamantia released his debut collection, Erotic Poems (Bern Porter), in 1946. He was the first to read at the legendary Six Gallery Reading on October 7, 1955, an event that is regarded as the birth of the Beat movement. Instead of reading his own poems, Lamantia read those of John Hoffman, who had died three years earlier. Lamantia was the best known among the younger poets who were billed, though the others would soon outshine him in renown. He followed his debut collection with Ekstasis and Narcotica, both of which were published by Auerhahn Press in 1959. In the same year, he gave what is considered the first public reading of jazz poetry alongside Jack Kerouac. The following year, Lamantia was included in The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (University of California Press, 1960), edited by Donald Allen. Lamantia burned all of his unpublished work in the same year. Other collections include Bed of Sphinxes: New and Selected Poems, 1943–1993 (City Lights, 1997); Meadowlark West (City Lights Books, 1986); Becoming Visible (City Lights Books, 1981); Selected Poems: 1943–1966 (City Lights Books, 1967); and Destroyed Works (Auerhahn Press, 1962). In 2008, City Lights Books published Tau, Lamantia’s lost second book, alongside John Hoffman’s Journey to the End in its Pocket Poets Series. Five years later, University of California Press released The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (2013).

Lamantia is credited with introducing Allen Ginsberg to Surrealist poetry, particularly stream-of-consciousness writing. Though he is associated with the Beat Generation, Lamantia’s wife, Nancy Peters, who is also co-owner of City Lights Books and Publishers, and Beat historian, Bill Morgan, have noted that Lamantia’s work was more esoteric and focused on cabalistic themes, thus setting his work apart from the more urgent and mundane tone that Ginsberg and other Beats had set. French literary critic Yves le Pellec identified Lamantia as “a living link between French surrealism and the American counterculture at its beginnings.” Throughout his career, Lamantia distanced himself from the literary mainstream and largely associated aesthetically with the Surrealists. 

In addition to his work with The View, Lamantia continued to contribute sporadically to Surrealist literary journals. In the early 1970s, he joined the Chicago Surrealist Group and contributed work to its journal, Arsenal. In the fall of 1971, he taught a course on poetry at San Francisco State University for one semester. In the 1980s, he developed mouth cancer, twice needing surgery. He also suffered from worsening symptoms from bipolar disorder. He took one final trip abroad, to Egypt in 1989, before becoming a recluse. Lamantia died of heart failure on March 7, 2005 in North Beach, California. 

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