To conclude our celebration of National Poetry Month, we asked Andrew Joron, one of the co-editors of The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, to reflect on Lamantia’s poetic development and the sources of his inspiration.
By Andrew Joron
Philip Lamantia, whose Collected Poems was published by UC Press in 2013, was always attuned to the powers of music, not only in his own prosody and vocal delivery, but also in the culture at large—especially in the jazz milieu that he explored with Beat novelist Jack Kerouac in the fifties.
Born in San Francisco in 1927, Philip Lamantia was the most American visionary poet of the postwar generation. Inspired as a teenager by surrealist art and poetry, he traveled to New York during World War II to meet André Breton, the leader of the surrealist movement, who hailed Lamantia as “a voice that rises once in a hundred years.” At the end of the war, Lamantia returned to San Francisco and became a protégé of the anarchist poet Kenneth Rexroth, who turned the young poet toward naturalism. However, Lamantia never abandoned his mystical bent, which he furthered by exploring drug experiences and studying occult literature. In this period, Lamantia participated in the inception of the Beat movement after meeting Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in Rexroth’s circle. Ginsberg called Lamantia “an American original, soothsayer even as Poe, genius in the language of Whitman, native companion and teacher to myself.” Lamantia collaborated with Kerouac and jazz musicians in New York to stage the first jazz poetry event. Following an extended stay in Europe, Lamantia renewed his commitment to surrealism in the sixties, continuing to practice a unique, mystically-tinged version of surrealism for the rest of his life. He died in San Francisco in 2005.
Throughout the phases of Lamantia’s poetic development, sound and music always seemed to provide prime sources of inspiration. Indeed, the sonorous quality of Lamantia’s own voice has provoked much commentary, including Kerouac’s descriptions of it in The Dharma Bums as a “delicate Englishy voice that had me crying inside with laughter,” and in Desolation Angels as “an excellent and strange new form of English I’ve never heard anywhere.” Whether reading poems aloud or conversing, Lamantia always applied a bardic, highly oratorical inflection that set his voice apart from typical American speech patterns. Moreover, during the period of his association with Kerouac, Lamantia occasionally performed his poems with musical accompaniment. For example, the manuscript of Lamantia’s poem-cycle Tau is marked with simple and fragmentary musical notation by an unknown composer. Lamantia, together with Kerouac and the Beat poet Howard Hart, collaborated with composer and French horn player David Amram in New York in 1957 to stage what has been recognized as the first jazz-poetry reading. Around this time, Lamantia also formed a friendship with composer and novelist Paul Bowles, who opened Lamantia’s ears to world music. Lamantia would later meet with Bowles in Morroco and delve into performances of mystical Gnawa trance music. Later, Lamantia was equally attracted the Catholic mysticism of French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen. The poet continued to be engaged by mystical, marvelous, and subversive elements of music to the end of his life. Lamantia’s life-long musical receptivity is shown by his interest, when in his seventies, in the work of an early rap artist known as “the Intelligent Hoodlum.”
Now, nine years after Lamantia’s death, the jazz dimension of his poetry comes to the fore again in a project called “Blood of the Air” (after the title of one of Lamantia’s books) by the Sheldon Brown Ensemble at SF Jazz on June 15. Saxophone player and composer Sheldon Brown has created a series of compositions based on the pitch patterns of Lamantia’s voice as heard in archival recordings. Brown’s compositions thus represent not simply musical settings of poetic texts but a liberation and amplification of the music residing in the poet’s own living voice. This highly original approach to the intersection of poetry and jazz gives testimony to the undiminished power of Lamantia’s work as it inspires a new generation of musicians and readers.
Andrew Joron is an award-winning surrealist poet and translator.