The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia represents the lifework of the most visionary poet of the American postwar generation. Philip Lamantia (1927-2005) played a major role in shaping the poetics of both the Beat and the Surrealist movements in the United States. First mentored by the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, the teenage Lamantia also came to the attention of the French Surrealist leader André Breton, who, after reading Lamantia’s youthful work, hailed him as a “voice that rises once in a hundred years.” Later, Lamantia went “on the road” with Jack Kerouac and shared the stage with Allen Ginsberg at the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, where Ginsburg first read “Howl.” Throughout his life, Lamantia sought to extend and renew the visionary tradition of Romanticism in a distinctly American vernacular, drawing on mystical lore and drug experience in the process. The Collected Poems gathers not only his published work but also an extensive selection of unpublished or uncollected work; the editors have also provided a biographical introduction.
The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia
High Poet: The Life and Work of Philip Lamantia
Late in life, Philip Lamantia drafted fragments of a memoir under the working title High Poet. He regarded himself as a "high poet" in more than one sense: he was a visionary poet who ascended the heights of pure imagination, one who sought both intellectual understanding and spiritual transcendence. He was also a poet of vast erudition, one for whom learning was equivalent to gnosis; in his wide-ranging reading, he drew out the poetic essence of the sciences, philosophy, and history, which he then infused into his own writing. He welcomed (and sometimes provoked) visions, through such vehicles as meditation, religious ceremony, and psychotropic substances. His quest led outward as well as inward: in 1944, at age sixteen, Lamantia left high school in his native San Francisco to join the company of war-exiled Parisian surrealists in New York; and through the 1950s and 1960s, he lived and wrote in Mexico, Morocco, France, Italy, Spain, and Greece.
Throughout his poetic itinerary, Lamantia would traverse the ecstatic space between writing poetry and religious mysticism, at times rejecting both, then discovering aspects of one within the other-until finally, in the last decade of his life, arriving at a synthesis of scholarly erudition and spiritual discernment. Lamantia's high aspiration as a poet is evident in his desire-stated in a late interview-to achieve a "miracle in words."
In tandem with an alternation between the polarities of poetry and mysticism, Lamantia struggled with a lifelong manic-depressive condition. Bipolar episodes, which could take the form of spiritual crises, led him to withdraw from society for long periods, to suppress his own work from publication, and even, on occasion, to destroy it. As a result, Lamantia maintained a hermetic presence in American poetry, even as he played a seminal role in some of its most innovative developments both through his participation in mentor Kenneth Rexroth's anarchist Libertarian Circle of poets and scholars, subsequently a major component of the San Francisco Renaissance, and through his later involvement with the Beat Generation. As Rexroth would later write, "a great deal of what has happened since in poetry was anticipated in the poetry Lamantia wrote before he was 21."
Even the barest summary of Lamantia's subsequent life bristles with incident. In the mid-1950s, he partook in rituals with the Washoe Indians at Lake Tahoe, Nevada and with the Cora Indians (Nayarit) in Mexico. In 1955, between stays in Mexico, Lamantia participated in the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco where Allen Ginsberg first read "Howl." Two years later, shortly after the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), Lamantia gave what are widely considered to be the first public jazz poetry readings, with Kerouac, Howard Hart, and musician David Amram. Yet by 1960, even as he was featured in Donald Allen's groundbreaking anthology, New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Lamantia had renounced poetry, burning most-though not all-of his unpublished work. In late 1962, he left America for Europe, devoting himself to the study of Egyptian symbology and Renaissance hermetic traditions-yet in 1965, after meeting his future wife, Nancy Peters, he dramatically returned to both poetry and surrealism, beginning his long association with City Lights Books with the 1967 publication of his Selected Poems: 1943-1966. In the early '70s, after returning to San Francisco, he affiliated himself with the Chicago Surrealist Group, led by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, contributing to its journal Arsenal while remaining aloof from both mainstream literary culture and the Poundian aesthetics of language poetry. The 1980s would reveal an increasing ecological consciousness in his poetry, manifesting itself through his exploration of the Pacific Coast wilderness, ornithology, and Native American cultures. His ongoing interest in Egypt culminated in a long poem of that title, inspired by his 1989 visit to the monuments at Luxor.
By the mid-'90s, Lamantia had largely fallen silent due to severe depression, though he would remerge after the publication of Bed of Sphinxes: New and Selected Poems 1943-1993 in 1997 and a brief return to Catholicism following a 1998 vision in the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi in San Francisco's North Beach. This final burst of poetic activity resulted in a handful of published poems before he fell silent once again, in late 2001. He spent the rest of his life withdrawn from the world. On his death in 2005, the New York Times acknowledged Lamantia's vital contribution to twentieth-century poetry by quoting French literary critic Yves le Pellec, who once identified him as "a living link between French surrealism and the American counterculture at its beginnings."
Philip Nunzio Lamantia was born at home, at 1715 Sanchez Street, in San Francisco, on October 23, 1927, the only child of Sicilian immigrants Nunzio and Mary Lamantia. His paternal grandmother, Mattea, also lived with the family, and among Philip's earliest memories were the Sicilian folktales she told him in her backyard rose garden. Nunzio had immigrated from Palermo to the United States in his late teens and had served in the American army in World War I. Mary (née Tarantino) came from a large, impoverished family from the tiny Sicilian island of Ustica; her oldest brother Paul Tarantino, a produce distributor, served as the head of the family. After the war, Nunzio was hired by Tarantino as a produce broker, becoming known in the trade by the Anglicized name "Nelson." Nunzio became successful enough to buy a house on Russia Avenue in San Francisco's Excelsior district, then on the outskirts of the city, where Philip spent most of his childhood.
Throughout his childhood, Lamantia was drawn to what the surrealists called "the marvelous"-manifestations of the uncanny, the sublime, or the impossible, which resist or exceed rationalization. On the one hand, this is perfectly ordinary, insofar as surrealism associates the ability to perceive the marvelous with the unfettered imagination of childhood. On the other hand, Lamantia's childhood taste for the marvelous-insofar as it can be known-is remarkably consistent with his adult purchase on the topic. Among his papers, for example, are two scrapbooks containing newspaper comics depicting scenes from exotic cultures as well as illustrations from Ripley's Believe It or Not, asserting the marvelous as fact. As noted in his essay "Radio Voices: A Child's Bed of Sirens," Lamantia also gravitated toward what he calls "mystery fantasies," whose characters powerfully resonated in all media: comics, movies, and radio. "I can trace a profound awakening of the poetic sense of life and language directly to the exemplary magical myth of The Shadow." "On the poetic plane," he continues, "The Shadow and Mandrake are paragons of hermetic knowledge: modern forms, respectively, of the fairy tale wonder-worker and the sorcerer."
That these uncanny, fantastic elements of pop culture influenced the poetics of the precocious Lamantia is evident from his earliest days as a poet. Lamantia first began writing poetry in middle school, under the tutelage of a flaming-haired Irish immigrant named Griffin, whose English classes consisted purely of the reading and discussion of poetry and whose standing policy was that anyone who wrote a poem didn't have to do that evening's homework. Lamantia's choice to embark on an orientalist fantasia modeled on Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam already seems characteristic of his prior interest in the marvelous (even as its inherently open-ended nature allowed him to avoid homework indefinitely). From the Rubaiyat, Lamantia would move on to Edgar Allan Poe, thus placing himself directly in touch with one of surrealism's earliest acknowledged forebears. "Poe," André Breton writes in the first "Manifesto of Surrealism" (1924), "is surrealist in adventure," consonant with Lamantia's poetic reading of "night-beings" like the Shadow.
Nothing from Lamantia's Rubaiyat survives; nonetheless, the poem impressed the adults in his life with its level of accomplishment, leading to his own self-identification as a poet by age fourteen. According to his autobiographical notes, his poetic vocation came to him on the top of San Bruno Mountain, after observing the weird effects of the winds and fog banks that surrounded it, evidence of his response to the marvels of the natural world. There, in the center of a "classic grove of trees," he heard "an inner voice declaring me a poet." Lamantia noted that "it was there on that mountain that I wrote my first modernist poem 'Paranoid Dream.'" This poem was not preserved, though another from this time, "Ages in the Wind," survives, due to its appearance in the 1943 installment of The Young West Sings: Anthology of California High School Poetry-his first publication. With its reference to the "dark cultures and ages" and "the Nile," "Ages in the Wind" appears to allude to Lamantia's burgeoning interest in the mysteries of past civilizations, fueled in part by a visit around this time to the library of the Philosophical Research Society, established by Manly P. Hall in 1936, in Los Angeles.
Encounter with Surrealism
"Paranoid Dream" seems to reflect (or even to anticipate) the young poet's encounter with the "paranoia-critical method" of renegade surrealist Salvador Dalí, whose paintings were exhibited in a retrospective at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor in the spring of the year that this poem was written, 1942. The Dalí exhibition, along with a nearly concomitant retrospective of the works of Joan Miró at the San Francisco Museum, brought surrealism to the attention of the teenaged Lamantia with all the force of a revelation. Here was a worldview and a practice that could accommodate the unsettling modes of consciousness that were already flowering in him. Lamantia would reiterate, throughout his life, the lessons learned from these two exhibitions: that surrealism is not a style (as demonstrated by the contrast between Dalí's classical figuration and Miró's semi-abstraction) but a transmogrification of art-and ultimately of reality itself-into something other. Moreover, the citations from surrealist texts that accompanied the paintings were electrifying in their own right. These texts seemed, as Lamantia later attested, to flow into the paintings themselves, aspiring toward the supreme point (posited by André Breton) where conventional categories-between word and image, sleep and waking, reason and madness, life and death-are abolished.
After viewing these examples of surrealist painting, Lamantia resolved to practice surrealist writing-seized with the notion, as he explained many years later in his lectures at the San Francisco Art Institute, that paintings and poems were interchangeable manifestations of the same unsayable, unpictureable sur-reality. Following his visits to these exhibitions, Lamantia scoured the San Francisco Public Library for materials relating to surrealism and came up with only a handful of books, among them David Gascoyne's A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935), Julien Levy's Surrealism (1936), and Georges Lemaître's From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature (1941). On newsstands, Lamantia found issues of View, a glossy, New York-based avant-garde magazine that often featured surrealist art and writing; he immediately ordered the surrealist books advertised in its pages. Lastly, in the library of the San Francisco Museum of Art, Lamantia discovered the two issues of the lavishly produced VVV, a magazine emanating from the New York circle of European surrealists in exile during World War II.
Thus inspired, Lamantia, by his own account, "in no time had a dozen poems ready," which he ventured to submit to the editors of View magazine. Five of these-"I Am Coming," "Apparition of Charles Baudelaire," "The Ruins," "By the Curtain of Architecture," and "There Are Many Pathways to the Garden"-were accepted for publication in the June 1943 issue, and another poem, "Automatic World," appeared in the subsequent (October) issue. The power and originality of these works-written by a fifteen year old-caused Lamantia to be hailed by the New York avant-garde as a kind of American Rimbaud. A flurry of correspondence ensued between Lamantia and View editors Charles Henry Ford and Parker Tyler. After his subsequent discovery of VVV, the young poet wrote directly to surrealist leader André Breton and enclosed some poems for his consideration.
Breton at that time was much concerned with the survival of the surrealist project, which was facing, in the midst of the wartime dispersal of its key practitioners, increasingly hostile criticism declaring the movement to be irrelevant and outmoded. Not long before Lamantia's emergence on the scene, Breton had given a lecture at Yale University on "The Situation of Surrealism Between the Two Wars" in which he emphasized, with an eye toward the next generation, that surrealism "was born of a limitless affirmation of faith in the genius of youth." He therefore welcomed the advent of a young American poet of genius, accepting three of Lamantia's poems-"The Islands of Africa" (dedicated to Rimbaud), "The Touch of the Marvelous," and "Plumage of Recognition"-for publication in VVV and praising him as "a voice that rises once in a hundred years." Breton also asked Lamantia to compose a statement clarifying his relation to surrealism; this statement-"Surrealism in 1943"-appeared in the fourth issue of VVV alongside Lamantia's poems.
In this brief statement, Lamantia brought everything he had learned about surrealism in the previous year into focus, and especially made a point of citing Breton's Second Manifesto. "Surrealism," Lamantia wrote, "is fundamentally a philosophy endeavoring to form a unity between particular opposite forces.... Surrealism carries this dialectic process to one of its farthest points." He fully embraced the role that he sensed Breton wanted him to fill, that of a bringer of youthful vitality to the movement, proclaiming that "The voice of Lautréamont, pure, young and feeding the fire that has begun to issue from my depths, is again heard ..." Lamantia added the proviso that, since he was "only fifteen years old," his opinions would "inevitably change to a certain extent." It would turn out to be a prescient comment: by the end of the following year, he would renounce his adherence to surrealism. Lamantia would wrestle-as in a "dialectic process"-with many other visionary and esoteric worldviews before finally formulating his own version of surrealism in later life.
For the moment, however, the young poet was still flushed with the excitement of his recognition by the surrealists in New York. In contrast to his literary success, he had been experiencing difficulties at home and at school, mostly due to his precocious intelligence and rebellious behavior. In early 1944, Lamantia and his father were called into a meeting with the principal of Balboa High School, who, attempting to get Philip to conform to school regulations, invoked the Depression-era phrase "the common man." To the principal's consternation, the young poet shot to his feet and declared, "I am not the common man!" While it resulted in expulsion from Balboa, this display of defiance won the respect of Nunzio Lamantia, who was otherwise mystified by his son's strange pursuits. In April 1944, on the basis of an offer from the editors of View of an editorial assistant position and with the approval of his parents, the sixteen-year-old poet boarded a "gaslit wartime priority train," bound for New York City.
Lamantia thus became known as a poet in New York some time before he participated in the literary scene of his native San Francisco. Nonetheless, soon after his debut in View, Lamantia was contacted by Berkeley-based poet/editor George Leite, who would shortly launch his own magazine, Circle. Leite would publish Lamantia in Circle alongside such international literary figures as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Yvan Goll. More importantly, on the night before Lamantia's departure for New York, Leite invited him to dinner in order to meet anarchist-pacifist poet Kenneth Rexroth, thus preparing the way for his entry into the San Francisco milieu of oppositional writers, artists, and intellectuals upon his return to the Bay Area. In An Autobiographical Novel (first published in 1964, revised in 1991), perhaps wishing to claim discovery of the teenage poet, Rexroth presents a highly fictionalized account of their initial meeting that writes Leite out of the picture:
One day I got a telephone call from someone I didn't know who was an English teacher in a high school....
He said, "I am sending you over a student in whom I think you would be interested and who you might be able to help. He is a poet with immense talent."
In a few days, we got a phone call from Philip Lamantia. We asked him to dinner that night. It was an amazing experience. He was about sixteen years old and extremely handsome-a small Italian lad who seemed already to have read most avant-garde literature and who, again, was already the best of the third generation of surrealists.... I have never known anyone else who started out, without preliminaries, with no five-finger exercises or scales, as an achieved poet.
Having published three books of poetry by that time, Rexroth was well versed in avant-garde literature and active in radical politics; he had visited Paris in the twenties, when surrealism was at its height of influence, and even claimed to have met some of the group's members. He had also resided in New York, but ended up rejecting that city's intellectual culture as "too European." Rexroth, robust in body and spirit, was attracted to what he perceived as the wilder side of the American continent, taking up residence in San Francisco in 1927. His influence on the young Lamantia would prove to be both deep and lasting.
As soon as he arrived in Manhattan, Lamantia was plunged into an exhilarating-but at first, undoubtedly bewildering-milieu where he encountered many of the famous surrealists whose work he had studied in the past year. He took up his post as an editorial assistant at View, "mostly rejecting the daily deluge of unsolicited manuscripts." As Lamantia recalled in a 1998 interview with David Meltzer,
My milieu was mainly among the many English-speaking French and other European painters and intellectuals: Max Ernst, Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Nicolas Calas, Kurt Seligmann, Pavel Tchelitchew, André Masson, the critic Leon Kochnitsky-and their American counterparts, the writers Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Abel, Parker Tyler, the painter William Baziotes, and Paul Bowles, who introduced me to world music [and, as Lamantia notes elsewhere, to modern jazz, especially bebop]. There were weekly gallery openings, jazz on Fifty-Second Street, endless parties, and almost daily invitations to lunch and dinner.
Lamantia found Breton himself to be less accessible than he may have hoped, partly because of the language barrier (Breton spoke only French), and partly because, as Lamantia jotted in his autobiographical notes, Breton was "not social, and didn't go to galleries." Their first encounter occurred by chance, when Breton came by the View offices at 1 East Fifty-Third Street to sign the contract for a bilingual selection of his poems, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, which View Editions would publish in 1946. This encounter was brief, with Henri Ford acting as translator, but Breton would soon arrange for a more formal and substantial meeting between himself and "le jeune poète américain" at Del Pezzo's Restaurant, where they dined alone, save for the presence of art and music critic Leon Kochnitzky, who translated between the two as they discussed surrealism.
The significance of this dinner-as well as the special introduction to Lamantia's poems in VVV-can be gauged by Breton's oft-criticized aloofness from the New York art milieu. The introduction to an anthology of View, for example, cites Edouard Roditi, the polyglot poet and translator of Young Cherry Trees: "Surrealism proper, Roditi reminds us, was a closed society. 'One must be invited to join, and we never sought admission.'" While Breton usually withheld his endorsement of their work as surrealist, the New York avant-gardists attracted to European surrealism maintained a sense of independence, refusing to pledge their allegiance to Bretonian principles as Lamantia had. This was especially true of Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, editors of View; while surrealism remained central to their concerns, they sometimes featured material from the wider avant-garde scene. Their "Americana Fantastica" issue, in particular, was intended to showcase the art and writing of a homegrown imagination complementary with, but not beholden to, European surrealism. As Tyler pointedly stated in that issue, the fantastic, "having no home but its own ... cannot be transplanted."
Though his encounters with Breton were infrequent, Lamantiamet with the Swiss artist Kurt Seligmann on a weekly basis. Seligmann spoke English fluently and shared his knowledge of magical lore, "graciously" allowing Lamantia to peruse his vast collection of alchemical texts.B /BEdouard Roditi became a good friend; the two would reunite in San Francisco the following year, when Roditi was working at the United Nations Charter Conference.Lamantia also was introduced to the surrealist-influenced American filmmaker Maya Deren, who was sufficiently impressed that she gave him a brief role in her film At Land (1944), which also includes appearances by Gregory Bateson, John Cage, and Parker Tyler. Lamantia and Tyler would stay in touch until Tyler's death in 1974.
As the war came to an end, the European refugees began to return home, and their American counterparts appeared either uninterested in or incapable of perpetuating surrealism in its original form. The transplantation of surrealism to the United States had indeed failed. Moreover, Lamantia had, as he put it, "a fight with Ford" and resigned from View. Filled with bitterness and disappointment, Lamantia decided to return to San Francisco.At that point, he hadn't seen Breton for some time; indeed, his last encounter with Breton-by chance, in the company of Yves Tanguy, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh-was one of the experiences he treasured most from the half-year or so he had spent in New York.
Having witnessed infighting and further examples of aversive behavior among the New York surrealists, followed by the breakup of the scene at war's end, Lamantia was alienated and disillusioned-and for the moment, ready to renounce surrealism. He boarded a train back to San Francisco in late 1944.
Kenneth Rexroth and the San Francisco Renaissance
In San Francisco, Lamantia enrolled in the Bates School for a year in order to obtain his high school diploma. "But my real education," he stated in his interview with Meltzer, "came from and through the great Rexroth," with whom he renewed his association upon his return from New York. "I saw a great deal of him for a couple of years. Above all, I was attracted by his inexhaustible and encyclopedic way of conversing. I'd visit him once a week.... Sometimes we'd talk a whole weekend." Rexroth's mentorship was a decisive influence, for he provided Lamantia's first serious exposure to the historical depth and geographical breadth of poetry, while encouraging his protégé to pursue religious and political studies. He also afforded Lamantia much practical assistance in obtaining Conscientious Objector status, after turning eighteen in October 1945, in order to register a pacific refusal to go to war. In terms of his own poetry, Lamantia would frequently refer to this period as his "naturalistic" phase, implying a rejection of the original sources of his inspiration in the unconscious and automatic writing. The poems he wrote at this time comprise the first section of his first book, Erotic Poems (1946), published by George Leite's friend and collaborator Bern Porter, whose eponymous imprint had previously published books by Henry Miller, as well as Parker Tyler's The Granite Butterfly (1945), a poem dedicated to Lamantia. The second half of Erotic Poems contains the earlier surrealist poetry published in View, VVV, and elsewhere. Erotic Poems was introduced by Rexroth, who also suggested its title. In his introduction, Rexroth downplays the distinction between the two sections, and notably, Lamantia would reprint some of the poems from the "naturalistic" section in the first edition of his retrospective gathering of his early surrealist work, Touch of the Marvelous (1966). Generally speaking, the naturalistic poems are more measured in tone and pace than the earlier work, but lines like "You flee into a corridor of stars./You sleep in a bleeding tree,/And awaken upon the body of trance" suggest that the "naturalism" of this period is highly relative.
In the late 1940s, Lamantia was an active participant in the "San Francisco Libertarian Circle," a Wednesday-night discussion group that formed around Rexroth, concomitant with his famous Friday-night "at home" salons. "Poets associated with the Rexroth circle," as Michael Davidson notes, "included Robert Duncan, Philip Lamantia, Jack Spicer, William Everson, James Broughton, Thomas Parkinson, Madeline Gleason, and Richard Moore." In short, the meetings were the beginning of the pre-Beat-era San Francisco Renaissance, yet they were by no means restricted to poets and artists; Lamantia estimated that the participants eventually numbered over a hundred. The subject matter of these meetings was as various as Rexroth's protean interests-Lamantia once lectured on the theories of Wilhelm Reich-but appears to have largely focused on philosophical and political anarchism, with participants reading the works of such writers as Peter Kropotkin, Enrico Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Martin Buber, and Nikolai Berdyaev. During this period, along with fellow poets Sanders Russell and Robert Stock, Lamantia also edited a magazine, The Ark, intended as a more politically-oriented companion to Circle, though disagreements among the three editors halted its publication after the first issue in Spring 1947.
In addition to these activities, between 1947 and 1949, Lamantia audited a number of classes at the University of California, Berkeley, though he never formally enrolled. While he sat in on poetry lectures by Josephine Miles-mentor to Duncan and Spicer, among others-Lamantia primarily attended classes in comparative religion and medieval history. He was deeply influenced by the lectures of Leonardo Olschki and Ernst Kantorowicz. Olschki taught a course that formed the basis of his later book, Marco Polo's Asia: Introduction to His "Description of the World" Called "Il Milione" (1960). His lecture on "The Assassins" sparked Lamantia's interest in Islam, leading him to study the Koran and retain a lasting sympathy for that religion. Kantorowicz, an expert on medieval political and intellectual history, specialized in Frederick II of Sicily, the thirteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor whose religious tolerance, polymath erudition, and patronage of poetry had a lifelong appeal for Lamantia and awakened his interest in his own ethnic heritage. Kantorowicz's 1947 lectures titled The King's Two Bodies-basis of his 1957 book of that name-were attended by Duncan, Spicer, Moore, and Lamantia of the Rexroth group. For a time, Lamantia even roomed in the same Berkeley boarding house as Duncan and Spicer, at 2018 McKinley.
It was also in Berkeley that he met the linguist Jaime de Angulo, whose work would inspire Lamantia's investigations into Native American cultures. Mention must also be made here of the eccentric ethnomusicologist, painter, and filmmaker Harry Smith, whom Lamantia met in 1948 and with whom he would further develop his interest in modern jazz and the newly-emerging rhythm and blues. In addition to their frequent attendance at small after-hours clubs throughout San Francisco's Fillmore district, as well as downtown Oakland, the two shared a fascination with alchemy, aided and abetted by Smith's knack for obtaining rare alchemical texts.
Apart from Rexroth, Lamantia's most important friendship during this period was with John Hoffman. Born in Menlo Park, California in 1928, Hoffman was a thin, bespectacled poet with long blonde hair and a small beard, the very image of the subsequent "beatnik" stereotype in American culture. He and Lamantia met in San Francisco around 1947 after a poetry reading. Hoffman was already familiar with his new friend's poetry, for, when they repaired to Hoffman's cheap hotel to smoke marijuana, Lamantia noted "there were only two books in his room: a bound copy of the poems of St. John of the Cross-a rare book even then-and a copy of my first book, Erotic Poems." The pair became fast friends, even sharing an apartment together in Berkeley for a time, and Lamantia would later describe their relationship as "the deepest friendship I've ever had with another male in my life." "John was a very religious person," Lamantia recalled, suggesting their mutual interest in spirituality was one of the bases of their bond.
The appearance of Hoffman might be considered a sign of Lamantia's transition into the "Beat" phase of his life. For whereas Lamantia's precocious rise to avant-garde prominence in the 1940s meant that his first colleagues had been often considerably older, he now began to associate with poets and artists approximately his own age; "the best minds of his generation," as it were, were catching up with him. At the same time, the 1950s would prove to be one of the most difficult periods of his life-one he often referred to as a period of "eclipse"-marked by poetic restlessness, intense spiritual and physical wandering, and drug addiction. In late 1949, Hoffman went to New York City, where Lamantia joined him shortly afterward. By the time Lamantia arrived, Hoffman had already begun intravenous use of heroin, and he immediately introduced his friend to the drug. Lamantia would struggle with heroin addiction throughout the 1950s. In New York they also met Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other key figures of the Beat Generation. Indeed, according to Kerouac, aspects of Lamantia and Hoffman are "condensed" into the generalized portrait of junkie squatters in The Subterraneans (1958), while Hoffman also appears in William Burroughs's first novel, Junky (1953).
Lamantia's travels, drug use, rebellious attitude, interest in jazz and spiritual exploration, and friendships with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others seem to mark him as a Beat poet. Certainly his poetry developed a more vernacular diction during this period. Yet, there were notable differences between Lamantia and the Beats. The Beats were in the ascendant, loudly laying claim to their own space within culture, confidant of the authenticity of their own voices. Lamantia, in contrast, was at this time unsure of his identity and direction as a writer. Moreover, Lamantia's focus on esotericism set him apart from the Beats, who were more interested in immediate reality. As Nancy Joyce Peters observed in her biographical essay on Lamantia, "While much Beat writing was spontaneous reportage and meditation on daily life, Lamantia concentrated on hermetic, symbolic, and magical themes." This observation is echoed by one of Ginsberg's biographers, Bill Morgan, who wrote, "Allen thought that Lamantia's writing was too focused on cabalistic themes. Deep down Allen felt Philip was not an ignu (a special honorary term he and Kerouac had coined to apply to like-minded people)."
In 1950, Lamantia made his first trip to Mexico, accompanied by another friend, the poet, avant-garde filmmaker, and editor of Contour, Christopher Maclaine. Very little is known about this particular trip. According to an unpublished interview with John Suiter-used as source material for Suiter's book, Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades (2002)-Lamantia had read Antonin Artaud's Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara (written in 1936, published in 1945) "by 1949," and, though the two poets didn't visit these remote people, it seems likely that Artaud's account of the psychotropic effects of the peyote cactus at least partially motivated their visit. Whether or not they obtained peyote on this trip, Lamantia soon learned he could order dried peyote buttons through the mail, from various seed catalogs. It's no exaggeration to claim, as Suiter does, that Lamantia introduced peyote into the Bay Area literary scene, over a decade and a half before San Francisco's late '60s psychedelic heyday. "As early as 1951," Suiter writes in Poets on the Peaks, Lamantia "and a half dozen friends had 'a sort of little Berkeley peyotl cult of our own ... taking peyote weekly for several months.'" During this time, Lamantia was living with others in one of two Maybeck-designed houses in the Berkeley Hills owned by Jaime de Angulo's widow, Kathleen Freeman. The house in which he lived contained de Angulo's library of ethnographic and anthropological books, among them Carl Lumholtz's Unknown Mexico (1902), in which Lamantia read of the three indigenous Mexican peoples with peyote rituals: the Tarahumara, the Huichole, and the Cora.
Also at this house, in early 1952, Lamantia would receive a visit from Kerouac and Neal Cassady, turning them both on to peyote, though Kerouac would famously fall asleep and experience none of the plant's hallucinatory effects. Still, Kerouac would report on his continuing fascination with Lamantia's poetry, personality, and peyote experiences, in a letter to Ginsberg that year, describing the de Angulo house as a "stone small castle overlooking Berkeley Calif." Lamantia, "reclined in a sumptuous couch," was reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and speaking in arcane terms about his peyote visions. Kerouac wrote Ginsberg that the visit precipitated the first quarrel between himself and Cassady, inasmuch as the latter objected to Lamantia's esoteric behavior and conversation. According to Kerouac, "I was disappointed in Neal that night for not at least digging" what Lamantia had to say. "This made Neal mad, and the next night, for the first time in our lives, we had a fight-he refused to drive me to Lamantia, outright."
That Lamantia and Cassady