The Mythopoeia of Diane Di Prima

          In the introduction to his book Diane Di Prima: Visionary Poetics and the Hidden Religions, David Stephen Calonne outlines the many influences present in Diane Di Prima’s body of work. Di Prima, whose poetry is typically classified as part of the Beat school, resisted the title, as Calonne points out, as she strives to be in “a constant state of transformation” (2). Di Prima herself, he says, often categorizes herself as a “hermetic” poet, in that much of her work focuses on the idea of transformation and knowledge of self (3). Calonne notes that Hermetic philosophy, which is part of the larger tradition of “esoteric wisdom,” sprang up from the work of Hermes Trismegistus, namely Corpus Hermeticum, in the ancient Greek and Egyptian tradition (4). Di Prima, he says, is especially concerned with the Hermetic belief – somewhat obsessively noted by Sir Isaac Newton in his writings on Hermeticism – of the “‘correspondence’ between the earthly and cosmic realms” (4). He goes on to note that Di Prima is particularly interested in the notion that, as Brian P. Copenhaver says, “Greeks and Romans […] [found] Hellenic matches for the Egyptian deities” (qtd. in Calonne 4).

            As part of her interest in hermeticism, Calonne points out that Di Prima draws heavily on many different religions and myths including: “ancient Egyptian and Greek wisdom, Paracelsus and Sufism […] alchemy, magic, Gnosticism, Kabballah, ‘paganism,’ ‘witchcraft,’ [and] Eastern spiritual traditions” (4). Calonne refers to these as “hidden religions” because they are traditionally repressed as heretical by many of the major monotheistic religions (4). Di Prima, he notes, draws heavily on many of these, as well as other cultural phenomena, in her work. Calonne quotes fellow Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, holding a similar view on religion as Di Prima, who asserts that “The accumulated wisdom, the tie-binding wisdom so characteristic of high civilization broke down in the West” and is of great importance (qtd. in Calonne 7). This so called “accumulated wisdom” is Di Prima’s attempt to expand consciousness and self-knowledge in the way of Hermetic Philosophy.

            Di Prima is writing at a time when, as Calonne says, America is slowly coming around to the idea of embracing “new,” or at least previously repressed, religious beliefs, which begins to occur in the late 50s and into the 60s (7). In her efforts to gain a better understanding of the “inner experience,” Calonne says, Di Prima “began to map out a theory of history” which moved from the Paleolithic to the Modern period (7). He notes that during this time she read many texts on myth and religion, including Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which spurred her into collecting and vigorously annotating around 4,000 texts (7-8). Calonne notes that during this time, Di Prima became preoccupied by many of the religious traditions outlined in her studies and began incorporating some of them in her own life (8).

            Calonne notes the many different religious influences that can be found throughout the course of her literary career, noting some of the most influential texts in her work. He argues that Di Prima’s work “constitutes a kind of new scripture for the Beat/hippie generation” through her tendency to pull from various religious, mythological, and philosophical movements and belief systems (9) and her dedication to learning about these “hidden religions,” coupled with her masterful poetic style and creativity, has led her to become one of the foremost Beat poets (10).

            Di Prima uses her poetry as a hermetic tool for self-expansion, and her tendency to draw from many different spiritual, religious, and mythical belief systems can be seen to act as a representation of mythopoeia, or myth creation. As Calonne points out, Di Prima drew inspiration from many sources, including Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, in which he borrows from various religious traditions in an attempt to analyze poetic myth. Perhaps she was also inspired by Sir James Frazer’s hugely influential The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, which painstakingly details the role of magic in the many aspects of comparative religion throughout history. Di Prima’s own assemblage of religious aspects in her writing, as Calonne puts it, “constitutes a kind of new scripture for the Beat/hippie generation” (9). This idea that Di Prima’s work should be regarded as a type of “scripture” for her contemporary reader speaks to the mythopoeic quality to her poetry. Her work begins to subsume traditional religious of mythological qualities and starts to form a myth of its own.

 

Can Di Prima’s poetry, through the lens of hermeticism and myth/religion borrowing, be seen as an act of myth creation in it’s own right?

 

Works Cited

Calonne, David Stephen. Diane Di Prima : Visionary Poetics and the Hidden Religions, Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/cofc/detail.action?docID=5614111.

2 Responses to The Mythopoeia of Diane Di Prima

  1. Prof VZ August 31, 2022 at 5:24 pm #

    Excellent post — this is why I appreciate posts in the “Critical” category, as they branch out beyond the limited and more general overviews of each school. I love thinking about Di Prima as creating a “kind of new scripture for the Beat/hippie generation,” and the extensiveness of her efforts is really impressive. I also appreciate, in a class on “schooling” American literature, her own resistance to labels in favor of constant transformation. Great post!

  2. ekwooten1 August 31, 2022 at 6:59 pm #

    I think this element of Di Prima’s (and other Beat poet’s) religious influence seems to be neglected in the readings we had for the Beats section, too–I remember reading a lot about their Buddhist influences, but there were lots of mystical religious references, including within the Christian tradition, that made their way into a lot of those poems we read, too. I wonder why the Beats’ Buddhist influences are focused on most heavily? Is it perhaps because that religion was seen as more “exotic” in a 1950s climate that hadn’t really grappled with cultural theory and religious pluralism in the way it would in coming decades? Do we still Other that faith in the same ways?

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