Into the Mystic
Spiritual questing and Surrealist imagery collide in the work of poet Philip Lamantia
The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia
by Philip Lamantia
University of California Press
$49.95 List Price
In 1953 Philip Lamantia joined four other poets for what is probably America’s most famous poetry reading, the word famous, of course, being highly relative when modifying anything to do with verse. Allen Ginsberg’s inaugural presentation of his declamatory epic “Howl” made the event at San Francisco’s Six Gallery historic, while the other writers on the bill—Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen—also took their first step toward wider recognition. For Lamantia, though, the reading wasn’t quite as decisive. Reluctant to offer his own work, he read poems by John Hoffman, his recently deceased friend and onetime fellow traveler in Catholic mysticism. In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac described Lamantia as looking like “a young priest,” an apt depiction of the quiet, inwardly inclined poet, who had only recently returned from a retreat at a Trappist monastery. His choice that night to read Hoffman’s work might be said to characterize the poet—modest and oblique in his self-presentation. The poetry, however, is something quite different: From the mid-1940s till his death in 2005, Lamantia produced verse rich in flourish and invention, every bit as intense as Ginsberg’s, even as it tunes in to abstruse and deeply interior frequencies. The Collected Poems offers a wide-angle view on a career that waxed and waned—sometimes owing to the author’s struggle with depression—over several decades.
Born in San Francisco, the precocious only child of Sicilian immigrants, Lamantia discovered the expressive mode that would drive his imagination when, in 1942, exhibitions of the work