On day 16 of the 2020 countdown let’s honor poet Diane di Prima who died in October. I left her poem “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” at an empty playground. Empty because it was cold, not closed, but still a sad sight.
Song for Baby-O, Unborn
by Diane di Prima
when you break thru
a poet here
not quite what one would choose.
I won’t promise
you’ll never go hungry
or that you won’t be sad
on this gutted
but I can show you
enough to love
to break your heart
This poem feels like it was written in June of this year, not 1957 when poet di Prima wrote it while pregnant with her firstborn. What better description of our 2020 world than this—
It’s always an act of faith to bring a child into the world, particularly in a time of an unchecked pandemic, economic hardship, ecological distress and civil unrest. Seems that most of those cooped-up couples who were supposed to be reproducing like jack rabbits assessed their bank balance, the childcare situation and the frightening virus warnings for pregnant mothers and decided to pass on the baby registries. “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” is for the parents who went ahead anyway. All the best to them.
The singer in the poem is a woman after my own heart, a Debbie Downer. Typically, lullabies promise good things to come—Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird and a diamond ring and a billygoat—or highlight charming events in the here and now—twinkling stars and itsy bitsy spiders. But this mother’s lullaby is raw and a lot more real. No baby is going to be reassured, soothed or calmed to hear, You might not choose me as your mother and sorry, babe, I’m not going to be a stable provider.
In the end, “Song for Baby-O” is more a tribute to poets than sweet-talk for baby. I’ll be a great mother, the speaker says, because I’ll be the best guide for the world in all its wonders. Poets have a leg up on other parents in that regard, but all parents teach their children, consciously or not, how to see the world. What is soothing and charming and calming is the chance, so often provided by being in the company of children, to see the miracles.
Question, readers: what does that last stanza mean? Why is love going to break the baby’s heart forever, and why would that be a consolation for all the things the poet-mother cannot provide?
Poet Diane di Prima, one of the few women in the male-dominated Beat scene, was born in 1934 in Brooklyn. She started writing poems when she was six, and before she was twenty she was corresponding with poet Kenneth Patchen and visiting Ezra Pound daily at the mental institution where he was housed.
She studied at Swarthmore for a few semesters but left to join the Greenwich Village scene. There she founded Poets Press, and along with her lover, poet Amiri Baraka, edited a literary newspaper called The Floating Bear. The couple also founded a theater group, New York Poets Theatre, and had a child together. In Greenwich she hung around with all the famous Beats—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She wrote a novel about this time in her life, My Life as a Beatnik, which she later said was mostly true except for the excessive sex scenes her editor asked her to include.
After spending time in Timothy Leary’s psychedelic commune in the Catskills, she moved, in the late 60’s, to San Francisco. There she worked with a street-performing group known as The Diggers who also handed out free food and political leaflets.
A classic free spirit, di Prima lived a big, zesty life. She published more than 40 books of poetry, had five kids, two husbands, multiple lovers, taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and several colleges, worked as a photographer, collagist and nude model. In an interview with Jacket magazine (as quoted in the Poetry Foundation web page), she said, “I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother.… So my feeling was, ‘Well’—as I had many times had the feeling—‘Well, nobody’s done it quite this way before but fuck it, that’s what I’m doing, I’m going to risk it.’”
Like her Italian grandfather whom she admired, di Prima was anarchist in her political beliefs. Anti-capitalist, she managed to support her five children and at one time, a whole caravan of families living in San Francisco. She was arrested by the FBI for obscenity charges which were later dropped. She appeared on stage with The Band at the “Last Waltz” concert, where she recited a one-line poem: “get your cut throat off my knife.”
She was a practicing Buddhist and co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. In 2009 she was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate. She was 86 when she died.