Prospectus: English 490 Semester Project

Melody Niesen




As a student in the English Department at the University of Idaho, I have had the great pleasure to be exposed to a wide variety of literature.  For the past five years I have passed my time reading everything from Chaucer and Beowulf to adolescent literature such as Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  However, I have been quite disappointed by the lack of “Beat Generation” literature included in studies.  Even courses dedicated to later American literature fail (in my opinion) to pay proper homage to these innovative and revolutionary writers known as the Beats, and yet even less attention is given to the female writers of the generation. 


One of the main motivators in my curiosity about the women of the Beat Generation is the fact that there are so few.  Names like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs are synonymous with this literary movement, but women such as Diane diPrima, Hettie James, and Joyce Johnson are virtually unknown.  The prominent reference, The Portable Beat Reader, in fact includes only eight women writers amidst the more than two-dozen male writers.  Where were the women of this generation and why are they generally overlooked?  These questions intrigue me as a student, a reader, and a future educator.  I have chosen to engage with the writer Diane diPrima because of her amazing style and forward subject matter.  


Diane diPrima began writing as a teenager, and at the age of fourteen dedicated her life to poetry.  Her first book of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards, was published at the age of twenty-four, and her first book of prose, Dinners and Nightmares, was published two years later.  She has been and continues to be an active pursuer of recognition of the arts.  She founded the newsletter, The Floating Bear, with fellow Beat writer Amiri Baraka, the publishing company Poets Press, and the Poets Institute.   In addition to writing, diPrima is a teacher of poetry and the craft of writing, and she is a practicing psychic and healer.  Her vast variety of life experiences is reflected in the depth and breadth of her writing.   In diPrima’s poetry collection, Pieces of a Song, Allen Ginsberg says of her:

Diane diPrima revolutionary activist of the 1930s Beat Literary renaissance, heroic in life and poetics: a learned humorous bohemian, classically educated and twentieth-century radical, her writing, informed by Buddhist equanimity, is exemplary in imagist, political, and mystical modes.  A great woman poet of the second half of the American century, she broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity. 


As a woman studying English with the hopes of publishing writing someday, the hidden Beat women are fascinating to me.  Diane diPrima’s writing, like nearly all Beat literature, encourages change and social revolution with a focus on bettering the self to better society.


Current Project


I plan to delve into Diane diPrima’s poetry and possibly one novel in order to look at a Beat woman in depth.  I am currently researching and developing a comprehensive bibliography of diPrima.  I myself am a liberal woman in the midst of a socially and politically chaotic society, and I discover that I relate (perhaps only on a superficial level) to many of the sentiments of the Beat Generation.  However, I continually ask myself: why are some very valuable literary elements of women writers, such as diPrima, continually weakened and virtually ignored by the masses of society.  In relation to this, I will examine alternative ways of including these under-represented writers in an educational setting. 


Plan For The Next Three Months


At this point my plans for the next three months are somewhat undecided.  I am going to begin by reading diPrima’s poetry collection, Pieces of a Song.  I have already read Memoirs of a Beatnik, but I really don’t know how relevant it will be to the project.   It is my intent to focus on the aspects of change which diPrima presents in her writing, such as changes in gender roles and sexuality.  I am also going to research more secondary criticism about diPrima and more generally Beat women in order to gain a better understanding of the movement and its reception.  


After reading diPrima’s works, it is my goal to examine the place such works would have in a curriculum.  My purpose in this is to gain some insight as to why these writers are typically left out of the canonical literature.     



Ideas About How To Present This Work


My intended written product of this project is an approximately twenty-page paper.  As far as the presentation, I imagine I will utilize Power Point or overheads with brief outlines, relevant points, and pictures that will include a commentary about diPrima’s importance in the Beat Generation and I will discuss how many of the issues faced then are still prevalent in today’s world.   


Tentative Bibliography


Charters, Ann.  The Portable Beat Reader.  Toronto: Penguin Books, 1992.

diPrima, Diane.  Memoirs of a Beatnik.  Toronto: Penguin Books, 1988. 

____________.  Pieces of a Song.  SanFrancisco: City Lights, 1990.

Ginsberg, Allen.  Snapshot Poetics.  SanFrancisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.

Grace, Nancy M. and Ronna C. Johnson.  Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and        Reading Women Beat Writers.  Jackson: UP Mississippi, 2004. 

________________________________.  Girls Who Wore Black.  New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002.