Cutting a Swath: The Legacy and Reinterpretation of Flânerie in Diane di Prima’s Work

Sophie-Claudine DESROCHES
Université de Montréal


Cet article propose de réfléchir à la figure du flâneur dans l’œuvre de l’écrivaine beatnik Diane di Prima. La flânerie, une tradition littéraire dont les origines remontent au boulevardier de Charles Baudelaire et à laquelle les vagabondages du beatnik se rattachent, est un art de la déambulation urbaine qui a surtout été l’apanage d’écrivains masculins. Comment cette pratique spatiale est-elle transformée lorsqu’elle est appropriée par une femme ? Se mouvant à travers la ville, la flâneuse de Diane di Prima exprime le désir de conquérir l’espace public, domaine longtemps réservé aux hommes, et d’y faire naître une nouvelle subjectivité féminine. Elle contribue également à renouveler la pratique de la dérive urbaine en cela que la flâneuse s’inscrit plus profondément dans une littérature des marges.


This article discusses the figure of the flâneur in the poetry and autobiographical prose of Beat writer Diane di Prima. Flânerie – a literary tradition dating back from Charles Baudelaire’s boulevardier of which the beatnik is a contemporary iteration – is a way of experiencing the city that has mostly been the apanage of male writers alone. How is this practice altered when appropriated by a woman? This essay makes the case that by taking up flânerie, Diane di Prima is attempting to chart her own path of significance or, in other words, to map herself. Her flâneuse’s existence is rooted in an affirmation of female subjectivity in the otherwise metaphorical urban maps that have been constructed by men. Her flâneuse also contributes to reshaping the practice of urban drifting in ways that address some of the shortcomings from which male strollers suffer. The flâneuse, like Baudelaire’s ragpicker, plucks outcasts from the crowd but, unlike the boulevardier or the beatnik, she does not record their urban experiences from a relatively privileged standpoint: hers is a literature of the margins written from the viewpoint of the margins.

In her memoirs Recollections of My Life as a Woman, Diane di Prima recalls her childhood as a girl and a child of Italian immigrants growing up in Brooklyn in the postwar years as a time of imposed confinement. Her overprotective parents, carrying with them the “immigrant fear” that “assault was the model of the world” (di Prima, 2001: 42), sought to shelter the young girl from the brutalities of the world by carefully monitoring and restricting her movements outside the family house, little realizing their daughter resented their actions. Home was a prison for di Prima. Domesticity was repression in all but name for the teenager who longed to experience a taste of life outside her quarantined existence. Literature proved a providential asylum and an escape from the dreary home where there was “no room for the soul” (Ibid.: 45). It was during a visit to the Brooklyn Public Library — one of the rare places she was allowed to visit freely — that she made the fortuitous discovery of the English Romantics; a discovery described in a rare interview as a catalyzing moment that led to her decision to pursue writing:

And then in the middle of one of Somerset Maugham’s novels, whatever was in the Brooklyn Public Library, I found this quote from Keats – And I thought, whoever this guy is I’d better find him. And that led me over to the poetry section. I just read everything by Keats and then I got completely involved in the Romantics. (…) And then around fourteen, I realized seriously that I had to commit myself to being a writer. (Campbell & Johnson, 2004: 92).

At first glance, the appeal of Shelley, Byron and Keats to a bored but imaginative teenager hardly calls for any explanation. Yet these poetical works hinted in a “tone of passionate urgency” (di Prima, 2001: 77) at her innermost questionings and aspirations. The Romantics’ wanderlust and insatiable thirst for new experiences as a means of self-discovery echoed her own yearning for liberty and detestation of restraints of any form. “Seeing Keats. Seeing possibility”: no other passage in her memoirs best conveys Di Prima’s yielding to the poetic muses than her vision on a “late, gloaming afternoon” of “a taste of possibility (…) [that] is the shape of a Life” (Ibid.: 77-78).

Byron’s defiant outcast Childe Harold who sets outs on a journey through Europe in search of self and meaning resonates with the female urban drifters populating di Prima’s fiction. Their aimless perambulations through New York constitute attempts to write a narrative that anchors their identity as poets to the same extent that Childe Harold’s itinerant life is the source of his heightened romantic sensibility. The lingering wonderment felt by the narrator of Memoirs of a Beatnik as she wanders the streets of Manhattan conjures up the image of Byron’s hero, whose “pleasure in the pathless woods” and “rapture on the lonely shore” gives way to his confession that he loves “not Man the less, but Nature more” (Byron, 1998: Canto IV, Verse 178)[1]:

An overwhelming love of [Manhattan’s] alleys and warehouses, of the strange cemetery downtown at Trinity Church, of Wall Street in the dead of the night, Cathedral Parkway on Sunday afternoons, of the Chrysler building gleaming like fabled towers in the October sun, the incredible prana and energy in the air, stirring a creativity that seemed to spring from the fiery core of the planet and burst like a thousand boiling volcanoes in the music and painting, the dancing and the poetry of this magic city. (di Prima, 1969/1998: 133)

Di Prima’s recollections from her sheltered childhood strikingly contrasts with her life as a Beatnik writer. Her depiction of a young girl whose disciplined and controlling upbringing prevented her from even “tak[ing] a walk with an empty head” (di Prima, 2001: 45) may seem irreconcilable with the oddball poet who adopted the street as a surrogate home and exulted in the chaos of urban life. As an Italian-American woman who rejected the consumer culture and domestic mentality that typified postwar American society in favor of a bohemian lifestyle, di Prima was unequivocally a non-conformist, an outsider. During the fifties, she appeared bent on breaking every social taboo of conservative America, from homelessness to interracial coupling, from casual intimate relationships and use of drugs to abortion. Perhaps her most radical act was recounting her transgressions from the norm from the viewpoint of an unapologetic woman. Writing without exhibiting the least symptoms of shame or guilt, her work is a manifesto for an uninhibited eccentricity; an open declaration of war against prevailing conformism that threatened to stifle individuality, impose cultural homogeneity on the masses and force women to acquiesce to gender role expectations.

Di Prima can also be considered an outsider in the most literal sense of the word: that of being out on the streets. Streets loom large in her work. They are a recurring motif and the playground for the various roamers, drifters, artists and outcasts who populate her poems and autobiographical prose. Her work reveals a central preoccupation with the cityscape, and in particular with the processes involved in the production of a city culture that may or may not allow for heterogeneous perspectives and experiences associated with race, class and gender. In the anarchist poems collected in Revolutionary Letters – which were performed on the streets of New York and San Francisco in the sixties – the city becomes the stage where political battles are waged. Di Prima urges her readers to “seize Columbus, seize Paris” (di Prima, 1968/2007: 27), to “pick the spot for a be-in, a demonstration, a march, a rally” (Ibid.: 17) until all men have the right to “walk free and fearless” (Ibid.: 33). The street is thus both a battleground and a demand. Its occupation is the means of achieving change, as well as the goals of activism itself.

As an activist and artist, di Prima conceives the city as the symbolic intersection of the political and the poetic. The city is a textual fabric, a poetical space and geography for the writer. She strolls the town to find inspiration, to accumulate observations and impressions. In sum, to affirm her identity as a writer:

Striding through the Village alone, feeling very much my own person, out in the twilight, watching the street. The weekend crowds. Feeling anonymous. A writer. Invisible and free observer of the world. (di Prima, 2001: 117)

However, the possibility of writing is contingent of being allowed a space where movement, similarly to the act of creation, springs forth free and unhindered. Di Prima’s urban writings are in this sense eminently politically charged creations. Equating writing with strolling implicitly problematizes the uneasy relationship between the city and marginalized groups – such as women and ethnic communities – who have not always been granted equal access to the street, a situation di Prima alludes to in the extract below:

Years later, and with great resonance, I read in Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucius: ‘The way out is through the door. How is it that no one will use this method?’ And read it as he wrote it and probably meant it, i.e., it’s all so obvious how come nobody does it? Now I see that the obvious thing is how we are conditioned out of going through the door. Lose the ability to ‘use this method.’ Not that we will not but that we can not, perhaps can’t ever find the door. ‘How is it that no one will use this method?’ How is this method lost? Who takes it from us? (Ibid.: 59-60)

The flâneur and the radical remapping of the urban landscape

Di Prima’s description of an invisible writer, observing and poetically responding to Manhattan brings to mind the figure of the flâneur, the quintessential urban drifter. Although the origins of the flâneur are contested[2], it is undoubtedly the writings of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin on its nineteenth-century Parisian incarnation that popularized flânerie as a literary art of the stroll. In Baudelaire’s famous essay Le Peintre de la vie moderne, the solitary walker is depicted as an artist-poet of street life. Caught “dans l’ondoyant, dans le movement” (Baudelaire, 1863/1885: 64), he patrols the boulevards, the parks, the arcades and the cafés, gathering impressions, probing his surrounding for hints and clues into the city’s inner life, keenly recording urban scenes in a series of tableaux in which, hidden from view within the crowd, he plays no part aside from spectator. Spectatorship is inseparable from Baudelaire’s boulevardier. The flâneur is first and foremost a gaze. He engages in an act of detached watching, of distanced observing; not of fraternizing. However, far from being a passive onlooker, he participates in a creative endeavour as the personification of a discursive reflection on urbanity and the changes brought on by budding consumer capitalism in the nineteenth century. His active spectatorship interprets modernity.

Walter Benjamin, drawing on his reading of Baudelaire in his unfinished The Arcades Project, thereby heralds the flâneur as both the emblem and dissector of modernity. If the city drifter displays fascination for and ambivalence towards the bustle of urban life it is because he stands for a “powerful symbol”: “an amateur detective and investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism” (Shaya, 2004: 47). Flânerie, as a commentary on the ephemeral and fleeting manifestations of modern life, as a chronicle of the impact of the modern world on subjectivities (the stroller’s own and those on whom his gaze lands), is not a neutral exercise. The flâneur’s reading and writing of the city entails a radical remapping of the urban landscape. Poetry is used to defy and deconstruct, reimagine and remodel the metropolis.

I will revisit this last point shortly, but first the relationship between the urban stroller and the city crowd ought to be made more explicit. If flânerie constitutes a method of investigating the street, it follows that the flâneur, a figure akin to a detective, must remain in the shadows, undetected and invisible. In the words of Baudelaire, he is an onlooker “qui jouit partout de son incognito” (Baudelaire: 64) within the crowd, his natural habitat:

La foule est son domaine, comme l’air est celui de l’oiseau, comme l’eau celui du poisson. Sa passion et sa profession, c’est d’épouser la foule. Pour le parfait flâneur, pour l’observateur passionné, c’est une immense jouissance que d’élire domicile dans le nombre, dans l’ondoyant, dans le mouvement, dans le fugitif et l’infini. (Ibid.)

The citation above reveals another characteristic of Baudelaire’s casual wanderer: to act as a foil to the collective. The figure of the solitary stroller contrasts sharply with the amorphous masses that surround him. If the crowd is homogenized, if their social identities are evened out, the flâneur emerges as his own entity. He infiltrates the crowd albeit without submitting to its logic of absorption and assimilation. It is by virtue of his capacity to resist the sirens of modernity and retain his individuality that his “joy of watching is triumphant” (Benjamin, 1983: 69).  Besides, the flâneur is not a compliant witness to modernity. Benjamin thus famously compares him to a “ragpicker” who “find[s] the refuse of society on [the] street and derive[s] [his] heroic subjects from this very refuse” (Ibid.: 79). The poet-ragpicker scavenges the crowd for neglected subjects of urban life. Singling out outcasts with whom he can empathize – the criminal, the derelict, the proletarian – his urban panorama is a literature of the margins. He bridges social boundaries during his aimless perambulations through the city and makes heroes of those who, as a rule, mainstream narratives of modernity ignore.

The act of flânerie likened to a method of investigating the city nonetheless suffers from several weaknesses, the main one being that the boulevardier’s stance on modernity is unavoidably informed by his socio-political positioning within the city. Although the flâneur wills himself to “maintain the objective detachment of an observer”, he is in effect “a part of the world under his own observation (…) despite the constant desire to escape it” (Tseng, 2006: 230). Experiencing modernity through the stroller’s distanced gaze results at best in a fragmentary reading of the cityscape. Moreover, the flâneur looks on the city from a privileged standpoint given that he belongs to an elite class. As a white male bourgeois, his wealth, education and leisure set him apart from the “street refuses” he cherishes. If he has rejected conventional bourgeois ideals, the stroller’s existence, even when marred by poverty, is a choice, a self-exile, a symptom of his ennui, and never an outcome of necessity, which weakens his legitimacy to speak on behalf of outcasts who have not chosen their way of life. While his flaws and the inherent contradictions of his renegade nature do not necessarily render the city drifter a useless tool to interrogate modern life, nor invalidate the totality of his observations, they warrant a cautious reading of his take on modernity and raise questions about narratives he may have omitted or misconstrued.

From the flâneur to the beatnik: the persistence of flânerie as a metaphor for urban ethnography

Benjamin sounded Baudelaire’s boulevardier death-knell in the late nineteenth century owing to Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris and the rapid growth of department stores in lieu of arcades[3]. Even so, could the allegedly extinct Parisian flâneur be transposed to other settings and to more contemporary discussions of cities and urban poetics? Could flânerie as a spatial practice be applied to new contexts?

I would argue that envisioning the flâneur in more abstract terms, as a literary device instead of as a product of a specific time and place, opens up several possible avenues for his reinterpretation and deployment in other contexts. Indeed, even his Parisian alter ego seemed to have suffered from a severe case of personality disorder. Despite the “baffling plethora of his many guises” –  ranging from the “artist, dandy, detective, journalist, reformer, gentleman urban spectator, or rag-picker” (Tseng: 225) –  the case can be made that these street personas all share salient traits that set them apart in regard to their spatial practices. Flâneurs have in common a particular pace – a directionless strolling in public city spaces –  and a gaze-discourse – informed by their position as distant and invisible onlookers. But the key characteristic that differentiates these city drifters from other street specimens is the fact that they are immersed in an act – the act of flânerie – that embodies, in the words of Chris Jenks, “a way of inquiring into the urban” (Jenks, 2000: 2). He argues on this basis for the continued usefulness of the flâneur as a “burgeoning metaphor” that represents a “way of reading, whilst also producing the city” (Ibid.) A figure akin to an “urban ethnographer”, the stroller turns his gaze on the underdog, on those who reside on the margins, and conveys the desire to “articulate the voice unheard” and to “empower through revelation” (Ibid.: 13-14).

This last conclusion reached, I will now attempt to draw a parallel between the flâneur and the archetypal bohemian of the post-World War II era: the beatnik[4]. The beatnik, similarly to the Parisian boulevardier, emerged as a reaction against a changing social order and its underlying spatial configurations. A subculture that grew as a counter-movement to the prevailing middle-class consumer culture, the Beats shared a fascination analogous to Baudelaire’s for urban spaces. The city and its remaining pockets of marginality provided an escape from the nightmarish vision of a domesticated suburban existence – even though this urban refuge was itself menaced by postwar city development decried in no uncertain terms by di Prima as the threat of “neo-fascist city planning” hanging over “homeless bums” and “scattering rats” (di Prima, 1968/2007: 174).

Darren Carlaw presents the works of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in his study of flânerie in postwar Manhattan as evidences of how the Beat movement indulged in the act of drifting as a tactic to redefine the cityscape. According to him, the beatniks’ “field studies of Manhattan’s ‘hidden people’ challenge[d] the hegemonically produced identities of ‘dangerous’, ‘deviant’ and ‘parasitic’ subculture (…) and [helped] us to understand the fragile predicament of the city’s outcasts” (Carlaw, 2008: 2). An example of this use of flânerie can be found in Jack Kerouac’s short story New York Scenes in which the protagonist, reminiscent of Benjamin’s ragpicker, roams through the streets of Harlem’s black ghetto, witnessing the “detritus of the city” (Ibid.: 96) and narrating scenes of abject poverty and desperation. His physical journey through Harlem represents a “crossing of racial boundaries” and an undeniable challenge to the “segregated cityplace” (Ibid.: 89). For his part, Allen Ginsberg employed flânerie in urban poems such as Mugging, Uptown or Lower East Side to unearth the tensions between heterosexual and gay men in a “sexualized cityspace” (Ibid.: 4) and as “a means for queering ‘straight’ places’” (Ibid.: 11).

As with the Parisian flâneurs who preceded them, beatniks wrote from positions of relative privilege. Although they found pride in their status as rebels and outcasts living outside the bounds of mainstream culture, in truth, “instead of being rejected by society as its victims, the beats rejected society, which confer[ed] a privileged social space, a reality unknown to the downtrodden but readily appropriated by youthful bourgeois redefinition” (Clements, 2013: 70). These ‘bums’ and ‘hobos’, who were generally well-educated white men from middle-class or affluent areas of the city, professed their kinship with the working-class and ethnic communities and moved to the Village, albeit without relinquishing their freedom to retreat to safer areas when the going got rough. James Baldwin tackles the hypocrisy of the Beat generation in his novel In Another Country through the character of well-meaning but deluded Vivaldo. Disenchanted with mainstream culture and seeking to adopt black culture as his own, hipster Vivaldo, like Norman Mailer’s ‘white negro’[5], wanders into Harlem, attempts to strike friendships with members of the black community and is astonished to realize his efforts are met with suspicion and resentment. ‘Harmless’, ‘congenial’ Vivaldo is not only ludicrously naive; he takes advantage of the plight of the American-African people, running in Harlem “after the whores up there”, to satisfy his sexual cravings (Carlaw: 96-103). His sincere inability to grasp how his actions reproduce exploitative structures does not make him any less guilty. Like the flâneur before him, the beatnik is a paradox. A symbol of the fifties’ counter-discourse, he nonetheless embodies an authoritative gaze that grapples to capture the alienating circumstances and experiences of marginalized groups. If Benjamin calls ‘empathy’ the flâneur’s “incomparable privilege” to enter “like a roving soul in search of a body, (…) another person whenever he wishes” (Benjamin: 55), this privilege also betrays narcissistic intents. The ragpicker’s fascination for the street refuses can turn parasitic. Indeed, Diane di Prima’s musings in her memoirs on her fellow writers, comparing the Beat community to a “male cabal” comprised of “self-satisfied”, “pompous” and “self-righteous” individuals, paints a dark portrait of a movement plagued by its members’ “eternal need to be right” (di Prima, 2001: 107-108).

The invisible flâneuse?

Diane di Prima is an incongruous figure in a literary landscape dominated by male voices. While criticisms have rightly been levelled at Beats for sidelining women in the movement and reducing them to minor roles[6], di Prima was acknowledged by her male contemporaries as an equal. Allen Ginsberg himself alluded to di Prima’s singular position in a rebuke against the Beats’ alleged misogyny: “When there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius” (Johnson & McCampbell Grace, 2002: 24). Di Prima’s work is atypical as well for its use of flânerie, which raises the thorny issue of the female flâneur. So far, I have attempted to demonstrate how flânerie is a method of investigating and producing the city that is transposable to new contexts, albeit a fundamentally flawed one due to its practice being monopolized by authoritative onlookers, be it the boulevardier or the beatnik. How is the practice of flânerie altered when appropriated by a woman? Is it even possible to speak of a flâneuse or is this notion preposterous?

In her celebrated essay The Invisible Flâneuse, Janet Wolff contemplates the possibility of a flâneuse before positing her non-existence (Wolff, 1985: 35). Her argument is based on two premises: first, that the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century relegated women to the subordinate private sphere, and secondly, that equating the modern with public spaces, with the experience of urbanity, precluded women from participating in narratives on modernity. Women had in effect no sovereign space on the street, therefore making them ‘invisible’ in the mainstream literature on modernity. “There is no question of inventing the flâneuse”, remarks Wolff, lamenting the absence of “a poem written by ‘la femme passante’ about her encounter with Baudelaire” (Wolff, 1985: 45). To add to this quandary, women’s freedom to wander through the city unaccompanied fell far short of that enjoyed by men. The street epitomized an ever-present threat to their respectability and physical security. Women who loitered in public places or even walked alone at a leisurely pace risked being mistaken for prostitutes or pegged by thieves and sexual predators as easy preys. The threat posed by these structures of aggression still resonates today and continue to limit women’s mobility. Thus, the flâneur, as the paradigmatic figure of modernity, could only ever be a man; there could be no female equivalent “for central to the definition of the flâneur are both the aimlessness of the strolling, and the reflectiveness of the gaze” (Wolff, 2008: 21).

Griselda Pollock extends Wolff’s critique to the figure of the flâneur whose gaze becomes the symbol of male mastery over women. She observes that women have no place in the street-poet’s urban panorama except as “objects of an erotic and covetous look” (Pollock, 1988: 67). They are denied agency and reduced to prostitutes and passantes – fugitive, ephemeral visions of womanhood to be lusted at, to be sexually appraised and consumed, if not “in deed” at least “in fantasy” (Ibid.: 112). Baudelaire’s poem A une mendiante rousse turns into voyeuristic eroticization the sight of a ragged beggar, as if her desirability could prove a consolation for the squalor of her daily life. Kerouac’s description in his short story New York Scenes of a corner street in Harlem infamous for black prostitution, “a long haunt spot where you can meet people – Negro whores, ladies limping in a Benzedrine psychosis”, similarly evokes the image of the sexually predatory white man rather than the compassionate witness (Carlaw: 95-96).

Wolff and Pollock depict flânerie as a spatial practice deeply at odds with women’s interests. Even supposing we took issue with Wolff’s perhaps reductive binary opposition between the public and private spheres as some critics have done[7], it is hard to dispute the existence of powerful physical and psychological limitations on women’s access to the street. Women’s forays into the public arena are complicated by the incontestable fact that they cannot shun the gaze of others; which might prevent them from taking up the position of flânerie. Daily runs-in with the “gauntlet of small suspicious eyes” and “the scrutiny and catcalls of lewd, sex-starved men” (di Prima, 1969/1998:75) spoil di Prima’s pleasure in walking about town:

Men lounged about in (…) and eyed me as I went by. (…) No woman lived alone in that world unless she were a whore. Or somebody’s mistress, which to these folks came to the same thing. This was a gauntlet I ran on every morning: the eyes, the comments. (…) Snide and degrading. Smug in its cultural mores. (…) After a while I learned to ignore it all. Or at least not take it seriously (…) as I pushed my way past (…) as I cut through. (di Prima, 2001: 103-104).

Di Prima attempts to make light of her daily harassment by affirming that she learned to ‘ignore it’, yet her admission that she persisted in having to ‘push’ and ‘cut’ her way past insults casts doubts about her ability to take these comments in stride, as well as set too violent a pace to be described as anything close to ‘strolling.’

Are women fated to remain excluded from participating in the process of producing city culture?  Is the practice of flânerie denied to women? Dorothy Parsons, in her seminal work Streetwalking the Metropolis, provides a more optimistic outlook on the viability of a female city drifter. As a metaphor for urban uncertainty and vulnerability, the flâneur, in line with his position as a critical outsider, is far from embodying the masculine traits of self-mastery, dominance and voyeurism that Wolff and Pollock ascribe to him. Parsons’ depiction of the flâneur as a concept that contains “gender ambiguities” recasts ‘it’ in a light more amenable to alternative narratives and frames. Neither a male nor a female, the androgyny of the flâneur allows “the figure to be a site for the contestation of male authority rather than the epitome of it” (Parsons, 2000: 6).

If we accept Parsons’ line of reasoning and posit as feasible the existence of a flâneuse, it follows that the next phase of our inquiry should be to explore her purpose as a literary device in recording and reshaping women’s experience of public spaces. If the flâneuse can exist, why must she? In her study The Art of Taking a Walk, Anke Gleber argues that the very presence of women on sidewalks in spite of their limited access to the street “indicates their desire and determination to experience the city on their own” (Gleber, 1998: 176). Although women are exposed to the constant scrutiny of the male gaze, which prohibits them from merging with the crowd like Baudelaire’s invisible boulevardier, they engage in flânerie as a means to transcend their role as spectacles, as images to be looked at and consumed, and to ultimately achieve the position of observers. For Gleber, the figure of the female stroller provides a “model of resistance’’ for women, one that would “establish wide possibilities and open new spaces for their own gazes” (Gleber, 1997: 84-85). The flâneuse undermines the dominance of the masculine gaze by allowing women “to trace an active gaze of their own” and “return the gaze directed to [them]” (Ibid.: 84). Unlike the flâneur who finds solace in his status as outsider, women’s marginalization is neither a deliberate choice nor a willed critical stance. The flâneuse’s active gaze indicates a yearning for recognition; the attempt to create a sovereign space on the street, a path where women can assert their female subjectivity in the public sphere and compel others to acknowledge it.

In Diane di Prima’s long serial poem Loba, the city, considered the locus of masculine power and privilege, is menaced by destruction when stormed by women and the wolf goddess Loba, a situation foreshadowed in the epigraph to Book One: “A clever man builds a city / A clever woman lays one low” (di Prima, 1973/1990: 11). This vision of women answering the rallying cry of di Prima in Revolutionary Letters to ‘seize’ the city reveals wandering the street be a tactic to confront the male-dominated city and expose its undercurrent violence:

O lost moon sisters (…)
on Avenue A, on Bleecker Street do you wander
on Rampart Street, on Fillmore Street do you wander
with flower wreath, with jewelled breath do you wander
with gloves, with hat, in rags, in fur, in beads,
under the waning moon, hair streaming in black rain
wailing with stray dogs, hissing in doorways
shadows you are, that fall on the crossroads, highways (…)
jaywalking do you wander
spitting do you wander
mumbling and crying do you wander
aged and talking to yourselves
with roving eyes do you wander
hot for quick love do you wander
weeping your dead (…)
(Ibid.: 8-9)

In addition to proclaiming women’s right to the city, flânerie opens up avenues for self-discovery. “Walked the Village, stalking, looking. The East Side streets. Walked the halls of my heart” (di Prima, 2001: 116): charting di Prima’s path through the city uncovers her attempts to find, to map herself. “There is a dark doorway I go through. I will go through it once and everything will be changed. (…) No way to guess who I will be after this. No way to foresee the changes. (…) Striking out for myself.” (Ibid.: 97). The street, as a symbol of an unbounded space in both a physical and mental sense, is to be opposed to the confinement of a metaphorical house associated with the repressive Cold War political climate, postwar materialism and the plight of women ensnared by domesticity and the gendered territories of ‘private’ and ‘public’. In her memoirs, di Prima consequently justifies her desire to desert the family house, to “get [her] winter coat and walk out of the house” (Ibid.: 100), on the grounds of casting off the shackles of patriotism, consumerism and patriarchy that have imposed limits on her existence and her capacity for self-definition:

I will do nothing to support this house. Not ours the wars, the cruelty, murder, oppression. Not ours the men and women in madhouse, lobotomized, terrorized, shocked or drugged to death. Not ours the politics of witch-hunt. (…) Not ours the hideous, heavy furniture, even. Overstuffed sofas covered in clear plastics. (…) The narrow and cruel judgments in the name of decency, order. Not ours the brutal marriages, children beaten into mental deficiency, the blind and blinding worship of money / achievement.  (…) Not ours, the women kept home, locked out of sight. (…)  To be artist: outcast, outrider, and explorer. Pushing the bounds of the mind, of imagination. Of the humanly possible, the shape of a human life. “Continual allegory.” Of a woman’s life, pushing the limits. Opening endlessly to the images, words. (Ibid.: 102-103)

Manhattan is described as stirring a creativity that bursts “like a thousand boiling volcanoes in the music and painting, the dancing and the poetry of this magic city” (di Prima, 1969/1998: 133). Indeed, urban life, whether it manifests itself through descriptions of urban places, depictions of city eccentrics or use of street slang, forms the backbone of her poetry and prose. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recurring image of the ‘pirate’, a costume and persona that di Prima donned with her friends as they went out on their first explorations of the city as teenagers. Dressed up in “wide belts and jeans” and “blouses with wide, flowing sleeves”, they would “set out, wild for the streets”, “learning the turf, defining (marking it) … Notebooks and pens always with us” (di Prima, 2001: 82-83). For Kirsten Ortega, “the costumes and moniker ‘pirate’ “signify di Prima’s awareness of her participation in an activity that was both radical and impossible” (Ortega, 2006: 111). Di Prima engages in several thefts during her escapades as a pirate. First, she steals access to a city to which, as a girl, she was forbidden from navigating freely. She is also pocketing moments and observations that belong to others by writing down urban scenes in her notebook. More importantly, piracy allows her to steal literary traditions, from the picaresque quest narrative to the urban flânerie, that are typically male prerogatives:

Piracy also allowed di Prima access to urban poetic forms. Just as “piracy” today is often used to refer to the stealing or illegal copying of copyrighted materials such as movies or music, di Prima’s use of flânerie was an illicit act of using a form from which she was restricted access as a woman. (Ibid.: 112).

These literary traditions of vagabondage and voyage share a common feature: they take place in the public sphere. By stealing these traditions away from men, by engaging in piracy and flânerie, di Prima is asserting not only women’s place on the streets, but their right to walk with men “on the roads of Art, roads of our dreaming” (di Prima, 2001: 107) and to participate, like Baudelaire’s and Kerouac’s city drifters, in the articulation of poetic cities that, in turn, respond, challenge and reimagine physical cities, a right she alludes to in the following passage:

We carried a world in our hearts. In our mind’s eye. And cast a glimmer of it half visible, on the streets around us. (…) We watched our hearts’ glow flicker on and off. (…) Cast a new light on these streets. That it – even briefly – changed the world. (Ibid.: 147).

Yet the challenges to the flâneuse raised by Wolff and Pollock remain. Are di Prima’s aspirations of flânerie rendered futile by the male gaze, which might refuse to acknowledge women’s efforts to redefine their roles and identities on the streets? Is she ultimately successful in overturning the conventions established for female presence in public spaces?  Di Prima engages in two strategies to undermine the male gaze. First, she attempts to become an aimless and invisible entity in her own right, or at least to cease being viewed as an object of desire for men, by adopting her “eternal costume”: Levis and sweatshirt, crew-cut, black leather gloves, motorcycle jacket and black army surplus boots (di Prima, 1969/1998: 139). Her costume, as the appropriation of male clothing (and thereby masculine power), could be interpreted as signalling the failure of the flâneuse as the affirmation of a female subjectivity in the public realm, but I would argue the contrary. The literature on masquerade provides great insight into the costume’s subversive and empowering potential for gender disruption. Terry Castle in his book Masquerade and Civilization writes that the anonymity of masquerade allows women “to make an abrupt exit from the system of sexual domination” (Castle, 1986: 255). As a “realm unmarked by patriarchy”, masquerade symbolizes women’s freedom to circulate, “not as a commodity placed in circulation by men, but according to their own pleasure” (Ibid.). Masquerade does not necessarily dissolve into mere transvestism or cross-dressing. For Mary Ann Doane, it provides a solution for women’s lack of distance from themselves, a residual consequence of the internalization of the objectifying male gaze. Masquerading affords women the possibility to step back and achieve the necessary distance between the self and the image (Doane, 1982). To pursue that line of thought, thinkers of ‘performativity’ such as Judith Butler have long argued that femininity itself can be construed as a mask that women wear in a society codified by patriarchy. Luce Irigaray writes that for a woman to be accepted into this male-dominated social world, she first has to enter “the masquerade of femininity (…), into a system of values that is not hers, and in which she can ‘’appear’’ and circulate only when enveloped in the needs/desires/fantasies of others, namely men” (Irigaray, 1985: 133-134). It is to this burden of femininity that di Prima alludes as she adopts an ‘hybrid’ mode of spectatorship to negotiate a ‘path’ and ‘cut a swatch’, and to force others to acknowledge her as her ‘rough-and-tumble’ liberated self:

I had watched the burden that beauty was for the women and girls around me. Watched how they watched themselves, caught in a hall of mirrors. (…) Watched how they were watched, both by friends and lovers, so that they were not seen, not truly presences, but the painting, movie, statue of someone’s dreams. A piece of the furnishings. I am not talking here simply of objectification, though that was certainly a part of it. (…) But there was something else: a gauze veil, a veneer. (…) It formed a barrier between them and the events in their life. (…) I chose not to be beautiful. Once the choice was made, it was easy enough. I opened the door and left my rough-and-tumble self out. (…) “Clumsy as an ox”, I clumped through the streets of the Village in my sneakers. (…) I cut my long red hair down to a crewcut, I took to men’s shirts and jeans as my disguise. Costume. (…) And I tromped through the city as some strange hybrid: neither gay nor straight, neither butch nor femme. I cleared some path, cut a swath. (di Prima, 2001: 114-116)

Secondly, masculine desire itself becomes an object of enquiry subject to di Prima’s gaze. In the poem Thirteen Nightmare, a flâneuse meets and goes home with a man encountered on 42nd Street who, she learns afterwards, initially mistook her for a prostitute in a scene ironically reminiscent of Baudelaire’s poems on passantes or prostitutes (di Prima, 1990: 7). A far cry from a prostitute, di Prima’s character is a willing and enthusiastic participant in the erotic encounter. The man’s astonishment when he learns she is not a sex worker betrays an even greater surprise: far from being the sole watcher on the street, he was similarly the object of the woman’s ‘erotic and covetous’ look. The encounter with the male pedestrian testifies to di Prima’s flâneuse capacity to return the gaze directed to her, to use irony as a means to dismantle the sex-as-force system and challenge the strict opposition between preys and predators, spectacles and spectators.

If the figure of the flâneuse can and must exist as an affirmation of female subjectivity in the otherwise metaphorical urban maps that have been constructed by men, she also contributes to reshaping the practice of flânerie as a method of urban ethnography in ways that address some of the limitations from which Baudelaire and Kerouac’s flâneurs suffer. The flâneuse, similarly to the ragpicker, plucks outcasts from the crowd but, unlike the boulevardier or the beatnik, she does not record their urban experiences from a privileged standpoint: she observes the margins from the viewpoint of the margins.

Compared to the male beatniks who were often accused of romanticizing outcasts in their critique of mainstream society, di Prima turns a more matter-of-fact gaze on her ‘street refuges’ as can be derived from this passage in Memoirs of a Beatnik in which the narrator watches a group of young Italian men beat up three gay men:

I was standing in the doorway, looking at the scene on MacDougal Street. The Village had gotten tougher as the summer had worn on. (…) On this particular evening, I stood on the steps of my new store and watched three young faggots get beaten up by their dago brothers. A not unusual evening’s entertainment. (…) Scuffling and screams. The police pulled up. They bravely entered the building, arrested the three gay men and drove away. About three minutes away, the young gangsters emerged from the building and continued their stroll up the block. (di Prima, 1969/1998: 118-119)

As readers, we are undoubtedly meant to side with the gay men. Yet, as Kristen Ortega points out, “the satirical tone in which the narrator uses the derogatory terms ‘faggots’ and ‘dago’ connects the two clashing communities: both are outsider groups, derided by and separated from the larger urban context” (Ortega: 113). Di Prima thus fractures the vision of the Village as a paradisiac haven against the aggressions of postwar ideologies. The Village, which grows ‘tougher’ during the summer, is not devoid of violence; its inhabitants reproduce social structures of exclusion and alienation among themselves. Her sobering gaze however is not to be equated with a harsh judgment as her use of the term ‘dago’ implies sympathy for Italian-Americans and reminds readers of the tough realities of city living for immigrants. In contrast, Allen Ginsberg’s poem Mugging, which tells the similar story of a gay man falling prey to an armed robbery conducted by a Puerto Rican gang, romanticizes the poet’s beating as a sacrificial offering to his aggressors, but fails to show empathy and account for the economic and social deprivations that might compel the gang members to engage in violence in the first place. His description of “a young brown companion” could be taken straight from a police record:

Walked past a taxicab controlling the bottle strewn curb—
past young fellows with their umbrella handles & canes leaning
against a ravaged Buick
—and as I looked at the crowd of kids on the stoop—a boy
stepped up, put his arm around my neck
tenderly I thought for a moment, squeezed harder, his umbrella
handle against my skull,
and his friends took my arm, a young brown companion tripped
his foot ’gainst my ankle—
as I went down shouting Om Ah Hūm to gangs of lovers on the
stoop watching
slowly appreciating, why this is a raid, these strangers mean
strange business
with what—my pockets, bald head, broken-healed-bone leg, my
softshoes, my heart—
Have they knives? Om Ah Hūm—Have they sharp metal wood
to shove in eye ear ass? Om Ah Hūm (…)
“Shut up and we’ll get out of here”—and so they left,
as I rose from the cardboard mattress thinking Om Ah Hūm
didn’t stop em enough,
the tone of voice too loud—my shoulder bag with 10,000 dollars
full of poetry left on the broken floor—(Gingsberg, 1974/1984 : 625-626)

Di Prima’s flâneuse’s gaze is never distorted by parasitic intents. Her flâneuse is a roving eye, never a roving soul, as can be seen in her description of prostitutes in Loba:

Shall we say that the streets were littered
w/ half-eaten food
dry leaves, debris of plastic and paper
Shall we remember the half-made whores
Who walked on them
Eyes black as Egypt: al-Khem
The women
Of that night?
Who will recall it, later?
(di Prima, 1973/1990: 301-302)

The poem’s thinly veiled reference to the ragpicker invites comparison between di Prima’s encounter with streetworkers and Baudelaire’s, especially given that prostitutes are quintessential figures of womanhood for the Parisian flâneur. But in Loba, prostitutes are far from emblems of beauty distanced from the poet as objects to be aesthetically appraised. All mentions of their external appearance appear only insofar as they clue us in to their socioeconomic status and ethnicity. On one hand, their ‘half-made’ state of dress hints to their poverty and is perhaps an allusion to them looking ‘worse for wear’ due to the harsh realities of streetworking; on the other, their eyes being as ‘black as Egypt’ and the emphasis place on the word ‘al-Khem’ (meaning ‘black earth’) derived from the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt (keme) underscore their African roots. Linking the image of debris-strewn streets with that of ‘half-made whores’ can also be interpreted as a denunciation of the subhuman treatment of prostitutes who were often reduced to an unsavory eyesore like garbage carelessly thrown onto the pavement. Di Prima’s insistence on Egypt’s regal past could then indicate a desire to afford reviled sex workers the dignity and respect that have been stripped away by a life of abuse. The temporality of the poem – ‘that night’ – also seems to imply a specific time and place, which in turn suggests that she is writing about specific women, begging the question ‘who were they?’. In contrast, for Baudelaire, any mendiante, passante or prostituée are interchangeable; what matter are the elevated feelings they invoke in the poet. Furthermore, di Prima does not attempt to speak on the prostitutes’ behalf; she does not deny them their voice. Indeed, this passage in Loba can be conceived of as a reflection on the moral duty of the poet of urban life in relation to the outcast he writes about: to simply remember them and mark their presence.

In short, if flânerie involves the radical remapping of the city to make it more amenable to outsider groups, it follows that the flâneur should himself let his observations on others speak for themselves and respect the space that the “indifference of the city” gives as “her most precious gift” (di Prima, 1969/1998: 114-115), or risk imperiling the possibility for others to create their own paths of significance.



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[1] As a side note, although Childe Harold exiles himself in Nature to escape human conflict, he also acknowledges its deadly manifestations in the wake of avalanches and volcano eruptions. Diane di Prima similarly displays an ambiguous relationship to the street. On one hand, it allows her female drifters to enjoy a broader range of freedoms and opportunities; on the other, it always remains a potential source of danger.

[2] Dana Brand proposes in The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth Century American Literature that the origin of flânerie as a literary device can be traced to the ‘urban panorama’ genre of seventeenth century English literature of which John Stow’s Survey of London (1598) is a prime example.

[3] Benjamin hypothesized the flâneur’s emergence to be the outcome of particular historical, economic and social circumstances – namely the advent of modernity and the architectural changes in Paris that led to the construction of arcades – coalescing to bring about this unique development. Arcades played a crucial role in Benjamin’s discussion on the city vagrant. The ceiled exterior passages represented a cross between a street and an interior that embodied the interior/exterior dichotomy encapsulated in the flâneur’s internalisation of externalities. Their absence in other cities explains why the flâneur originated in Paris. For Benjamin, the destruction of arcades to make space for department stores in the late nineteenth-century signalled the triumph of consumer capitalism and the impossibility of taking up flânerie.

[4]BNot every beatnik should be considered a homologous counterpart to Baudelaire’s stroller. For instance, Jack Kerouac’s protagonists in On the Road pay tribute to the literature on exile rather than to the tradition of flânerie. Yet the persistence of flânerie as a method of investigating the city and as a transgressive statement in many works penned by Beats is significant and warrants the comparison between the two figures.

[5] On the controversy surrounding the notion of a ‘white negro’, Baldwin famously took issue with a passage in On the Road where Sal Paradiso, recalling one of his strolls in Harlem, ‘’wish[ed] [he were] a Negro (…) feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy (…), not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.’’ Accusing Kerouac of romanticizing African-Americans’ poverty and alienation, as if segregation had been a blessing against the all-pervading mediocrity of white culture, Baldwin described the extract as white cliché: ‘’absolute nonsense (…) offensive at that (…) and thin, like soup too long diluted, because it does not refer to reality, but to a dream’’ (Baldwin, 1998: 278).

[6] Ronna Johnson and Nancy McCampbell Grace (eds), Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002. This excellent collection of essays is a thoughtful critique of the Beat movement’s complicity in silencing women, as well as a worthy effort to rehabilitate neglected female Beat artists.

[7] Much has been written on how the rise of department stores legitimized women’s presence in public spaces and enabled them to gaze upon the spectacle of urban life from the vantage point of the ‘shopper’. See for instance Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola, London: Routledge, 2009.