Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ammiel Alcalay

Committee Members

Joan Richardson

Steven Kruger

Subject Categories

Catholic Studies | Literature in English, North America | Metaphysics | Oral History | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Religion | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion | Women's History | Women's Studies


New American Poetry, Beat Poetry, San Francisco Renaissance, Little Magazines, Feminist Studies


Diane di Prima (1934-2020) and Mary Norbert Korte (b. 1934) are two poets whose contributions to postwar American poetry are vitally important, and yet their status on the margins of mainstream literary culture has left their work largely unstudied. Di Prima, the granddaughter of Italian Anarchist Domenico Mallozzi (with whom she shared a close relationship) grew up in an Italian-American community in Brooklyn and bore witness to the cultural schizophrenia of WWII as a child. Korte was raised in an affluent Bay Area family, and encountered hardships (including the death of her father when she was 12) that affected her deeply. Both poets made conscious decisions to depart from the paths prescribed to them at a young age: Korte became a Dominican nun in San Francisco at age 18, while di Prima dropped out of Swarthmore College at age 19 to pursue the life of the independent poet in New York’s East Village. Both poets went on to live lives that merged spiritual/religious practice, political activism, and a profound commitment to poetic integrity. Both were guided by their own intuition throughout their lives, making writing in ways that refused to conform to institutionally-administered categories of knowledge.

Pierce and Pine: Diane di Prima, Mary Norbert Korte and the Meeting of Matter and Spirit examines the lives and works of these two poets across eight decades. In doing so, the dissertation aims to establish these poets’ essential place in postwar American poetry. Drawing largely on conversations with di Prima and Korte, primary-source research in institutional archives (and in the poets’ personal archives), close-readings of published and unpublished manuscripts, Pierce and Pine takes up poet Charles Olson’s vision of history as a process of “finding out for oneself.” The chapters in Pierce and Pine offer histories of Korte’s embrace of, and departure from, the Catholic church; di Prima’s pivotal role in the small-press poetry communities of 1950s New York; Korte’s environmental activism in the California Redwoods; and di Prima’s innovative, hermetically-driven interpretations of Romantic poetry. Numerous voices contribute firsthand to the creation of these histories, including the poet and scholar David Henderson, whose first book was published by di Prima’s Poets Press in 1967. Pierce and Pine concludes with a narrative of the author’s encounter at a young age with di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik; this narrative aims to recuperate the value of di Prima’s “potboiler” erotic novel as an important proto-feminist work.

Part cultural history, part research document, part literary criticism, part memoir, Pierce and Pine distills the presence of two poets who, against great odds, merged material and spiritual knowledge in the living body of poetry.