Although often considered experimental and sometimes obscure, the poetry of Philip Whalen (20 October 1923 – 26 June 2002) is marked by a directness of expression that matches his concern with directness of experience. The seemingly oblique or broken sentences reflect the movements of mind, in its perceptions and thoughts.
The poem “For C.,” written in 1957, presents one of the clearest expressions of a mode characteristic of Whalen’s work. Perhaps tellingly for a man who became ordained as a Zen monk, a note of retrospective longing comes to the fore in many poems, with the object of longing often being, or being represented by, a woman in his life. “For C.” begins with a moment of vulnerability: “I wanted to bring you this Jap iris/ Orchidwhite with yellow blazons/ But I couldn’t face carrying it down the street/ Afraid everyone would laugh/ And now they’re dying of my cowardice.” His embarrassment arises from the idea of the “yellow blazons” announcing to the world his sexual desire, which ironically he displays to the world in the poem itself. His awkward yearning for bodily satisfaction finds its counterpoint in his other embarrassments, including the recurring worry over being overweight. The poem itself is expression of frustration: “After all this fuss about flowers I walked out/ Just to walk, not going to see you (I had nothing to bring—/ This poem wasn’t finished, didn’t say/ What was onmymind; I’d given up).”
The directness of “For C.” recalls the 1956 poem “Invocation and Dark Sayings in the Tibetan Style,” another expression of sexual longing and loneliness, which identifies “the biggest problem in the world” as the question, “Where are you?” The young poet presents his sexual feelings for his absent lover unabashedly, while offering a parallel presentation of his feelings, in lines he is “not saying.” What he is not saying, Whalen tells the reader, are lines such as, “This is a picture of a man./ The man is hiding something./ Try to guess what it is.” Although Whalen rarely points directly to the fact that in his poems he is passing along direct experience of the moment, by offering the reader what he might have written, had he been trying to transform the moment poetically, he effectively does so.
Small Tantric Sermon
Similarly another 1956 poem, “Small Tantric Sermon,” treats the sexual act itself as seriously as poets of a previous century might have treated the purely emotional quality of romantic love. In this poem, he finds that the effort to talk directly about sex “. . . breaks down,/ Here, on paper,” although the effort to do so has its own rewards, as he notes by continuing, “although I am free/ To spread these words, putting them/ Where I want them (something of a release/ In itself).”
Delights of Winter at the Shore
Other frustrations provide Whalen with the galvanizing impulse toward poetic expression, including problems relating to simple existence. In one poem that vacillates between emotional distress and objective acceptance of his situation in the world, 1958’s “Delights of Winter at the Shore,” Whalen engages in a series of self-searching reflections as he recalls an editor asking him “Why don’t you just sit down & write a novel?” The question is voiced at a time when the poet’s mortgage is nearly foreclosed and his power is threatened with being shut off. Downturns of fortune likewise affect the worldly achievements others have expected of him—“It goes like that, all the ‘talent,’ the ‘promise’”—which provokes him to a moment of personal crisis: “How loyal have I been to myself?/How far do I trust . . . anything?/ I wonder ‘self-confidence’ vs. years of self-indulgence/ (am I feeling guilty?)/How would anything get done if I quit? Stopped/ whatever it is you choose to call it?” The crisis forces him to look both inward and outward, as he assesses the achievement of being one who has spent his life working at “whatever it is.”
Made up of quite short poems, or individual pages of calligraphy and pen drawings that may be regarded as poems, Highgrade gives insight into Whalen’s compositional process. Whalen had used calligraphy in his work since his Reed College days and had grown used to using the India-ink pen for writing drafts of his poem. Highgrade provides examples of how Whalen “sees” his poems. In the printed versions of his poems, for example, words often appear in all capitals, which some readers might take as “shouting” or overemphasis. In these poems the upper-case words appear with naturalness on the page, where they can be seen as elements of graphic design.
Whalen’s calligraphic work aims not for the elegant perfection of typical calligraphy, but rather for the emulation of font types, in a variety of styles and sizes. The impulsive and sometimes whimsically humorous character of Whalen’s writing becomes more pronounced in this format. The posthumously published calligraphic work, The Unidentified Accomplice: Or, The Transmissions of C. W. Moss (2005), is revealing for the same reason.
“The Garden” brings Whalen’s talent for expressing the immediate into the foreground. His tendency to focus on minutiae overlooked by others finds itself mirrored in scenes around his Japanese lodgings, as he observes the landlady. While she is sweeping leaves off the moss, she is joined in her sweeping by her husband. Whalen intermixes direct observation with commentary on Japanese life, then arrives at a moment of deep concentration: “They sweep the shrubs and bushes, too,/ Old man has an elegant whiskbroom, a giant shaving brush/ Gets rid of dust and spiders, leaf by leaf.” This 1966 poem represents Whalen’s achievement of what he attributed to an ancient Greek poet, in 1952’s “Homage to Lucretius”: for he is presenting to the reader “A world not entirely new/ but realized.”
Similarly, in his 1957 poem written in Berkeley, “The Same Old Jazz,” Whalen points to the direct relation between inner and outer worlds: “And it all snaps into focus/ The world insidemyhead&the cat outside the window/Aone-to-one relationship.” Although the lines address perception, both inner and outer, the breakthrough they describe also has to do with poetry, since the two lines immediately beforehand are these: “She wants to sleep & I get up naked at the table/ Writing.”
Simultaneous reflections on the self and on the outer world animate many of the writings of Whalen. As in “Delights of Winter at the Shore,” the question of self-indulgence may arise, just as they arise with the work of most poets associated with the Beat movement. In Whalen’s case, the self-awareness is not self-absorption, and the “one-to-one relationship” between inner and outer worlds in Whalen’s poetry makes it perhaps the most balanced of Beat-influenced work, even when his poetry is at its most intimately revealing.
Long fiction: You Didn’t Even Try, 1967; Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head, 1972; The Diamond Noodle, 1980; Two Novels (You Didn’t Even Try and Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head), 1985.
Nonfiction: Intransit: The Education Continues Along Including Voyages, a TransPacific Journal, 1967; Prose [Out]Takes, 2002.
Miscellaneous: Highgrade: Doodles, Poems, 1966; The Unidentified Accomplice: Or, The Transmissions of C. W. Moss, 2005.
Kherdian, David. Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists. Fresno, Calif.: Giligia Press, 1965.
Rothenberg, Michael, and Suzi, Winson, eds. Continuous Flame: A Tribute to Philip Whalen. New York: Fish Drum, 2005.
Snyder, Gary, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen. On Bread and Poetry: A Panel Discussion with Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen. Edited by Donald Allen. Berkeley, Calif.: Grey Fox Press, 1973.
Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac in the Cascades. Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint, 2002.
Whalen, Philip. Interview by Donald Allen. In Off the Wall: Interviews with Philip Whalen. Edited by Allen. Bolinas, Calif.: Grey Fox Press, 1978.
_______. “Philip Whalen.” Interview by David Meltzer. In San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, edited by Meltzer. San Francisco: City Lights, 2001.