One Sun Roaring
While Whalen would eventually become the abbot of a Soto Zen center in 1991, there are allusions to koans dating back to even his earliest poems. What may be more significant for the connection between his writing and Zen practice, though, is that he constantly makes a conscious issue of what for most writers would remain unconscious material. Here's a characteristic passage from You Didn't Even Try (1967), one of the two novels Whalen didn't destroy:
Helen was talking. Kenneth was thinking about grapefruit. It had been something new and different that people had begun to eat for breakfast, one of his early memories. He remembered that he could not, at that time, pronounce the word correctly, and his parents made fun of him about it, "grate-thruit." It was seven or eight years later that people began to drink tomato juice in the morning; they had hangovers to cure, then, and tomato juice was supposed to do it, especially with Worcestershire or Tabasco sauce added.
In his prose, Whalen follows the stream of his character's associations from shiny surface to surface, illuminating to claustrophobic effect the lengths frustrated characters go to to avoid being present in the moment and making something of their lives. In his poetry, this deeply silly alternation of lines of inquiry and argument falls into place more relaxingly, as polyphony or comic dialogue. The poem he read the night Ginsberg debuted "Howl," "'Plus Ça Change...'" presents the banter of a long-married couple who have metamorphosed into parakeets:
What are you doing?
I am coldly calculating.
I didn't ask for a characterization.
Tell me what we're going to do.
That's what I'm coldly calculating.
Whalen comes by his mistrust of the standard domestic setup honestly. His mother died when he was 15, and his father, an alcoholic, left him and his sister in the care of their grandmother. The time spent with his older relations left him indelibly marked with a gift for re-creating what he referred to as "native speech." From "Soufflé":
'What ever became of old Whatch-callum,
Old what's his name,
Old... you know, the old fellow
Who had that little ranch out by Mt. Pisgah,
Out by the Pisgah Home? Had that
Eight-finger Chinese cook & everything
tasted like kerosene,
We went out there once & put up blackberries.'
'Why, Dell, I don't remember...
He was a friend of yours.'
Under Snyder's influence, Whalen spent the summers from 1953 to 1955 as a fire spotter in the Cascades. Whalen worked first on Sauk Mountain, then on Sourdough, both of which are on the Skagit River; his base camp was in Marblemount, about 100 miles northeast of Seattle and thirty miles from the Canadian border. Snyder was a born outdoorsman, with experience in farming, carpentry and logging; he told Whalen, the born scholar, that the job paid good money and left plenty of time for reading.
Money. For lack of it, Whalen had forgone prospective careers: as a student of Asian languages at Berkeley, as a medical student/poet; even the ashram in Seattle where he might have pursued his interest in Vedantic study of Hindu texts was beyond his means. Choice forced by limited means was a refrain for Whalen. Another was his defense of spontaneity as the aim and indispensable product of study. Comparing himself with Snyder, he saw his friend as the true intellectual with a firmer grounding in the history of Asian literature; regarding Kerouac's novels, he noted "how carefully they are constructed," in the tradition of Flaubert and Madame de Lafayette; in a preface to a 1978 collection he remarked that "it is very clear to me that...the poems of Frank O'Hara are greater revolutionary documents than the entire literary production of N. Lenin or Chairman Mao." He valued wit and energy, and he was not unaware of the preparation and defense those qualities require.
There was time for reading, but it came after strenuous weeks or months of clearing trails of brush and fallen trees before even getting up to the lookout. During his first two summers on the job, he spent only a couple weeks in mountaintop seclusion. If he spent part of that time writing, he either destroyed the evidence or saved it to collage into later works: there are three poems in The Collected Poems dated 1953, and only one from 1954, a meditation on withholding, "Tell Me More":
Not a word
Not for love or money
Not a single word from me, nor
(these are not words but signs
they carry no charge)
Make your own speech
You'll get none of mine
His third stint on the mountain, in 1955, lasted nine weeks. Perhaps it was the protracted isolation; perhaps a midnight adventure rescuing a horse that had fallen off a raft into the lake by base camp; maybe, as one biographer insists, it was his experiments throughout the year with peyote; or, as is most likely, the happy chain of events that followed being invited to read his poems that fall at the Six Gallery along with Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg. Whatever the cause, after Whalen came down from the mountain, his mature work came with him; he wrote more than 300 short poems in the decade that followed.
"Sourdough Mountain Lookout" is the first of those poems, a collage of Whalen's characteristic interests: wry native speech, direct observation and learned compassion. From the fire spotter's shelter, the speaker tests the boundaries between himself and the four ancient elements (water, light/fire, earth and air), consulting what everyone from Heraclitus to the Buddha has to say about the unity of the self. The scenario is fraught with spookiness and guff. Whalen gingerly protects his (and the reader's) self-respect, opening with a disarming digression: "I always say I won't go back to the mountains/I am too old and fat there are bugs mean mules/And pancakes every morning of the world." As with the great Modernist poems it echoes (Eliot's Waste Land is one; Williams's "Della Primavera Trasportata al Morale" is another), "Sourdough" marshals tonal changes, blue asides, found text, flat description. It is, nevertheless, a persistently majestic poem about being "alone in a glass house on a ridge/Encircled by chiming mountains/With one sun roaring through the house all day/& the others crashing through the glass all night." Where even its most radical antecedents gathered their fragments toward some portentous end, this poem points all its artillery at the experience of the present moment. It even ends in medias res: "Like they say, 'Four times up,/Three times down.' I'm still on the mountain."