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One Sun Roaring

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Scenes of Life at the Capital is Whalen's longest sustained effort, and his most substantial. Written in the late 1960s while Whalen was studying Zen in Kyoto, it is a meditation on civilization and barbarism, greatness and idiocy, beauty and just doing what you do. Though the title has the air of alluding to a set form in the visual arts (there are pieces from eighteenth-century Japan with similar names), its form is not as widely imitated as Mountains and Rivers Without End, the landscape-scroll form that lends its name to the titles of major works of the mid-'60s by Whalen's friend Snyder and their contemporary Ashbery. It is a pleasantly miscellaneous title, entirely belying the focused bemusement, anger and relief of the poem of exile that follows.

About the Author

Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis is Poetry Editor of The Nation. His most recent publication is POD | Poems on Demand (2011). Photo...

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Being a good-natured purveyor of variety turns out to be a problem, too. There is a sameness to the hundreds of shorter poems Whalen wrote mainly in America ("takes," he called them). A speaker addresses an absent reader in tones both plaintive and jocular, taking pleasure in beauty, fretting about day-to-day getting by, observing the inevitability of death and decay, leaving the reader with a cheerful non sequitur and flash of insight. As he self-deprecatingly put it in a poem from 1959,

I've run so far in one circle I'm
 visible now
 only from the chest upwards
Any poet who's really any good
Dances a complicated maze on top
 of the ground
 scarcely wearing out the grass

The poems are more entertaining in bulk than most haiku anthologies, and at least as much fun as a Thelonious Monk marathon or a Looney Tunes festival; they nevertheless risk monotony. In Scenes of Life at the Capital Whalen sets aside the self-deprecation while gathering up the self. Every paragraph-stanza is surprising and charged with affect, giving the reader a sense of continuity and development that Whalen has until this point eschewed. If the shorter poems are koans, this is his sutra. Far from home, with little of his native language in the air to distract him, he looks squarely at what he perceives to be the desperate flaws of his country, simultaneously considering the options of the individual and society as a whole:

I keep thinking about all the really great ones
(To paraphrase Mr Spender) I think
Like anybody living in a foreign country
Of home and money...
There's probably Some sensible human way of living in America
Without being rich or drunk or taking dope all the time

The Spender line actually runs "I think continually of those who are truly great." What Whalen is continually thinking of is what it's like to live under the weight of the examples of other people's importance: "I keep thinking of those really great ones like Confucius:/'What am I supposed to do, become rich & famous?'" Having taken the example of a so-called great person who emphasized the importance of not worrying about being great, he proceeds to dismantle Spender's line: "I think all the time I can't forgive him/For jamming that 'nk' sound against the initial 'C'/Nor for the blackmail word, 'truly,'" going on to suppose that "somewhere there's an exact & absolutely wild poetical/equivalent." Whalen collects echoes of that idea ("I can't stop thinking about those who really knew/What they were doing"), along with every other idea, every phrase and most of the words he brings into the poem, for the next sixty pages. And along the way, modest scholar that he is, he discovers in Coleridge's "To William Wordsworth" the source of the phrase Spender reworked for his famous line.

In his shorter poems written stateside, Whalen tilts again and again at the problem of citizenship in an empire less rational than the Greece of Pericles, etching satires straight out of Mencken or Bierce. From "Bleakness, Farewell": "If the product is ugly enough, poisonous enough and expensive enough, all Americans will buy it--they will cut down on food, sex, curiosity and even their own fits of paranoia in order to spend more money on the product." These declarations of common sense end abruptly, though, and as for the Beat poet's role as a public figure, Whalen generally limits his commentary on current events to oblique remarks. Here, in its entirety, is "Homage to WBY," written the day after the assassination of JFK: "after you read all them books/all that history and philosophy and things/what do you know that you didn't know before?//Thin sheets of gold with bright enameling." Beautiful perhaps, but also less than satisfyingly complete. From the vantage of Japan, Whalen speaks more freely: "Our main difficulty: fear and distrust of freedom"; "In America we've been fighting each other 100 years/We pretend we're unimaginably rich/But we are poor and afraid of the poor who must become/The Army to defend us against right and wrong"; "The real shame of America is the lack of an anticlerical/Movement or party. All parties try to compound/With invisible State Protestant Church that theoretically/Doesn't exist. Rubes who think of themselves as/Members in good standing are bilked and robbed"; "When did the dumb-bunny bomb first hit U.S.A.?/How come everybody appreciated it so much?" The individual doesn't get off on the technicality of collective hysteria, either: "Almost all Americans aged 4 to 100/Have the spiritual natures of Chicago policemen."

Whalen's righteousness in Scenes of Life at the Capital is absolutely suited to the moment of the composition, the events of Chicago, Berkeley and Kent State all entering into the moving stream. There is no depressive qualifying, and despite his occasional qualm ("One fine day AG [Allen Ginsberg] was mad at me and said,/'You're going to be a little old man who smells of kerosene/and sits in the public library every day reading Pliny'"), no poisonous doubt. As a document of the free spirit, it is the kind of thing that makes conceivable a vision he attributes to "one kid": "I want America to be magic electrical Tibet." And in its aching for redemption, it is irretrievably American: at exactly the halfway point, it shifts gears:

Western Civilization rigid and tyrannical
But it also teaches necessity for objective examination
Of the organization and also provides all kinds of suggestions
How to alter the works. Mr. Karl Marx wrote a book
All by his lonesome in the British Museum. (Shhh!)

Suddenly the word "capital" in the poem's title takes on a different aspect. Less than twenty-five years after the end of World War II, at what would turn out to be a little after the middle of the cold war, and more than a decade before the American media would depict the Japanese economy as overtaking America, Whalen advocates re-imagining the country along Zen lines. At the very end of the poem, just after recognizing something of himself in the tanuki, the Japanese raccoon-dog, he observes that "Japan is a civilization based upon/An inarticulate response to cherry blossoms." His abiding interest in the human race replaces anxiety at the headlong rush toward death of American culture. He concludes with one of his finest celebrations of things-as-they-are: "Old and ruined, all rotted and broken up/These plum trees function gorgeously/A few days every year/In a way nobody else does." In his singular study Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, the scholar R.H. Blyth remarked, "There is only one thing more dismal than a book of religious poetry, and that is a book of jokes." As Whalen put it, "I go look at the world and it is/flat./the beautiful things are beautiful/the ugly things are ugly/I/have been wasting my time." There are much worse ways to waste time. This is a beautiful book.

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