One Sun Roaring | The Nation


One Sun Roaring

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In 1969, in the middle of moon fever and protests against the war in Vietnam, a picket line of an entirely different kind gathered outside the headquarters of Harcourt Brace & World on Forty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. Dozens of people were there to complain about the list price of a book of poems: Harcourt was charging $17.50 for On Bear's Head, a 406-page collection of poems by one of the original Beat poets, Philip Whalen.

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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The book's price was outrageous--$102.81 in 2008 dollars, more than twice the price of the title under review--but Whalen's publication by a house that during the '60s had also brought out work by T.S. Eliot and Eudora Welty was not. Whalen had always been associated with bestselling poets. He was one of the three poets who read work before Allen Ginsberg debuted "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco the night of October 7, 1955; he was mythologized by Jack Kerouac as "Warren Coughlin" in The Dharma Bums and as "Ben Fagan" in other novels; he was one of the earliest friends in poetry of Gary Snyder, the anarchist Buddhist nature poet. Until 1969 his own work had circulated much more in the usual manner for poetry than that of his famous contemporaries: broadsides, chapbooks and small-press editions. Between the scarcity and the word-of-mouth publicity, incredibly enough, there came to be loud public demand for a work based entirely on the sensation of coming and going. Here is the entirety of "Early Spring":

The dog writes on the window
 with his nose

Whalen was born on October 20, 1923, in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in The Dalles, a small town eighty miles east of Portland on the Columbia River. He attended Reed College, where he met and eventually shared a house with poets Snyder and Lew Welch. Snyder recalled first noticing him in a campus production of Pygmalion; Whalen played Alfred, Eliza's genial humbug father. Whalen pursued the arts with abandon. (He had to be rescued from academic probation after cutting class for weeks to write a novel, which he then dropped.) Seven years older than Snyder, Whalen was on the GI Bill, having studied and worked through the war for the Army Air Corps as a radio operator and trainer in several states. The three poets shared an interest in Reed specialties: Asian literature, Buddhism and calligraphy.

Many great poets have appeared to develop in isolation from other poets, or at least without competition for posterity: think of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman. In twentieth-century American letters, however, the isolated ones are outnumbered and outshone by the poets who emerged with rivalrous siblings-in-verse. Poets flourish when their excitements (both manic and deadpan) find others to receive them and answer back with their own finds. The friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge is the prototype; Eliot and Pound are the superstars.

As with the parallel poet cliques at Harvard (the so-called New York School's John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, and later Frank O'Hara) and Columbia (Ginsberg and Kerouac), the young writers at Reed lived to communicate their literary enthusiasms with one another. Welch and Whalen shared an affinity for Gertrude Stein's indifference to the distinction between sense and nonsense. All three exalted in William Carlos Williams's matter-of-fact ornery love of beauty. Williams returned the favor during a visit to Reed in 1950, reading over their work during a private audience and going so far as to remark on the meeting in his autobiography that they were "Good kids, all of them, doing solid work."

Snyder later provided Whalen with several entertaining examples to follow: first as a fire spotter for the US Forest Service, then years later as an expatriate student in a Zen monastery in Kyoto, Japan. If style were really the man, Whalen could just as easily have followed his friend Welch's example and gone into advertising. According to Aram Saroyan's 1979 biography of Welch, Genesis Angels, Welch was the copywriter responsible for "Raid kills bugs dead," a memorable phrase that would fit happily in either poet's oeuvre. In practice, Whalen's predisposition to staying out of the 9-to-5 routine was much more adaptable to his interest in taking up Zen.

Zen became popular as a fundamentalist Buddhist movement in seventh-century China, replacing Pure Land Buddhism's emphasis on sacred texts with the individual's quest to locate and develop in one's self the Buddha-hood thought to exist in all people. Through meditation and study with masters, followers of Zen may reach satori, or sudden enlightenment. The offshoot took lasting root in Japan, where its Chinese name, Ch'an, meaning "quietude" or "meditation," was transformed into the name used now in America as shorthand for baffling directness.

As with many religions, the history of Zen is marked by binary divisions. One tendency of Zen is Rinzai, which is responsible for the development, over several hundred years, of the koan exercise. (The word "koan" means "public document.") The student meditates for months or years on a single paradoxical statement, having frequent interviews with a Zen master to determine progress toward enlightenment. No good trying to rationalize the koan or even to understand it--the whole point of the exercise is to bring the student to a state of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason. When the student is finally ready, the teacher makes a sudden oblique gesture--sometimes a violent one, kicking or hitting, though usually the teacher's prompt takes the form of a random remark.

The other tendency is the conservative, or quietist, side, known as Soto Zen. Soto values sitting and meditation for its own sake, in the awareness that one is already enlightened. Shunryu Suzuki writes that Soto monks regard satori as an "excrescence," not the goal of Zen practice but a kind of bonus, goals being precisely the problem. The San Francisco Zen Center, where Whalen lived as a monk for more than twenty years, is in the Soto tradition.

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