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.
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.
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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.
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.”
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.
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
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.