"Therefore the supreme coquetry and the supreme
challenge of grace is to exhibit the body
unveiled with no clothing..."
Perhaps the best way to begin the immense task of discussing the Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, published in the first month of 2008 by Wesleyan University Press, edited by Michael Rothenberg, is to describe the volume itself: The shiny milk-colored dust jacket is decorated on its front with a quilt-like green-orange-blue felt-tip artwork done by Whalen in 1966. The cover fonts are thin, pencil-like, uninsistent, serene, the opposite of bold faced; barely visible structure. The back cover photo shows unsuspecting Whalen in his aquiline prime at work with his beloved calligraphy.
Inside the book, some eight-hundred-and-seventy pages, are a preface by Whalen's lifelong friend from Oregon and Reed College and fellow poet, Gary Snyder; an introductory critical piece by Leslie Scalapino; a brief Whalen biography by Jane Falk; appendices, including a listing of Whalen's poetry collections and samples of his prefaces and criticism.
This permits the table of contents to be an unfettered chronological listing of poems, as though the author had left them for his reader as a single manuscript, preserved within reverent walls, gathered into an all-encompassing sheaf. The Medieval Scholastic image is enhanced by the fact that many (but not all) of Whalen's poems were (are) hand-written on notebook paper integrated with symbols and sketches, some of which are reproduced in the pages of the newly published collection just as they were created.
All these aspects of presentation are fitted to Whalen's life-long journey. The sum is the removal of any sense of advertisement or importunity. There is no attempt to put the material up, above what it simply is, in a way that brings into being borderlines of misrepresentation. On the contrary, Whalen's writing has the sense of undivided tranquility. Without book titles to align them, the poems seem like they have no slant and, to some extent, no temporal reference, as though they might fizzle in tininess and irrelevance. The poems aren't aphoristic. Some read like unmailed letters or notations on the day. Material ambition flees them like rats from a sinking ship, in fright of varieties of talismans Whalen menacingly shakes at it, such as indirectness or tonight's dinner menu.
* * *
Of all the conflicting names, “public identities,” temperaments, guises that appear in Whalen's poems--citizen, hermit, Buddhist, scientist, Protestant, Catholic, owl, artist, scholar, ascetic, hedonist--the most pervasive is one that isn't mentioned: that of Socrates, whose teaching hinged on asking questions, feigning ignorance, disputatio , leading pupils to drawing their own conclusions. As with most twentieth century artists, there is in Whalen the element of self-consciousness. At bottom Whalen's poems are dialogues with the reader, trivia that turns into momentousness, foreign worlds that prophesy homelands, weakness that strengthens. Whalen wends his way from pea-brained peacock to tubby, dull-knife Buddha to avid Buddha to lusty pagan.
For Whalen the problem is that everything is hidden in plain view. No one sees what is there because no one wants to. ("You didn't see me, you didn't hear me,...") The world conceals in its very acts of revealing. Whalen responds in kind, presenting reality in costumes of varying transparencies.
In "Plums, Metaphysics, An Investigation, A Visit, And A Short Funeral Ode," Whalen has put together a poem about the literary world that includes dedication and reference to William Carlos Williams, an author that Whalen met as an undergraduate and undoubtedly admires. The poem speaks of "Messrs. X,Y, & Z" who are "in control" (Whalen puts the phrase in quotation marks) of "LITERATURE/ AMERICAN / LITERATURE! "
they never really let you into that, in spite of
your book that all professors love, In the American Grain
The poem talks about yellow brooms in plum trees, the "soupy sun," fog and smoke over the Bay, about stealing, failure, envy, about "goofy" june bugs, about Williams' "oozy" last years, "painful to watch," about Whalen's not wanting to be "another American tinky poetty-boo" but rather "a world."
Hard as it is--I’m hungry, in debt, I own one penny
copper money USA
I am still alive, I dance alone in this borrowed room
I sing to myself
“Green plums, you won’t be ready for weeks
But I’m fat and purple, full of sweet delight
Hidden among the bright gold leaves.
There is a hint in the poem of satire. It's harder than Whalen's usual. I sense in the poem the sort of “astuteness” and “publishability” that doesn't let in genuine merit (Williams). Mindless lines tell about wasps flying out the window. The poem is its own "bright," gold leaf hiding-place of the sort of "literature" that it is satirizing. The “high standards” and rigor of academia are an attainment that has the consequence of obscuring. (With the phrase "tinky poetty-boo," it seems Whalen merely associating himself with these high standards has produced in him the impulse to be dismissive.)
Generally Whalen's credulous prodding comes in the form of some slight vulgarity or predictability. In an early anthology prose piece, Whalen writes in part,
If my friends had not helped me, I should have starved or gone, at last, to the nuthouse. They fed and clothed and housed me, arranged poetry readings for me, got my work published and reviewed, made other people buy my books, and now they faithfully write letters to me, which I answer promptly. These experiences made me realize that I didn't need money in order to write; what I needed was love and poetry and pictures and music in order to live.
This is an important moment for Whalen, marking his separation of poetry from materialism. But this quote, straightforward as it is, gives an under-the-surface, quasi-intimate glimpse. (“I stand here in my underwear wondering what to do...“) It treads a soggy undecided area of self-deprecation. It just might be falsely modest. It “mortifies” us. In its own way, it follows the Beat dictum, “don't hide the madness,“ the madness in Whalen's case being the difference between the actual and the idealized.
Take me away to your hell world:
I must have that salvation, too--
Burn away my fleshy dreams
In a quatrain, Whalen complains that everybody takes him "too seriously" but nobody listens to what he says. With a reference to Black Mountain poet, Charles Olson, in a poem titled “True Confessions” is the stanza
Olson (being a great poet) says
“Whalen!--that Whalen is a--a--
That Whalen is a great big vegetable!”
The roly-poly humor of these lines is in my opinion sincere, but, in his phrase “great poet” Whalen is repaying the jibe. “Great poet” is the sort of stereotypical illusion that Whalen muck raked as his bete noir . For Whalen, illusions are not wavy interesting distortions but opaque barriers that block reality without a hint. What Whalen's irony is saying is that Olson doesn't know that he too is a great big vegetable, that, at bottom, we all are great big vegetables.
Of course, in making the remark, Olson might be acting as willing foil. For, in my judgment, in his writing, it's clear that Whalen is an exceptional critic and a superb poetical technician, up to and beyond academic standards. The strongest overt influence on Whalen's poetic style by far is Ezra Pound, especially but not exclusively The Cantos . Pound influenced other writers of the time, all of them, the Beats, the post-modernists, the bikers, the hikers, the MFA grad schoolers. But Whalen admires Pound in detail. I know of no other writer that understands so thoroughly what Pound is (was) doing in The Cantos , the repeated mechanistic visions of societies as a whole and in general, the mapped-out objective correlatives of the way societies work, the sleek, “sublime,“ assertive if somewhat matter-of-fact poetic line, the imagistic cadence, the loose but geometric assemblage.
Here are some samples from The Cantos:
Yeou taught men to break branches
Seu Gin set up the stage and taught barter,
taught the knotting of cords
Fou Hi taught men to grow barley
2837 ante Christum
and they know still where his tomb is
by the high cypress between the strong walls.
the FIVE grains, said Chin Nong, that are
wheat, rice, millet, gros ble and chick peas
and made a plough that is used five thousand years
And in the 8th moon the public works and corvee department
presented GIN TSONG a volume on mulberry culture
by Miao Haokien where he explains in detail the
growing of silk worms
and of unwinding cocoons
and the Emperor had this engraved with all diagrams
and distributed throughout all China
Here is Whalen about three pages into a fifteen-page “”Birthday Poem” written in 1969:
Bundles of cut weed carrying on
Without a world without an answer
Mukade put their heads in a ring a furry poison star
Bite through paper-thin shell of one segment of his back (giant mukade)
There’s a kind of orange tree growing and green grass
Hesperides? I freezing, wrap myself and all my clothes in tired surplus Army mummy bag.
I think of all the words I’ve written
What a funny thing to do. And who was he, that writer?
Shimogamo Bridge somebody made young stone corrals
middle of the Kamo River
Double-motion projection of streetcar (moving water moving along
steel tracks the moving bridge)
Sunset behind Mt Atago of a kind which causes religious conversions
bad poetry suicides
Honen Shonin understood that it was Buddha Land Purple Cloud
In a thirty-page poem from the same year, “Scenes of Life At The Capital,” dedicated to Allen Ginsberg, which includes Poundian allusions, such as the line “All Memling enamel (Mr. Yeats a little jealous),” Oriental pictograms (as in Cantos ), references to “Jack,” “A.G.” “Mr. C. Olson,” “Gary,“ Jimi Hendrix, “Janice,“ LSD, Kent State, Jackson State and a doodle of a drowning bespectacled man, are such passages (taken from widely separate sections) as these:
Hedges glisten tile roof tin roof telephone pole
Decoratively tormented black pine
Slowly repeating its careful program
Endlessly regretting but here is original done once
“Every place is the same
Because I felt the same, remembering everything
We boated for hours on the Lake of Constance
Went swimming in the Blue Grotto, ate sheep’s eyes
And chicken guts in Crete...”
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
New York Buddha Law:
All sentient beings will be brought
To complete final perfect enlightenment
If you will write a letter to The New York Times
Condemning Ignorance, Desire and Attachment.
One of the most wonderful and magical actions
We can perform: Let something alone. Refuse
To allow yourself the pleasure of messing it up.
The last line of a 1950 Whalen poem is “out of the depths we shall sing a new song.” "Scenes of Life At the Capital" about the ‘60s is a new song, like Kerouac's atom-smashing prose about Pawtucketville families and Ginsberg's freaky immigration through the Ellis Island of the big-bang cosmos. What it owes to Modernism is the idea that existence is sustained by (for want of a better word) values-- and nothing else . Upon examination, “Scenes of Life..." (“Signs” of life...) is more than a new-journalistic souvenir. Set in both the U.S. and Japan, where Whalen was living part of the time, it is a wonderful parallel Canto, a Beat “world,” an archetypal hyper-representation of a place, a central place, but in transit , an enigmatic reality still ungraspable, still forming.
* * *
Is this place, this nexus an historical moment? Is it a childhood memory? Is it a sacred shrine? Is it an exotic picturesque nation of the past? Is it a prodigal, chaotic in-your-face nation of the now? As early as 1957 (p. 81) Whalen is saying, “It is an imaginary choice between two imaginary worlds.” Goofing with Kerouac a page earlier, the two write, “I'm going away to--or am going to have to manufacture--another world, this one is all worn out.” Like Kerouac's novel The Subterraneans , the action of which took place in New York but the writing of which is set in San Francisco, it is a reality that for some reason remains displaced, suppressed.
The players, the people, the writers, musicians, artists--the characters in search of an author, in my view, pose the same problem. In what way are they real? Whalen was one of the readers at the 1955 Gallery Six poetry reading in San Francisco that is considered a landmark in the Beat era. I have no objection to Whalen being called a Beat writer, as long as it doesn't mean that a poem he might write forty years later in the 1990s could have no importance. The label isn't completely meaningless. Like any metaphor, at some point it breaks down and has to be replaced by a different metaphor. He might then be an artist, a teacher, a monk, a lover, a "Christ-figure," a father-figure for a new generation. After the first wave of Beat popularity subsided, Whalen died to the world. But at the same time he was becoming a better writer. He was more alive spiritually.
Whalen was ordained a monk in the San Francisco Zen Center in the mid-1970s. I am not an expert on Buddhist beliefs. Despite explicit attachments Whalen made to Buddhism and his scrupulousness about them, in my view, it would be difficult to conclude from these well-crafted poems that Whalen was a conventional Buddhist. In the first place, religious beliefs are to some degree interior and individual. Whalen's diction is overall far from religious. Judging from the poems, especially as a collection, it would seem that Whalen was (is) at any rate a new type of Buddhist, a Beat Buddhist, a new type of religious person altogether, one whose beliefs go beyond religious forms (formal religion) to a more basic type of religious belief based on heightened feelings and perceptual freedom.
I got no intention fighting City Hall
Only the idea of it
And your depending on its rectitude, its strength
(it is your father, your mother?)
To lean upon, a church that confirms your belief in it
To ratify your own existence
In a poem titled "World Out of Control," Whalen writes:
Without my authorization, completely outside my plans
For the shape and color and temperature of the day
Water falls carelessly...
Whalen breaks through formal outlines with sharp, unexpected references, often to subjects such sex ("genital area" "loose balls") or food ("vomit").
Steak dinner, drunk hotel room,
free doughnut & coffee breakfast
In dealing with Whalen's religious identity one must not ignore the question of form in opposition to content. Whalen isn't anything identifiable. Whalen is an ordinary world sitting there pregnant with its perfection. Whalen is the beginning of "presence."
For the Modernists, Buddhism references multi-culturalism. T.S. Eliot, a devout member of the Church of England, used not Buddhist but Hindu texts in the end of The Wasteland to symbolize the advance of intelligence and understanding in civilization, what would be called today a "global vision." The poem ends, "shantih, shantih, shantih," often translated as "peace, peace, peace." Lines preceding these are in French and Italian, along with the line, "London bridge is falling down falling down falling down."
Both the Modernists and the Beats were attracted to cultural, historical artifacts (books, for example, such as the Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough or Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy ) that enabled them to consider and imagine streamlined, more mysterious and alternative realms, escaping to more interesting and settling dimensions. Their poetry and prose is sometimes similar to an archeological excavation. Through ancient human fragments, through fantastical scientific hypotheses, the artworks express a message of improbability and multiplicity that urges exploration rather than literal, restrictive, meager near-sightedness. In 20th century Western literary parlance, Buddhism, its strangeness, its alien quality, to some degree, signifies subjectivity, personal beliefs.
* * *
In her fine introduction, Leslie Scalapino tells us that she once asked Whalen if writing was the same as meditation. Whalen's answer was no. Whalen's poems are modern, informed by extensive reading. But they aren't esoteric. Their complexity is derived not from introspection but from their volume and from life itself. Actually they are descriptive. They have genius, but their surface is also mundane. They are a critique but not a criticism. Scalapino writes:
Whalen thus decreases the distance between us as spectators (readers) and phenomena by breaking down the separation one continually makes of oneself as ideas (one being outside phenomena) rather than being one's actions that are also continual and simultaneous with one's idea of these.
Scalapino considers the way Whalen's poetry breaks down barriers, especially between inner and outer. This could be seen as an influence of Buddhism. But William Carlos Williams and Objectivism would have just as credible a claim. Whalen gives us the sensual world, not concepts, not mind alone. Characteristically Whalen's references go from cars that don't corner well to warm night walks to a wickerwork chair to white shirt and necktie to cooling beer and melons in a trout stream. Scalapino uses the word "populist"; I would not omit "democratic." Norman Fischer, a Buddhist, in his review of the collected poems, calls Whalen an "American" writer.
One thing present in Whalen's poetry might be overlooked. Scalapino uses the term "time experiment." Whalen is aware of the notion of time-space. So that the reality he presents in his work is a deep reality, an early reality, constantly moving but essentially unchanging. This sort of depth is what enables Whalen to remain, except for a few unimportant blips, admirably unperturbed.
What is Whalen's religion? It wouldn't be too far wrong to say that Whalen's religion is the body, the corpus . "You/ may not call it love but that's what it is." Like many sets of objects (baseball games, for example, each played under the same rules but no two alike), Whalen's body, which he often calls "fat," is a miraculous combination of limit and endlessness. From Whalen we get the idea that religion doesn't proscribe behavior but rather aims at understanding it. The true religion is underneath everything, not concealing and promoting itself, not merely permitting but, without falseness, without denying itself, encouraging multiplicity, the exhaustive discourse of reality that can't help but search itself out in a way that does not deviate one iota from the truth.
Whalen's religion is the dialectic between worthless appearance and what is real. Whalen's guilt, to which he refers many times, is the measure of known forms contrasting still latent content. In the end, the body, the corpus is infinite just as God is infinite, with an infinity that problematizes absolutism. ("It is impossible to write in English about Japanese/ Persons, places and things") That is the meaning of Whalen's intermittent columns of words on opposing sides of the page. That is the justification for this extra-thick book and the crowded tumultuous mass of thoughtful poetry it contains.
* * *
Whalen left us in 2002. Where did he go? To the Elysian Fields? Nirvana? Alcatraz? Back to the Dalles in Oregon to walk forever beside the Columbia River? To worm food? Was he reincarnated as a bluebell in a mountain meadow or a damsel fly or, more likely, a Blue Whale splashing in the invigorating waters of the Northwest? And in what era?
Whalen's (and others'; Kerouac's especially?) end might also be a dialogue, a dolor that diverges to new happiness, to enlightenment about death. These Beat writers, these Bebop musicians, these Abstract Expressionists, these riders on the wild forties, fifties and sixties (and beyond) surf(aces) were (are) a fire that burned so beautifully and brightly that it seems inappropriate the fire should ever go out. One thing you would expect to be the case: "God is the god of the living not the dead." (I thought I saw Ezra Pound a couple of times in the late eighties in the Wichita library and attempted unsuccessfully to get photographic proof.) In Chapter 15, v. 24-26, of 1 Corinthians (Jerusalem Bible), the Apostle Paul writes:
After that will come the end,...having done away with every sovereignty, authority and power....and the last of the enemies to be destroyed is death....
Some familiar terms here. It seems to me the aesthetic battles that generous and committed writers like Philip Whalen fight and the discoveries that result are at the heart of this search for the "radical insights" of knowledge and perception that will someday lead everyone to an understanding that "destroys" death and uncovers the eternal triumph of life.
Where's my rubber ducky?
Where are my Elementary Particles?
All my life stole away by Time and Death.
S W O M P