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Reading Philip Whalen
I first read Philip Whalen's poetry in the late Spring of 1995. Although much of his work was out of print, I was lucky to find several used books in various San Francisco bookstores. The first one I picked up, entitled The Kindness of Strangers, was a collection of poems written from the mid 1960's through the early 70's. As a young poet new to the West Coast, I was unfamiliar with much of the work produced during the San Francisco Renaissance. Upon first reading Whalen's poetry I was drawn into the movement and range of his lines while simultaneously being thrown off balance. Associative leaps moved from the particular details of experience and perception to the distant echoes and ephemera of his memory. I came to understand that this is how he thinks against the mind, by organizing coherent poems from moments made of dissimilar compositional units in space and time. The sound in the work, conjoined with the poetic imagination, clarifies a voice that simultaneously diverges, pulling the outside in while pushing the internal habits, fetishes, desires, and personal interests to the poem's surface.|
What differentiates Whalen's writing from much of the post-structuralist poetics today is an adherence to observation. Rather than taking a conceptual approach to the social surface, Whalen structures the details of his reality and observations in a way that presents the world in its strangeness. He finds ways to express the mystery of daily reality through the equally mysterious process of perception. In a 1972 poem entitled "Weather Odes," he writes:
With a head full of sunlight |
What's killing you now?
No patience to sit and watch the ivy grow
No patience with sleep
Exhausted by a band of mare's tails
Moving down from the north
Right across the sky from west to east
(West is the beginning of Ocean)
In this brief passage about simply watching clouds pass through the sky, the poem's 'voice' articulates impatience, but is at the same time attentive to natural detail. The imagination lingers over the clouds, describing them as ivy or a band of mare's tails -- a colloquialism for cirrus clouds -- while the voice invoking the perception lingers with an uncomfortable sense of the moment, as though time was being wasted. The movement of these stanzas opens into the "beginning of Ocean," placing the reader beyond the poet's personal moment of internal anxiety and listlessness while connecting vast geographical landscapes within a frame of perception both narrow and broad in the topography of the poem. In the same piece, we read:
A head full of discontented screams, |
Roars, motor noises, rockets,
Extraterrestrial ray guns, dogs,
Chickens, carpenters, noon whistle (all the way from Stinson
population 84, an air-raid siren, just imagine!)
The blue sky clabbering up to rain?
The impatience of the previous stanza gives way to specific annoyances. But again, the details -- "discontented screams, roars, motor noises," -- reveal the landscape. The mind takes interest in the distractions, giving substance and position to the terrestrial landscape as clouds grow heavy with the possibility of rain. Details of place converge to form a mini-drama with the tension of the poet's restlessness and distractions. Due to the attention to detail and the care of the language, this drama of distraction holds the poem within a field of widening suggestion as the overtones reverberate to reveal something to the reader of process and attention, even within a moment of personal annoyance. The mysterious humor of the lines is formed by the listing of nouns that both comment on the moment and reverberate with echoes of a larger process which the poet himself, in the specific moment, is incapable of hearing. The poem moves outward to us through the very details that prevent the speaker from being left undisturbed. That a poem has been made at all from this suggests the nuanced positions Whalen seeks to identify in the process of poetic creativity. He allows the poem to reveal the thought and mood of the poet within a greater social and cosmological context. The poet is both irrelevant and necessary within the world of sight, sound, and event, for he must be there to record. The poem, however, might reveal things that escaped his initial observation. It actually hears more than the voice of expression. For through the juxtaposition of tone and object, the language lifts out from the speaker, from Whalen's mind, both revealing that particular mind, and its position in the process of composition.|
Philip Whalen, 1960s
photo Ken Walden
Whalen, at his best, draws out something larger than his own mind. There are multiple layers of consciousness working either with or against the other. A poem can sometimes lift up just to have the rug pulled out from under it in a kind of dead-pan humor. At other times, the objective world is transformed through the constellated presentation of perception. Whalen pieces together a dense world of observation. It is dense because he complicates it simply by being there. It is as though quantum mechanics took place at macrolevels of existence. His concerns with Mind and Perception recall Gertrude Stein, an early influence on his creative development. The narrative influence of Stein on Whalen was important. The sense of play, the often contradictory humor, and the sensitive attention paid to process are just some of the correlations between Whalen and that venerable modernist. There are, however, other similarities. Whalen often uses narrative in his poetry to convey a sense of place, time, and drama. Time's movement is conveyed by the syntax in both writers, with linear sequences abandoned for other formal possibilities. Like Stein's plays and portraits, Whalen's poetry uses language to set up certain dramatic expectations that he continually challenges and deconstructs. There is a fundamental inheritance, in many key ways, of Stein's process in the work of Philip Whalen. The key to understanding this is seen in the relationship both writers have towards composition. I do not mean to reduce Whalen to a single artistic source, for there are many others, most notably William Carlos Williams. Whalen, however, tends to think more philosophically than psychologically, and the reliance both writers have on composition, as the organizing field of perception, is important for understanding much of Whalen's work.
Whalen's generation was the first to inherit Stein and to make use of her fundamentally ground breaking moves in writing. For example, Whalen has a number of "Self-Portraits," and he continually makes depictions, or portraits, of the phenomenal world. Also, as I have mentioned, there is the strong narrative element in his poetry, as well as the play-like structure of his verse, which recalls Stein's poetic plays that read more like poems than theater. All of this must be kept in mind, but it is not my intention to go through each element systematically making my points. With Whalen, any system of reading will miss something of importance. The absurdity, or much of what seems simplistic on the surface, hides a more complex and thoughtful tension below the poem. There is also the added dimension of cosmological concerns in Whalen's work which Stein did not approach. Where she is fundamentally psychological and material, Whalen is philosophical and introspective.
In an early collection of poems called, Memoirs of an Interglacial Age, there are two self-portraits that reveal something of his process, shedding light on the other less accessible poems. In "Self-Portrait, from Another Direction," he writes:
Tuned in on my own frequency |
I watch myself looking
Lying abed late in the morning
With music, thinking of Y
These opening lines tell us almost all we need to know to get at the kernel of Whalen's work. His ability to observe himself in the action of observing, and to put this across in a poem, is central to his work and it is reminiscent of Stein. The difference, however, is that Whalen, in this case, puts himself in the center as subject rather than someone or something else. The action of observing and the varying states of awareness revealed through composition are the concerns of the poem. In the second stanza we read:
I think what is thinking |
What is that use or motion of the mind that compares with
A wink, the motion of the belly
Beside the highway
Young bullock savages the lower branches
of a big cedar tree
The self-consciousness in this poem processes the fundamental prejudice of Western dualism. Whalen answers his own question in its framing. The "use or motion of the mind" is to reveal itself, seeing parts of a self's complexity and flux that have been divided in the West since Descartes. He then moves his attention briefly away from his mind and body to the "young bullock beside the highway" that either gives the self in the poem a frame or reference, or functions as an extension of self through the self aware perception of the mind. The perception stems from his mind. He questions the distance between things and the gaps formed in the modern formulation of being. Due to the juxtaposition of these lines, the poem suggests that external things are a part of himself due to the intimate correlation of mind and phenomena processed through the self. The relationships between the mind, self, process, and external phenomena are woven tightly throughout this poem with a hyper-conscious awareness of language as medium for the will. Unlike Stein, Whalen's poetry often is directed in deliberate ways towards statements of philosophical or personal importance. Whalen's observations come out of objects talismanically, in a web of human complexity and complicity where the mystery of existence is pieced together. Stein meets the object and composes upon the material surface empirically and psychologically. In Whalen we read:
THOUGHT IS NOT SWIFT! |
perhaps the mind is slower than this pencil, its rate of motion
nearer that of the heartbeat --
moving slower than the head which turns
not as quick as a wink
It is the impulse to live and the will driving the self forward that drives this poem. This can be said of Whalen's other poems as well. The ability to think against thought, to listen to the larger potential and complexities of the human organism, and to provide the release of this understanding through language is necessary to comprehend the difficult FLUX Whalen sees depositing aspects of himself. Something about the process of composition allows both Whalen and Stein to show broad and difficult constructions of being through the swiftness of juxtaposition. Yet Whalen's poetry questions more than it presents, pulls back before offering any answer. His drive, or will, provides the necessary cohesion for a cosmological rather than a strictly psychological, philosophical, or social presentation of self. Later in "Self-Portrait, from Another Direction," he challenges conventional objectivity and empiricism. He writes:
POSSIBLE TRUE STATEMENTS ABOUT A REAL PIECE
Now it is falling.
Now it is there.
which we agree upon ...
What comes next?
The landslide has revealed
The bones of Adam protruding from the soil
A bronze door into Magic Land
Z. really was sore at me seven years ago in
Hollywood, which is the reason Sandra never
returned my umbrella, -- I see it all now ...
Behind the empirical domain of objective reality there is a historical prism of personal and cosmological significance. The humor and surprises we meet open the poem to aspects of memory and magic. Stein, modern science, and materialist poetics stop at the question: what does come next? Whalen answers with absurdities that double as possibilities within his poetic landscape. He adds the historical imagination through memory to the already complex ontology alluded to earlier in the poem. This historical dimension, however, further represents the function of the poetic will as it pieces together more than the observable. Whalen leaps into the fissures unobtainable by modern materialism. As the poem develops, he looks at himself within nature's borders and determines it inadequate to know his internal states.
Rain/wind bulging the window |
An Absolute, i.e. what we think of as
"an Absolute," "Force," "NATURE"
know nothing of my love, my mind
After reaching out into the external world, Whalen acknowledges the limitations imposed by nature. Knowledge differentiates himself from external phenomena. There exist thoughts, feelings, will, love, memory, and many other layers underneath his skin just as the rocks earlier hid ancient archeological potentials of knowledge. By the conclusion of the poem Whalen acknowledges the power of language and the process of composition as the talisman of understanding. He writes:
Any word you see here defies all fear doubt destruction ignorance & |
All the impossibilities unfavorable chance or luck
It will have overcome all my strength (the total power of a raging
self-hypnotized berserk missing one arm part of the entrails
running with incredible speed)
Superhuman force, an exorbitance --
slingstone hurled at a tangent to the circle
in which it lately whirled
zipping off in high-speed parabola
Into the mirror (NOW showing many men) all of them "I"
The processes of composition defy the internal emotional terrain of the person. This concept of "I" represents a Whitmanesque multiplicity of potential governed by will, nature, emotion, and thought thinking against itself through the language of poetic composition. Language, as the production of body meeting the mind in response to pressure perceived in the West as external and internal, becomes the unifying force through which diverse elements meet. Although Whalen reaches for mythic revelation through the word he captures the evasiveness and uncertainty of perception's role in knowledge. And while it is his will to be revealed through the process of poetry he struggles with the given formulations of how we know and imagine in the West.|
In "Self-Portrait Sad 22:ix:58," Whalen uses himself as subject matter in all of its varying complexities, with the additional burden of sadness. This is a poem about self-acceptance. His thematic concerns of Mind, Body, and Perception remain central to the piece, but the emotional element further complicates the poem, giving it a rich and difficult interiority not as readily evident in the other Self-Portrait. I've discussed many of the philosophical aspects of Whalen's work in "Self-Portrait, from Another Direction," but perhaps Lew Welch put it best in a letter to Whalen dated September 2, 1957. He writes:
You have the curious ability to make one think that a mind has been slowed down, or speeded up, until perception is going at the exact pace of things. The impression is like a stroboscope on a hi-fi ... What happens [to the image] is the important thing, let someone with nothing else to do figure out the why. It won't be there, then, anyway. || |
As a poem of self-acceptance and self-pity, "Self-Portrait Sad," presents a more vulnerable side of Whalen's ability as a poet. The poem is transformative and regenerative in its shamanic scope and its endeavor to heal.
At last I realize my true position: hovering face down above the |
(At this point the Pacific Coast of The United States)
A second rate well finished nothing too much wrong with it but
not too interesting
He positions himself from above, as though he were a bird observing the American coast and landscape below. This poem reveals also a person new to a place, as though the very strangeness of being new and unfamiliar with place imposes a distance between the observer and the landscape. In September of 1957, Whalen moved to Newport, Oregon to work as a circuit court bailiff. Whalen would remain in relative isolation for two years in this small fishing and logging village situated on the Oregon coast. His loneliness is certainly the reason for the sad tone of the poem. But his sadness is self mocking also when he writes:
& now the tree's cut down |
I was never good at throwing rocks to knock down
Pods from it anyway, horsechestnuts
Cold calsomine smell, solid chunks of brown watered-
or decorate with a pocket knife
DOTE DOTE DOTE
The ability to observe the self with humor in times of stress and isolation serves Whalen's poetry well and shows this to be one of his greatest strengths as a poet. His range and tone are quick and widespread. The ontological and spiritual aspects of his poetry can suddenly take quick shifts into the absurd or self-mocking. The thoughts and drive of the poem often double back, putting the original emphasis of the poem in question. The moves Whalen makes in his work are calculated, through the daily practices of observation, to confound and question the intentions of the poem. This balance of keen philosophical acumen, and the ability to laugh at himself, allows the poems to reach out into the world of things with authority, while the depths of Whalen's internal solitude are revealed through this process of listening. It is about listening to himself listening to the world. And when one is sad, when the heart is broken, it is also open. It is open for growth and change. The perceptions heighten as the world shimmers in its magnanimity. The language of the poem itself shimmers with a colloquial life traced out of childhood memory and the rural surroundings of Western Oregon. He writes:
There is a boardinghouse |
Far far away
Where they serve hash & beans
O how those boarders yell
When they hear that dinnerbell
O how the boarders yell
Far far away
The sad, yearning tone of this song echoes with sentimental longing while rejoicing in the provocative English of the American West. Whalen rarely lets you forget where he is situated. Coastlines are detailed, the location of mountains is given, and descriptions of landscape and city appear throughout his work. He places himself in a way quite opposite of Stein who examines the detail of place to the point of abstraction, which is something quite different from observation of one's surroundings. Observation seeks to make sense of place, emotion, and being by allowing the senses freedom to perceive the complexities of the world. Examination assumes there is nothing there until inspected in its smallest details. Whalen is able to step out and look from the distance and to occupy also the closer ranges of detailed perception. By the end of "Self-Portrait Sad," he has made a peace with himself and the new place in which he will live out the next two years. He identifies with a sea bird, writing:
You are the ones walking around inside your shells, I soar |
Face down high above the shore & sea
Ho ho, skreak, &c.
Come live on salmon & grow wise!
He makes the shamanic transformation into the nature of a bird that will provide him strength, nourishment, and wisdom. The process gives him awareness while listening to his immediate landscape, echoes of past memory, historical, and spiritual aspects of place and self. The broken heart and the sharpened mind meet as the greater divinity of process mediates these diverse elements through a colloquial voice. This voice carries the past and present, the future becoming the possibility of expression through poetic imagination.|
Philip Whalen, 1960s - photo Ken Walden, from the back cover of «On Bear's Head», 1969; courtesy Dale Smith
Philip Whalen's Selected Poems will be available in the spring from Penguin. Poems quoted in this essay
are from Heavy Breathing, Four Seasons, 1983, and On Bear's Head, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969.
You can read the special Philip Whalen feature in Jacket # 11, including Dale Smith's Introduction.
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