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OVERTIME: Selected Poems, by Philip Whalen

Reviewed by Tom Clark

edited by Michael Rothenberg; introduction by Leslie Scalapino Penguin; 311 pages; $16.95, ISBN 014058918X

You can read a feature on Philip Whalen in Jacket # 11.


Philip Whalen's «Overtime» regathers many hard-to-find poems of a venerable reclusive Zen master, cosmic wit, Beat original and surviving philosopher-perpetrator of the San Francisco poetry renaissance.
      The present selection from over thirty years of Whalen's published poetic writings (from the Fifties into the Eighties) follows a strict chronological track, sequencing poems in the 'continuous fabric (nerve movie)' [proof p. 105] Whalen seems to have originally intended. This time-log construction, emphasizing the stream-of-consciousness element in Whalen's approach to poetry, produces a book that in tracking three decades of the poet-wanderer's itinerant composition also inscribes the interior history of a very interesting mind.
      The composing process and the narrative of the poetry, for Whalen, are often precariously elided, as he admitted in a deceptively lighthearted 1964 squib titled 'Composition': 'I tetter I dangle I jingle / Fidget with my fingers ears and nose / Make little repairs - tape or glue / And the floor is filthy again.' [p. 95]. The poet's candid admission of a rather regressive noodling or doodling as creative procedure is characteristic of his disarmingly self-deflating comedy.
      Whalen's poetic strategy of inspired puttering seems to have derived in part from the spontaneous notation method of his friend Jack Kerouac, though in the polymathic scholar-poet's hands the instinct machine runs in an entirely different gear. While Kerouac heads out, Whalen tends to circle around slowly and return to certain obsessive themes and rhythms. His formal universe, as he advises John Cage in the poem quoted above, is not really unbounded space, but, like a tuned piano's, a "closed system."


Philip Whalen - from the book jacket

Philip Whalen
Whalen's finicky, self-conscious, urbane, pointillist sketching features high detail-resolution. A patient reader will pick up on brilliant perceptual moments of stillness, clarity and depth that accumulate small shocks in contemplative micro-spaces. That unexpected, instantaneous "shift from opacity to brilliance" Whalen speaks of in his firewatching poem "Sourdough Mountain Lookout" encapsulates his stylistic signature: "The Zenbos say, 'Lightning-flash & flint-spark.' " [p. 20].
      A self-acknowledged tendency to "bald-faced didacticism" in "moving from the particular to the general" [p. 50] sometimes pushes the vividly articulated moments of Whalen's poetry over the edge of their synapses toward wisdom, or beyond themselves into philosophical enlargement. The teacher in this poet lurks never too far beneath the surface of the amused or bemused observer.
      Yet even the most generalizing of Whalen's poems has a way of turning itself inside-out with a deft, koan-like touch, as in "The Dharma Youth League," a small account of sudden enlightenment-within-confusion written in Kyoto in 1966:

I went to visit several thousand gold buddhas
They sat there all through the war, --
They didn't appear just now because I happened to be in town
Sat there six hundred years. Failures.
Does Buddha fail. Do I.
Some day I guess I'll never learn. [p. 172]

However ironically self-distanced, Whalen's poems are haunted by an odd tone of disappointment, which lingers as a kind of shade around the focused light of many long, monastic 'single room in the city' nights. [p. 50]. The Whalen writing persona is lonely by fate, not by choice, and the sense of failure seems to have to do not with fame or success but with an inability to finally catch up with his poetry's elusive, magnetic Muse.
Philip Whalen
Philip Whalen, 1960s
photo Ken Walden
from the back cover of «On Bear's Head», 1969
courtesy Dale Smith


      Half metaphor and half real if anonymous woman, this tantalizing Muse-figure, beckoning from behind a veil in the 1958 "Complaint: To the Muse" and from beyond an ocean of thought in the 1969 "Scenes of Life at the Capital," is finally encountered up close in Whalen's 1971 Bolinas poems, prevailing over the local poets' landscape like a cross between a beguiling Circe and a garrulous Fairy Queen, "babbling on without making any sense at all." [p. 229].
      The poet's Missing Muse, source of extended provocative absences and occasional, empty-headed yet spellbinding, 'MAGNIFICENT' presence [p. 229], is the secret heroine as well as the sublime enabler of «Overtime». A reader who'd like to hear more about her might look up early Whalen collections, or the 1959 Grove Press «New American Poetry» to discover her origins in love poems mysteriously excluded from this selection.
      By turns tender, teasing, crochety and doting, Philip Whalen's invocations of his alluring screwball goddess go a long way toward developing his work's cranky, vulnerable, eccentric, withdrawing bachelor persona. Addressing her with an adoring mock-annoyance that curiously recalls Swift's writings to his beloved Stella, this flopped-out, self-deprecating hipster-bodhisattva with wine glass and joint, scribbling in his monkish cabin by the light of an ancient Chinese moon, remains perhaps the finest comic creation of the Beat era.

Tom Clark's latest poetry book is White Thought (Hard Press/The Figures)


Philip Whalen
Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis
I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words.
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
                        splashed picture - bug, leaf,
                        caricature of Teacher
          on paper held together now by little more than ink
          & their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it -
Cheered as it whizzed by -
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.

(from OVERTIME: Selected Poems by Philip Whalen)


You can read two poems by Tom Clark in Jacket # 3,
Dale Smith's review of his novel «White Thought» in Jacket # 4,
and three poems by Tom Clark in Jacket # 9.


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