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Anselm Berrigan

Transmissions: on Philip Whalen's Overtime


"We can't easily imagine another world/ This one being barely/ Visible"

"The business of this world/ is to deceive/ but it is never deceived"

"I know the world and I love it too much and it/ Is not the one I'd find outside this door."

"I want to be a world, not just another/ American tinky poetty-boo"

Philip Whalen

THE PUBLICATION last spring of Philip Whalen's Selected Poems was a major event for several reasons, foremost among them the fact that very little of Whalen's poetry was even in print until Overtime came down the line. This new selection fills a gaping hole in the material universe, not to mention poetryland, by making Whalen's various takes on various worlds, as conveyed through the mind-and-sense altering abilities of his poetry, readily available to the interested masses. To readers versed in contemporary poetry but unfamiliar with Whalen, and to readers who don't give a hoot about contemporary poetry for that matter, Overtime might provide a real shock to the system: i.e., "What is he doing?" and "How is he doing it?" Few American poets have created a body of work that so dazzlingly, and humorously, transforms consciousness into poetry.


A poet who simultaneously wants freedom for and from everybody, Whalen's writing has completely resisted the terms of American social and literary engagement that have been set down as unspoken law this century: "Scratch an American and find a cop. There is no/ Generation gap." Consequently his poems are formally open-ended, free of self-promotion and self-absorption (though not by giving up the complexity of his "I"), unafraid of embarrassment, and accessible to multiple levels of perception, as evident in this passage from "The Slop Barrel: Slices of the Paideuma for All Sentient Beings":


The sun has failed entirely
Mountains no longer convince
The technician asks me every morning
"Whattaya know?" and I am
Unless I ask I am not alive
Until I find out who is asking
I am only half alive and there is only


(An ingrown toenail?)


(A harvest of bats??)


(A row of pink potted geraniums///???)

                                                smashed flat!!!
The tonga-walla swerved, the cyclist leapt and
The bicycle folded under the wheels before they stopped
The tonga-walla cursing in Bengali while the outraged
Cyclist sullenly repeats:

You knows you got to pay for the motherfucker
You knows you got to pay for the motherfucker

The bells have stopped
Flash in the wind
Dog in the pond.
Whalen makes the transmission of consciousness both form and subject in his poetry, an achievement that at once links his poems together as one long work and renders those links invisible, while allowing all kinds of other matter to flow into his poems — poverty, food, art, friendship, music, geography, war, and Zen Buddhist(as well as ordinary) philosophy are a few of his recurring subjects-as-occurrences. Reading Whalen's poems outloud especially demonstrates to the ear how variously they move: the assemblages of colloquial phrasings as ongoing registers of thought ("A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines," the notion Leslie Scalapino adeptly hones in on in her introduction to Overtime) creating a surface for Whalen's sense of music as form; "a form that happens in time" as he put it in a 1975 interview with Anne Waldman. Scalapino rightly points out that "reading or listening to Whalen's poetry, one doesn't have to 'figure it out,'" and, by extension, one is also freed from the rigidity of having to figure out what it's 'about'.

Whalen's work is sometimes described as high-end journal writing - an analysis that somewhat misses the point by reducing the work purely to terms of artifice. Poetry as in tune with the mind's processes as Whalen's is generally beyond the semantics of such terms, but Whalen's formal breakthrough is so total (he often seems to be inventing a new form with each poem), and his manner so offhanded and unconcerned with itself, that the ease with which his poems move can avert readers from their wisdom and intellect: "There's not an owl in the world who thinks or knows/ I am an owl." This is a sensibility that manages to be gentle and independent, extremely rare traits in combination but, nevertheless, recognized by the author as commonly attainable: "Pleasure, pain, and recollection are events inside the brain;/ their 'outside' location (please scratch my back) an illusion?"

There's a tendency in literary circles to overplay the importance of lineage and influence, a long-standing trend that perpetuates the myth of writer-as-figure looming over time as well as ordinary lives. Whalen's tones are utterly resistant to creating such authority, understanding that no one needs to have their consciousness dominated by a figure, poetic or otherwise, and thus have any development towards independent thought pre-supposed and crippled. That being said, Whalen is generous in his allusions to, and naming of, the community of artists, musicians, and writers past and contemporary whose work has informed his own (beyond his well-known Beat and SF Renaissance contemporaries). As well, it should be pointed out that Whalen's work has been cited as important to their own by poets as radical, and radically distinct from one another, as Leslie Scalapino, Anne Waldman, and Alice Notley, among many others.

Michael Rothenberg's diligent editorial work - he read upwards of five hundred poems aloud to Whalen, who suffers from glaucoma and is legally blind, in order to create the most well-rounded Selected — should be applauded. At the same time, there's certainly room for more of Whalen's poetry to re-emerge in print, in particular much of the work in On Bear's Head that isn't reprinted. There's much more to say about Whalen's poetry, not least of which being his use of cut-up techniques, his walking eye, and his deep exploration of Zen, but these are things readers can investigate themselves, and much more extensively than they would have been able to previously, thanks to the timely creation of this sorely needed book.


Anselm Berrigan 1999
Anselm Berrigan is a New York poet.
You can read Dale Smith's review of Anselm Berrigan's Integrity & Dramatic Life in Jacket # 8.

You can read Tom Clark's review of Overtime in Jacket # 7.

Photo: Anselm Berrigan at the Double Happiness Bar, Mott Street, New York City, October 1999, copyright © John Tranter


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