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Tom Devaney

An Introduction to reading the poetry of Philip Whalen


The poetry of Philip Whalen is a poetry of the mind; it is an American poetry; it is what William Carlos Williams writes, a "new form dealt with as a reality in itself." Williams goes on, "the form of poetry is related to the movement of the imagination revealed in words - or whatever it may be - ". The link between Williams and Whalen is significant and the differences between the two are significant; I deal with both briefly - there is enough material for a book (at the end of this essay I propose one).

I also ask what the best questions are to most appreciate Whalen's significant range of interest and his consistent daring of new forms (in sum) suggesting something of his large spirit and overall achievement, which is understood by far too few.

There is a notion (in mainstream American poetry) that Whalen is an overly demanding or difficult poet. Whalen's poetry has its demands. Something about looking at it (not even reading) may suggest work that seems more difficult than it need to be. One assumption, which I hope to dispel, is the nagging suspicion that there must be all kinds of "hidden meanings" in the complex topographies of these poems.


Philip Whalen - from the book jacket of <i>Overtime - Selected Poems</i>

Philip Whalen

In the useful Introduction to Penguin's 1999 Overtime - Selected Poems finely edited by poet Michael Rothenberg, Leslie Scalapino writes, "Whalen not only posits the poetry to be a graph of the mind moving, but he contrives to break that mind apart: writing is to make no connection as it's being in the instant of and being the act of disjunction." (You can read Tom Clark's review of this book in Jacket # 7.)

While I believe that if Scalapino and I sat down to discuss this point we would probably agree more than disagree, I still would question the view that Whalen's poetry "contrives to break" the "mind apart."

I would also not say that Whalen's poetry makes "no connections in it's being in the instant of disjunction." It is true, that the logic isn't linear, but each poem has its own logic and set of rules that it follows. The term "disjunctive" is useful to describe Whalen's poetry in the sense that the stanzas leap and jump, but that doesn't mean that there are "no connections." The work is a network of connections, which attract and spawn more. The poetry often feels right-on to my sense of what feels real. When I say "real" I mean that which corresponds to what has happened in my own experiences (including all mediations: books, media, gut feelings, etc.).

For me, the tendency in Whalen's poetry is to be available, and in fact loyal to, the contours of how his mind is moving, while forgrounding how it is both overlaid and synthesized with his outer realties. He writes in the well known poem "Sourdough Mountain Lookout":

What we see of the world is the mind's
Invention and the mind
Though stained by it, becoming
Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies -
Can shift instantly
A dirty bird in a square time
Still, I am not trying to normalize Whalen's serious achievement, but I would suggest that his language is remarkably lucid in relation to the states of consciousness he is able to capture or sometimes enact in the language. Given that challenge, it is my own view that the work (with its mysteries, demands and poetry itself) is rather clear and direct. Like many significant and demanding writers Whalen teaches you how to read his poetry.

While his range of references is vast, and formally he may be unorthodox, the poems still move in a way that invites you in rather than pushing you away with its disjunction. "Further Notice" is a well-known lyric.
I can't live in this world
And I refuse to kill myself
Or let you kill me

The dill plant lives, the airplane
My alarm clock, this ink
I won't go away

I shall be myself -
Free, a genius, an embarrassment
Like the Indian, the buffalo

Like Yellowstone National Park.
Whalen accomplishes what great art often achieves. He awakens our attention to the ordinary by making poems so careful and mindful that they almost seem like natural facts instead of something made. Like an actor, you don't think while watching one: "Wow, they're really great - they're really acting well." If you do, they've drawn your attention away from one thing to make you conscious of something else, unless that's what they want to do, which is a different story. Whalen's poetry doesn't draw attention to itself, but brings readers further in, so we become  conscious of his consciousness, but unconscious of the writing.

Whalen further complicates this "not drawing attention to himself business" because (visually speaking) the poems look so unorthodox. Whalen's use of space on the page, and the many breaks between stanzas, is unique among American writers. Further, I do not know any other writer who can get away with using CAPS as he does. Despite all this, the poems work in a way that are not showy, loud or needlessly tugging at our sleeve to make sure we "GET IT."

The poetry is surprisingly consistent in that the more you read the less conscious you become that you are in fact reading. One reason for this is that the poems are written and made from "a good head space." To put it in a phrase, He's cleared his head so he (and by extension we) can Hear his head. Section IV of "The Slop Barrel":

The pen forms the letters
Their shape is in the muscles
Of my hand and arm

Bells in the air!

At this distance the overtone
Fourth above the fundamental
Carries louder
Distorting the melody just enough
To make it unrecognizable


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///???)
The poem, along with many others, deals with an abundance of perceptions, but at the same time the writing never feels excessive. This poem calls for me to qualify the assertion that Whalen is chiefly a poet of the mind - unless we expand the notion of what "the mind" can mean. Here I begin to get out of my depths wading into raging Philosophical disputes concerning mind and body (physical) distinctions, and beyond (see the writings of Richard Rorty for a comprehensive treatment of the debate). It is worth mentioning that while many of Whalen's poems may be philosophical, he does not practice Philosophy in his poems. Just as much of Nietzsche's writings are poetic, they still are not poetry.

Whalen's poetry makes the reader aware that the mental-physical distinction is unbridgeable. In fact, Whalen pokes fun at the whole gigantic Cartesian and even anti-Cartesian philosophic inheritance. See the poems "Life and Death and a Letter to My Mother Beyond Them Both" and the poem "T/O" which ends:
Pleasure, pain and recollection are events inside the brain;
their "outside" location (please scratch my back) an illusion?
The poetry has a physical impact and nature in that it wraps itself around anything his mind can take hold of. It is a mind that is both highly comprehensive - learned, and specific - localized. There are no universals in the poetry, but instead Whalen supplies many ununiversal universes. "The Slop Barrel" ends
                                                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.
Though structurally loser Whalen's On Bear's Head stands on par with Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Williams' Paterson and other complex long and significant American poems (Olson's Maximus, and Notley's The Descent of Alette); this is the mixed-bag of what I call "Epic American Idioms." In Whalen, the poetry is a continuous interplay of prose, verse, historical fragments and native speech shaping and genre-shifting their idiomatic presence towards the real. Epic poetry means epic stakes. There's something that will not be contained in the form as used by American writers named above. This abundance (or excess) can be found in On Bear's Head, but at the same time, the writing is not lost in the dross of life.

Instead, Whalen makes subtle and precise poems enacting various states of consciousness and perceptions. The poetry is large without seeming large. It seems large before you read it, and it is larger after you read it, but while you're reading it's many things: local, approachable, wonderfully crabby, acute, mad and (often) right-on. In the much cited prose poem "The Preface," Whalen writes:
A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines - "continuous" within a certain time-limit, say a few hours of total attention and pleasure:
There is a mystery in the poetry of Philip Whalen. There are also a great many secrets. The mysteries and secrets are one of the elements that contribute to making the poetry great and they are the very things that won't hold together in an essay. I will not deal with them directly, but they're there and will always be. Perhaps part of the mystery is revealed in the prose poem "Secret," Whalen writes:

The  great secret books are available to all. There are copies in most libraries; they can be bought in cheap paper editions. However accessible, they are still secret books. The careless, the casual, the thoughtless reader will come away from them no wiser than he was before. The really secret books are dictated to me by my own ears and I write down what they say.


One secret to reading Whalen might also be suggested by the poet Ted Greenwald. He told me, "The great thing about Philip is there are no memorable lines; It's subliminal." While writing this essay I mentioned this point to several poets. Poet John McNally's response to this was, "It's poetry that's beyond the poem, and you can't remember a fucking word of it; but it's great."

Gary Sullivan seemed to agree, but immediately quoted Whalen saying, "I HAVE TO GO TO THE LIBRARY." Then he said, "I think I know what he [Greenwald] means. I love Whalen because he's never monumental."

When I mentioned this point to poet Ed Berrigan he was able to quote lines from Whalen on-the-spot, although I was in no state to recall any of them, but still this seemed to contradict Greenwald.

Still, there is something to Greenwald's general point. My qualifications would be several: 1.) Lines I do remember tend to be from the poems that are more prose-based, 2.) I remember many of the titles, and 3.)  While the lines may not stick (no quotable quotes), the poetry remains. Whalen's poetry has the opposite effect of ad language; that is, it's highly unco-optable.

The notion of "music" is a key point for reading Whalen's poetry. There is the music of the mind, which is not neo-platonic, but what he actually hears in his head; And, there is the music of Whalen's language. Whalen has an impeccable sense for music in all of the strains of native speech and beyond. His ear (coupled with his command of the language) is so acute that much of the poetry becomes transparent. The "transparency" may be another reason why the language both locks-in but doesn't overly assert itself. Whalen's thoughts on music help us understand and better read his poetry. In "The Ode to Music," he writes:
The fingers that hear it as it happens
As it is being made, Thelonious Monk
"has the music going on all the time," AG told me
"You hear it while he's at the piano,
you see him listening to it when he's out walking around
it's going all the time."
I would say the same thing of Whalen. It's going all the time, "continuous nerve movie." It is the kind of music Mozart heard as depicted in the movie "Amadeus." He conceives of whole pieces at once; he hears all the parts equally - with precision and clarity. I close this essay from another section in "The Ode to Music." Whalen writes:
The best music I make myself, with a piano, or borrow
                          A pipe organ
(People think the elephant bells beside my door
are purely decorative:
                                 wait until you hear my concerto)
Quiet seriously the best is my own
Heard in a dream, I conduct a total orchestra
                 (from the podium or from the organ console)
A gigantic auditorium (is there an audience?)
I wonder if all that
                              can be heard by other beings -
people from other stars or maybe sea-beast,
                                 just beyond our shore

While I sleep in stillness

I WILL END my introduction by proposing the outline for a book on Whalen. It places his poetry mostly in an American context - despite and because of various influences: eastern and western classical texts. I'll list the table of contents for that book and offer a brief overview of possible discussions in each chapter. Some of the chapters could be their own books.


See above essay, "An Introduction to reading the poetry of PW."

I. Whitman, Melville & Whalen: Epic American Idioms

¶   Connections between: Leaves of Grass, Moby-Dick, and On Bear's Head. This chapter (or book) would also discuss Whalen's Scenes of Life at the Capital, Olson's Maximus, and Notley's The Descent of Alette.

¶   A few random connections between Melville and Whalen help to understand something of Whalen's achievement and slow acceptance. The comparison: the amount and kind of attention both writers received during their lifetimes. Melville's texts (even though his "great writer" status is unshakable) are still sometimes approached with a sense of too much pause because of his reputation for being difficult. This can be discouraging. One professor scared the shit out of me before reading Moby-Dick. I remember more of How, rather than What she actually said. Her eyes were set at a distant point, her tone was battle-weary, and the look on her face (and I can only imagine of all the students) was one of dread and depression. What she said was, "Melville is the toughest thing you're ever going to read, some people even get sea sick reading him; good luck." Despite the warnings, when I sat down to read Moby-Dick I was suprised just how "readable" it was, and more importantly - how totally there and funny and human and everything the work really is. I feel the same way about Whalen.

II. Whalen & Williams: Epic Idioms continued

¶   Segue to discussion & connections with "Paterson."
¶   Poetic inheritance, "Modernism," and vitality.

III. Whalen & Williams: Movement of the Imagination Revealed in Words

¶   Formal concerns ("Spring And All") & variable foot.
¶   American idiom ("Atta boy! Atta boy!") & Whalen's Native Speech.
¶   Emphasize, stress, and show "a reciprocity of illumination" between Williams and Whalen. That is, we not only need Williams to understand Whalen, but we need Whalen to understand Williams. See among others Whalen's: "Plums, Metaphysics, an Investigation, A Visit, and a Short Funeral Ode."
¶   I believe that above stated idea is actually true for most of the subjects I would discuss in this book including: Asian religions, the Beats, and American writing in general. Many scholarly books miss a great deal in the drive to put a writer in "context." Understanding key facts and influences (contextualizing) Whalen does aid and illuminate our understanding of the poems, but I would take this point a step further by saying that we need Whalen to understand them as much as we need them to understand him. This would most likely be my central claim.

IV. Whalen & Asian religions:

¶   For starters the writings of D.T. Suzuki & Zen Buddhism.
¶   I would end this chapter quoting Joanne Kyger's wonderful poem "Philip Whalen's Hat." The poem distinguishes Whalen's personalized, brilliant, and humorous both kitch and otherwise American Zen. Kyger writes:
I woke up about 2:30 this morning and thought about Philip's
           It is bright lemon yellow, with a little brim
           all the way around, and a lime green hat band, printed
           with tropical plants.
                                 It sits on top
           of his shaved head. It upstages every thing & every body.
He bought it at Walgreen's himself.
I mean it fortunately wasn't a gift from an admirer.
Otherwise he is dressed in soft blues. And in his hands
moving. I ask him which mantra he is doing - but he tells me
in Zen, you don't have to bother with any of that.
You can just play with the beads.
V. Whalen, Synder & Thoreau: Art's Nature & A "Vital Heat"

¶   Whalen & Thoreau are steeped in classical writings - Thoreau's Greek, Roman, English - and the sacred writings of the Hindus. Connection with Asian religions should continue in this chapter.
¶   Explore an expansive idea of "translation"; this idea is also connected to the problems and joys of trying to have an "original relationship with the universe" and nature.
¶   A "vital heat" is from Walden.
¶   (A connection could be made between Native American Oral poetries and Whalen's relationship with the natural world. This last discussion may be too specific for this book, but it is worth mentioning and exploring at some point.)

VI. Whalen & the Beats

¶   Several chapters on this, or its own book. Scads of material here; The Beats were so self-conscious about documentation; a curious connection with the last point: "Whalen's 'mental' documentations."

VII. Whalen & some writers from the 1970's

¶   Berrigan, Coolidge, Waldman, Padget, Warsh, Notley, Clark, Scalapino & others.
¶   This chapter could be short or long, but it would discuss how these writers understand, absorbed and amplified Whalen's achievement.

VIII. Never-ending mindfulness: Whalen & Einstein

¶   I would put this chapter in to help sell the book. It is not really about Einstein, but it uses him in the most superficial way to bring home some points about Whalen's fierce intelligence. In America, one has to compensate for being too smart by either being or getting rich, or by getting out. See the great poem: "If you're so smart why ain't you rich?"
¶   In the end, this chapter will be edited out of the book, but you or I, or whoever writes it will have a lot of stimulating conversations that may very well unearth other directions for discussion.

IX. The complaint for humor, beauty & music

¶   In the right hands honest and genuine dissatisfaction can be very satisfying; much of the poetry in Whalen's poems is compelled by this.
"You say you're all right
Everything's all right
Am I supposed to be content with that?"
           - "The Slop Barrel" (part II)
I've also always loved this stanza from "Letter, to Michael McClure." He writes:
I heard a man put it plain and nasty:
      "I'm practicing bending over further and further every
      day so that when I see that flash I'll be able to lean
      over and kiss my ass goodbye."


Tom Devaney (photo, below) is the author of The American Pragmatist Fell In Love (Banshee Press, 1999). His prose has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Review, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Poetry Flash, and Poets & Writers. His poetry is included in American Poetry: The Next Generation and the catalogue for the show "Greater New York" at the P.S.1 art-space.

Tom Devaney


J A C K E T  # 11 
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