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J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


Dale Smith

Philip Whalen: An Introduction


T'S DIFFICULT to write about the prolific work of Philip Whalen, the retiring Buddhist abbot and Beatnik whose poems "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," "2 Variations: All About Love" and others entered the historical imagination through Donald Allen's The New American Poetry. Reading his books - On Bear's Head, Scenes of Life From The Capital, or Heavy Breathing, to name a few - is pure, highgrade fun, and offers a chronological roller coaster ride through the mind and moods of a master poet. But to address the work itself, to speak of it critically, or to answer its more subtle demands, becomes a great difficulty.

Whalen brings his work so close to the surface of life - life as it happens, with all of the annoyances, minor joys and sudden wake-up calls - that it's probably best to leave the poems alone, sparing them the reductive evaluation of the critic's inquiry.

But as poets, Beat fans, Buddhists and others joined last year to celebrate the long over-due volume of his selected poems, Overtime, Whalen's work demanded a second look.

It's ironic that anyone would attempt to label Whalen's rich and varied poetic achievement. His work presents the perceptual artifact of one man's creative energy. While he is Boswellian in detail, the language moves with weird delight, offering a treasure of subjective phenomena. By turns cranky, amused, hungry or sated with experience, the poems remain uniquely personal and transformative. Rather than presenting poetry with lyric sensitivity, he uses the poem as a field, or graph, on which he arranges discrete phenomena.

"This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving," he once stated, "which is a world body being here and now which is history . . . and you." This graph, as opposed to the field offered by Charles Olson, is phenomenological rather than visionary. "Whalen isn't describing a subject," writes Leslie Scalapino in her introduction to the new book. "It's not 'about' something - rather, the writing is the mind's operations per se." The writing also is produced by the body's physical presence, its mood-altering rhythms as they broaden or narrow the mind. Whalen's poetics is of process and integration. He is practical and observant, attendant to the parts that form experience.


Philip Whalen

Philip Whalen


This Beatnik, whose literary peers included Lew Welch, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger and Jack Kerouac, has studied or practiced Buddhism since the 1950s. (An early portrait can be found in Kerouac's Dharma Bums). It's here where the collision (or collusion) between Beat rebel and religious mendicant informs our perceptions of the poems; works that are, according to Scalapino, essentially "nonrepresentational." Still, there are striking images in the poems, and an assertive poetic voice. The poems are less conceptual than perhaps she claims, and reveal a poetic consciousness that is attentive to close perceptions of personal and local origin.

Unfortunately, since his poetry is so iconoclastic, personal and woven into the phenomena of experience, there's a temptation by critics, editors and fans to reduce the work to fit their own needs. While he is collected in anthologies of Beat writing, his last book, Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek(1996), marketed a selection of diverse poems under a Buddhist banner. In Michael Rothenberg's rich and varied Overtime selection, the blend of Beat and Buddhism is complicated by Scalapino's introduction. But her own not-so-subtle claims on Whalen narrow his complex literary achievement to a conceptual and non-representational poetics, rather than identifying it as an exact presentation of his imagination in the tradition of William Carlos Williams.

But ultimately, it's up to each reader to define their own relationship to Whalen's poetry. The essays presented in this feature vary, moving between critical evaluations within modernism (Paul Christensen), a proposal for a study of Whalen in context of American letters (Tom Devaney) and reviews of Overtime (Anselm Berrigan and Lewis MacAdams). David Schneider's recollection and Bill Berkson's brief memoir/ letter present personal accounts, while David Meltzer's engaging interview gathers the history that gives personal and cultural contexts to nearly half a century's poetic achievements. I am grateful for all of these pieces, and for others here who were willing to stop their own lives long enough to consider Whalen's complicated work.

Hopefully this feature will introduce new readers to his poetry, raise new questions, inspire, prod, tease and connect the disparate threads and recurring elements that have been of continued surprise and delight to students of poetry since the 1950s. I hope by this occasion not to "solve any problems or answer any questions," as Whalen says about his own poetics, but to engage this rare voice. "How do you like your world?"

Dale Smith is the editor of Skanky Possum

You can read his informative article Reading Philip Whalen in Jacket # 5.

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