IT'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.