Not knowing the full breadth and depth of Philip Whalen’s work, although having reread Whalen’s Overtime for weeks previous, I anxiously awaited Michael Rothenberg’s care package remembering his words: ‘This is something special, really hip, essential.’ This, as it turns out, is the case and even more so. Philip Whalen’s Goofbook is like sitting in the same room with Whalen and Kerouac, listening in to a conversation that sparkles and enlightens like a rare jewel of literature. Although, Whalen probably never intended for this book to be considered ‘literature’ in the stuffy, stagnant, academic, sense of the word.
It is to me the purest poetry, because each line is sharpened and condensed, rife with idiosyncratic meaning, no matter how unkempt the presentation. Sifting through its marvelous pages is a glimpse into the inner-workings of a thoughtful, guilty, genius, labyrinthine, naked mind. We come away from the experience refreshed and awakened to the possibilities of life, love, hate, poetry, sex and death and feel his shame, joy, worry, and isolation, but ultimately triumph in the knowledge that Whalen has achieved something remarkable by delineating and defining his own consciousness while simultaneously broadening the scope of our own.
Late nights, alone, we are all judge and jury of our own thoughts. The writing process involves editing the self, rearranging, and removing, realigning our observations and placing them into what we deem an acceptable framework. Whalen in Goofbook has given us a glimpse of his insanely enlightened palimpsest, leaving in all the erasures and asides. In the editor’s note, Whalen states: ‘This is a private letter that fell into the wrong hands. It should never be published. But if you have to do it, then that’s that.’ Fortunate for us that we can be eavesdroppers on the scene and listen in to the machinations of Whalen’s universal mind.
It is now well-known legend that Whalen was one of the participants in the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco’s fifties along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Gary Snyder. The title page reads copyright 1961, but I don’t really know on what evening or series of days this was originally written. The main message of this slim book is so subtle it reads as a statement across time anyway, written for all, despite its private intention.
The cover is a unique reproduction of a black-and-white photograph by Walter Lehrman that shows Kerouac and Whalen side-by-side in conversation and the text reads as if you could be the third party. I’m reminded of the surrealist method of frottage, wherein the artist lays paper over a textured object and rubs with charcoal to catch its surface geography. Whalen’s aim with Goofbook is not to present some finished piece of ‘art’ to place on the mantle alongside bowling trophies. As Whalen says:
‘The thing is, I’ve discovered, I’m not WRITING much of
this, I’m putting down what I think or see or hear inside & outside my head—the pencil is writing & I am, I guess, elsewhere, or feeling/thinking something which doesn’t show here, isn’t yet broke through onto the page... I keep forgetting that this is paper & graphite — the ‘modern’ painters from Cezanne to Picasso have complained that the academic & historical painters were trying to make the viewer forget that he was looking at something made of canvas & paint, tried to make the audience imagine it was looking at real persons or seeing out of a window. Maybe I think the reader as he looks at this is looking at me instead of words? ‘A fearful error, my dear!’, as Burroughs says...’
All the while we are aware that this is the classic, fatal mistake, to forget that we are reading letters, words, sentences and paragraphs on a page. To believe that we are being confronted by ‘reality’, the ‘true’ reality as presented by the author. That these are his or her ‘real’ thoughts, unadulterated. But conversely, the more Whalen tries to remind us that he doesn’t know what he is doing, the more convinced we are that he knows exactly what he is doing.
Maybe in the act of reading, the ‘art’ of this book suddenly becomes apparent, as art must probably be observed by someone in order to possess it own spatial existence. This, of course, has been brought into question time and again, but more importantly, Whalen makes us feel as if we are not really all alone in this world, which is much more important than the most cleverly crafted literary theory.
Another interesting feature of Goofbook that must be mentioned is the occasional drawings which are interspersed throughout. It is almost as if at these points in his conversation (as Whalen captures the pure American speech that William Carlos Williams advertised) the writing is just not good enough and must break out through it and into the purely visual. The most striking example being the drawing of a man and woman embracing in the graphic depiction of sexual intercourse, cock and cunt locked in blissful fuck of their own awakening.
It must be said that this is something that probably never would have appeared in any mainstream book of the time and reminds me of our present day and age where nearly anything goes. The sad, glaring fact is that we are allowed so much more and yet we still have not come close to solving the most basic problems of human existence.
This book is not all serious, worried observations and meditation, however, as there are genuinely hilarious moments, as when Whalen does a send-up of Gregory Corso’s style:
Doughnut pistol! Phonograph porridge! (Imitation Gregory speech) The bus went past just now & took my mind with it; I was going to say something very important.
(Lawyer’s joke: ‘I deny the allegations & defy the alligator!’)
DREARY, & yet OK, so it ain’t noble as if I lay down on the page & set fire to my hair hollering: Pelican soap! Mycenaean rocks of morning dance in gold Achilles tomb, Death goat hooves of thrashing net my weepy ears, my beauty wish—yet will I varnish ivory hero smoke! Unfreeze Andromeda from the drunken stoneflash seas, etc.’ [p. 15]
As another installment in the prodigious amount of work that we are left with written by those associated with the Beat generation, this small but important book holds its own alongside all of it. In fact, with its humble intentions, it defines something that has been missed by much of what has come before and after it. Much more than a notebook, it is a testament to a struggle and an enduring friendship. There is something so human and humane in Whalen’s writing, from his best poetry to this, his inspired, rambling, prophetic, on-the-page monologue for his buddy Jack Kerouac, that is so inspiring and refreshing. Even as Whalen merely lists the contents of what sits in front of him in the room where he writes, such as:
‘Bottlecrash, the Canada Dry delivery truck loads bubbly into corner
ON THE WALLS, maps of the John Muir Trail & High Sierra
Region, big portrait of my mug by Mike McClure, & on this side, what looks like beautiful abstract painting but is colored & shaded relief map of Yosemite Valley—all the rest is white paint. GOOFBOOK, laugh & cry, look at the ceiling, out the window, rearrange & tenderly scratch your balls... Meanwhiles, this is the 30th (holograph) page of GOOF & all the paper I happen to have... all you get... ’ [p. 28]
We feel as if we are somehow changed by the process of reading what he has written and then looking up at the contents of our own lives. If not changed, then shaken into seeing things more clearly, as if after a spring rain that has cleared away the dust and grime of our workaday worries, fears and concerns. Even as he expresses each of his worries and fears, we feel a little more situated where we are and would like to thank him for writing this commonplace book that says so much in what has become our own increasingly desperate times.
Whalen here has put it all down, it’s left to us to pick it up.