The poet Philip Whalen, who has died aged 78, came to attention as one of the performers in the ‘Six Poets at the Six Gallery’ reading in San Francisco in October 1955. Feted as the launch of the San Francisco Renaissance with Allen Ginsberg’s premiere of Howl, the event confirmed durable transitions inside American culture, as fellow participant, Michael McClure, explained: ‘at the deepest level a barrier had been broken, [and] a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases.’
Whalen’s contribution to the evening was ‘Plus ça Change,’ a poem at once concise, good-natured and incisive, that threw Ginsberg’s messianism into relief, and set the tone for 20 volumes of poetry, fiction and commentary:
Listen. Whatever we do from here on out
Let’s for God’s sake not look at each other
Keep our eyes shut and the lights turned off —
We won’t mind touching if we don’t have to see.
I’ll ignore those preposterous feathers.
Whalen went on to form a gentle mentoring presence around the Beat scene for the next five decades, his poetry taking on all that the Bay Area offered: an anarchist legacy dating from Jack London’s era, the religious cultures of the Pacific Rim stemming from Asian émigrés in the region, and a frontier consciousness that had long since evolved into environmental activism.
Born to ‘poor but honest parents’ in Portland, Oregon in 1923 and raised in the small towns of the Northwest, Whalen worked as a radio mechanic and served in the Air Corps during the war. He began reading William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, before attending Reed College on the back of the G.I. Bill, where he converged with aspiring poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. Meeting the ‘literary’ Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg four years after moving to San Francisco in 1951, inspired a belief that ‘it was great being a writer.’ ‘They were doing the same kind of thing I was,’ reported Whalen. ‘Living and writing and picking it up out of the air, out of books, out of other people.’ Flushed with his own discovery of Buddhism and West Coast ecology, Kerouac dramatised him as Ben Fagan in Big Sur and Warren Coughlin in Dharma Bums, describing the burly poet as “180 pounds of poet meat . . . spitting forth fire-diamonds,’ and one of ‘the two best men I ever met.’
After taking peyote, Whalen abandoned the prescriptive formalism of T.S. Eliot, with the result that all his ‘dopey theories and hang-ups and things about writing . . . suddenly disappeared.’ Hearing Howl also led him to realise that it was ‘possible for a poem to be its own shape and size,’ and to be written without over-bearing self-consciousness. His new voice was characterised by a light touch, carrying self-subversions, quotations and unexpected changes of direction, with reference to what he called a ‘graph of the mind’s movement.’
Like many of his fellow activists, Whalen was always the poet-scholar, rubbishing the anti-intellectual tag used by critics to dismiss Beat endeavours. A major fascination was the interaction of mind, nature and biology – a crucial, though under exposed, Beat concern. Having discovered haiku and the works of Daisetz Suzuki while at Reed, Whalen fused an ecological intelligence born of experience of the North Western habitat, with Native American and Far Eastern philosophies, opening writing to nonhuman presences as a critique of industrial civilisation.
In this he followed the prior examples of Thoreau and Emerson in exposing American literature to Zen, Tao, and other Asian traditions promoting co-operation with, rather than conquest of, nature. Re-orienting himself away from ‘a reckless and lovely bohemian life’ into the wilderness, Whalen’s temper proved well-suited to monastic discipline. ‘Living where you must chop wood for the stove and carry water to cook and clean is enough to change anybody’s point of view, writer or otherwise,’ he claimed. In ‘Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ (1956), which commemorates his seasons as forest fire lookout in Washington State’s Skagit Valley, he wrote:
Then I’m alone in a glass house on a ridge
Encircled by chiming mountains
With one sun roaring through the house all day
& the others crashing through the glass all night
conscious even while sleeping
After studying in Kyoto in the late 1960s, he was ordained as a Zen monk in 1973, taking the name Zenshin Ryufu (‘Zen-mind-dragon-wind’). He accepted the Abbot’s seat at the Hartford Street Zen Centre in San Francisco in 1991, where he comforted dying AIDS patients at the attached Hospice.
Whalen never married. Having suffered from heart and brain infections, the loss of his sight to glaucoma was a terrible frustration, not only for the poet, but also the voracious reader, who loved to peruse Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy annually. The final stage of his life was passed at a nursing home in San Francisco, supported by admirers in the overlapping communities of Buddhism and poetry.
‘There’s probably Some sensible human way of living in America/ Without being rich or drunk or taking dope all the time,’ he wrote in Scenes of Life at the Capital (1971). Whalen’s answer was found in his life’s work, which sustained a dissenting imagination without need for self-publicity. The natural world in which he moved as a Buddhist may have been illusory and impermanent, but it earned his abiding service. As he wrote in ‘Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis’ (1958):
I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
splashed picture ― bug, leaf,
caricature of a Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it ―
Cheered as it whizzed by ―
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.
Photo of Philip Whalen, 1960s, by Ken Walden