back toJacket2

The Internet address of this page is


Philip Whalen
The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen
ed. Michael Rothenberg

reviewed by Laurie Duggan
Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Laurie Duggan and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice.

Word Ocean: some notes on Philip Whalen

paragraph 1

In the middle of this large book, two long poems ‘Birthday Poem’ (571) and ‘Scenes of Life at the Capital’ are separated by a very short piece (‘Bill Brown’, 587). At first it might seem odd to place works as disparate as these in such a manner. Surely the short pieces should be corralled together to avoid being passed over. But Whalen’s poetic tolerates this arrangement. The two long poems, written in the late sixties, are unlike the iconic works of the high modernists. Most of their projects at least figured on a final shape and an overall argument, even if this was not the end result. Pound’s lament in the notes for Canto CXVII et seq:


That I lost my center
                        fighting the world . . .
and that I tried to make a paradise
                                                     terrestre. (Pound, 32)


admits as much. Though not of Whalen’s own doing, the placement of the two long poems around a short piece is very much in the spirit of the works themselves. All are part of ‘the story so far’.


In ‘Scenes of Life’ Whalen refers to the opening line of a poem which encapsulates the ambitions of a generation before his own: Stephen Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who were truly great’ (Spender, 30) with:


I keep thinking of those really great ones like Confucius (597)




People keep introducing me to the famous English Poet
We have been introduced to each other once every ten years
For a very long time. He has no reason to remember meeting
Me, since the conversation is limited to “how do you do?”
And he’s considerably taller than I am. (597)


Spender, a gangling six foot three, had visited Whalen’s alma mater Reed College, Oregon, on his American travels. The opening line of his anthology piece makes its own not so surreptitious claim for greatness, but as far as Whalen is concerned the line exists as a clanking instance of prosody he wants to improve and also dig some actual sense from:


I think all the time I can’t forgive him
For jamming that “nk” sound against the initial “C”
Nor for the blackmail word, “truly” (598)


Whalen tries intermittently over the following pages to improve upon this:


I can’t stop thinking about [. . .]
I keep thinking all the time about those
Absolutely splendid
                              (that isn’t so sharp either) . . . (598)
. . . . .
I can’t stop thinking about those who really knew
What they were doing. Paul Gauguin, John Wieners,
          Le Roi Jones
I keep thinking of those great ones who never fled the music . . . (599)


This aside in the poem reaches its resolution pages later in a quotation from a letter Coleridge sent to Wordsworth:


                                                  “. . . The truly great
Have all one age, & from one visible space
Shed influence! They, both in power and act,
Are permanent, and Time is not with them,
Save as it worketh for them, they in it.” (618)


At the same time Whalen shifts the notion expressed in Spender’s poem from a modernist elevation of the few key ‘greats’ to the sense that it’s not a bad thing to think of great things or persons, a subtle shift from models fixed in stone to wonders that can only be viewed in passing. We are entangled in our own often hopelessly mundane existence, but so, it must be realised, were these exemplary figures.


‘Scenes of Life’ is dedicated to Allen Ginsberg, to whom, one assumes, this later passage is addressed:


What was I saying. Talking to you.
A slow green train leaves for Uji
A slow green train leaves for Osaka
Immediately departs. I just realized that all I’ve said
For the past ten years was addressed to you
Simple and flat as that. (637)


The whole poem is, in effect, a letter, like Coleridge’s. What would the Cantos read like if they were clearly addressed to a particular individual? Would they be more humane?


Through ‘Scenes of Life’ there’s the delicious sense of a big American at large in a world of impossible refinement. Occasionally he does well:


I went to look at the Mie-do, then realized
I was sick or at least beleaguered by creep vibrations
Clearly time for magical cure.
I poured water over Fudo his rocky image
Chanted his mantra and bowed. I also rubbed
Magic water on my head. Old lady caretaker
Delighted; she said I had done well and wished
For my rapid recovery. (626)


As often as not it’s the blunders that are recorded:


I have to write this at home with a new pen
I pitched the other into the Kamo
The moment it lifted from writing “–REE!”
To the complete consternation and horror
Of the other guests . . .
. . . . .
Who carefully preserve their papers, ink and brushes and ink-
Stones in elegant laquer boxes.
Writing is a serious action presided over by a god  (638)


At these moments of spilt coffee, of trivia that might ruin a day, the authorial figure shows an awareness that all of this is as much a linguistic thing as it is a ‘personal record’. The spillage is both the cause and the result of drowning in a sea of words:

Whalen text page 630

(page 630)



It is amusing to think that while PW was writing these Kyoto poems, elsewhere in the same city an Australian poet Harold Stewart, co-author of the poems of Ern Malley and sole author of a volume of haiku translated into crude rhyme (A Net of Fireflies) was probably at work on his own interminable poem By the Old Walls of Kyoto.


Jack Kerouac commented somewhere (I think in On the Road) on the nature of graffiti in the east and west of the USA. In the east there would be political comment, jokes, obscenities, whereas in the west graffiti were often no more than a name (or initials) and a date as though the vastness of the continent had reduced the scriptors’ ambitions: what they left was a mere record of presence. There is a hint of this in the dating of Whalen’s poems, and in his positioning of found texts and typographical mistakes without further explication.


The short pieces scattered throughout the book take a multitude of forms, from the doodled letters BC with their appended exclamation ‘There’s a Man/in there!’ (231), through the Zen conundrum ‘The Madness of Saul’:


Everybody takes me too seriously.
Nobody believes anything I say. (566);


from the haiku like ‘25:1:68’:


Sadly unroll sleeping bag:

The missing lid for teapot! (553),


to the bald statement:


The world’s tiniest apple pie and library paste for lunch.
Where to go.
     I want out. (‘Untied Airlines’, 665)




A handsome young Viet Namese guy from Burlington, Vermont
Just now got it right in the neck (‘The War’, 550)


For certain poets a Collected Poems can be a dubious honour: Paul Blackburn for instance, whose posthumous collection took the poems away from their occasions, cramping them together in a manner the poet might not have envisaged (so that one would want, still, to own The Cities and In, On, or About the Premises). Philip Whalen’s books, almost from the beginning, came out as ‘instalments’ of something continual. This and Whalen’s habitual dating of his work means that Michael Rothenberg’s edition actually benefits from chronological arrangement (he includes as an appendix the tables of content from the original volumes as well as the prefaces Whalen wrote for some of them). Some of the earlier books, particularly On Bear’s Head, the only selection Whalen did with a big publisher, were not solely compiled according to the author’s wishes. Other works were published (through necessity) without many of Whalen’s original scripts and doodles. One work consisting entirely of hand-lettering and graphics, ‘Monday in the Evening’, is reproduced here in its entirety (205—227). Rothenberg has a light touch as editor and this, combined with a meticulous regard for the texts themselves, means that the task is well done.


Though the book includes work from the mid forties up to 1997 the bulk of the poems were written between 1955 and 1980 and there’s only one brief piece after 1988. Early poems include Whalen’s Reed College thesis, ‘The Calendar’ (1951). Here you can detect a number of Whalen’s initial influences at work. Williams is present certainly, but so is Robert Graves’ often bizarre work of literary detection, The White Goddess. It’s easy to forget the importance of this book for a number of writers otherwise working out of a post-Poundian poetic. The late forties also happened to be the time when a number of comparative mythological studies (like Joseph Campbell’s) appeared in relatively accessible editions. It was the golden age of Jungian theories that would later seem unnecessarily reductive, though it’s easier to see now that the kinds of ‘long view’ taken by these works would have been of some comfort after the travails of the previous decade.


Dissolved in mead
Bound with willows to the oak
Twelve stones circling
Beat him to sleep.

The golden blade shears manhood from him
Divides him for the diners,
Re-christened in his blood.
The eye of the year
mistletoe-blinded. (27)


These lines from ‘Meta’ are annotated in Whalen’s own notes on ‘The Calendar’:


The English peasantry believed, even in comparatively modern times, that on the night of the Summer Solstice the standing stones at Stonehenge (and other stone circles in Britain) had the power of independent motion. (820)


But even within ‘The Calendar’ there are certain colloquial moments and observations that are Whalen’s own, such as the first section of ‘Three Satires’ entitled ‘In the Museum Basement’:


Dawdling among the plaster Greeks
“They didn’t have very big dicks then
          did they?”

“They had lots of other muscles:
The main idea was quality–
“You can’t never tell
the depth of the well
By the length
Of the handle
On the pump.” (21)


Whalen’s last Grey Fox book (appearing in 1980) was called Enough Said, indicating as much. After taking up the position of head monk at the San Francisco Zen Center the work became intermittent, and in his last few years the poet became progressively blind. The poems from this period are often enough annotations, things caught at odd moments, sometimes relating, sometimes not, to the practice of the zendō:


California topo maps all rolled up
(“Roll up the sky like a hide”)
Shall I ever be in those bright mountains, ever again? (‘Maps and Mountains’, 789)


Hot this morning, long before sunrise
All my bones ache and Rilke’s ghost
Titters in the closet, Frailing
His clanky lyre. The summer grasshopper plague
May now  be over. (‘Never Again’, 793)


Unless noted otherwise, all the Whalen references are to The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

Blackburn, Paul. The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn. New York: Persea, 1985.

——— In, On or About the Premises. London and New York: Cape Goliard, 1968.

——— The Cities. New York: Grove, 1967.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. London: Faber, 1948.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Pound, Ezra. Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX–CXVII. London: Faber, 1970.

Spender, Stephen. Collected Poems 1928–1985. London: Faber, 1985.

Stewart, Harold. By the Old Walls of Kyoto. Tokyo and New York: Weatherhill, 1981

——— (trans.) A Net of Fireflies. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1960.

Whalen, Philip. Enough Said: Poems 1974—1979. San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1980.

——— On Bear’s Head. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969.

——— Scenes of Life at the Capital. Bolinas: Grey Fox, 1971.

Laurie Duggan, 2008

Laurie Duggan, 2008

Laurie Duggan was born in Melbourne in 1949 and currently lives in England. His most recent books are The Passenger, (UQP, 2006), Let’s Get Lost (with Pam Brown and Ken Bolton, Sydney, Vagabond, 2005), Compared to What: Selected Poems 1971—2003, (Exeter, Shearsman, 2005), and Mangroves (UQP, 2003). Shearsman have also republished his 1987 documentary poem The Ash Range (2005). A selection of earlier work together with journals and critical articles may be found online at

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.