Philip Whalen: The Buddhist Charles Olson? - by Tom Savage

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, Michael Rothenberg editor. Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 871 pp.

Philip Whalen was the greatest American Zen Buddhist poet of his generation.  But the poetry he wrote was never the kind of sappy, tranquil poetry that mostly passes for "spiritual" or new age poetry today.  His is a kind of stream of consciousness, open field poetry that included whatever happened in his mind the moment he wrote it down or just before he wrote it down, perhaps.  His frequent references to the older American poet Charles Olson suggest that although he may not have studied with Olson at Black Mountain College, the school Olson ran, he was influenced by Olson's projective or open field verse.  While this didn't lead to Whalen writing poems spread all over the page, it may have inspired him along with his Zen practices to be as inclusive as he was of everything that arose in his mind during a specific period of time.  Nevertheless, his poems were not simply "spontaneous" as Ginsberg's or Kerouac's, to whom he also refers frequently and whom Whalen knew, claimed to be.  Whalen revised his poems a lot, often over long periods of time, as the dating of his poems indicates.

Unlike most people who practice meditation today, Whalen seems to have discovered it without a teacher, either all by himself or by reading the books of D.T. Suzuki.  As early as 1959, he refers to such practices in the following way:

"...most of your problems will disappear if you sit (privately, in solitude) 1 hour per day without going to sleep (do not speak, hum, or whistle the while)..." from "All About Art & Life (CP p. 149).

In a prose work, (also from 1969), he describes his methods or intentions perfectly: "This poetry is a picture of a mind moving, which is a world body, being here and now which is history...and you.  Or think of the Wilson Cloud Chamber, not an ideogram, not poetic beauty: bald-faced didacticism moving as Dr. (Samuel) Johnson commands all poets should, from the particular to the general..."Since You Asked Me," (CP p. 153).

Some of Whalen's most "open field" poems are the poems in his handwriting (calligraphy) sometimes accompanied by pictures drawn by him but unreproducable here at least by me.

In the poem "Vector Analysis" (CP p. 228) he throws a prose bit in the middle of a poem, which otherwise might owe its form to Olson, Pound, or William Carlos Williams.  He manages, on occasion, to be one of the few poets who has written anything of value while on cannabis (hashish, marijuana) or wine.  One such poem is called "Easy Living" (CP p. 233)  He even includes a list of where the best hashish was made in the 70's.  But this poem was written in 1961.  The list includes but is not limited to "Balkh, Chitral, Nepal"!  This poem opens "I want more than my share of good luck and prosperity."  This is hardly a "stoner" poem or one of the sappy spiritual kind.  In "Night and Morning, Michelangelo" we encounter one of  his most heavily revised poems for there are two dates at the bottom" 1:IV:63 and "revised 14:XII;65" He kept very carefuly notes of what he did and when, although he rarely uses footnotes to explain his many and often obscure references.  He either assumes the reader knows these things, or, essentially, writing these poems for himself, he may not care.

A very Zen poem called "Mystery Poem" begins "I am ragged edge of/Nothing/Uncomfortably lumping along (no fun" but which ends "Lady of Heaven/ her milk for all of us/who are raggedy edge of everything/The Center/Her love forever/All of us remembered." (CP p. 325, written in 1963).  Discussions of everybody vs. nobody, everything vs. nothing or "no thing" are common in the Buddhist scriptures.  But to be bummed out about it as he is at the beginning here is hardly the Lotus-land of poetry we expect from most spiritual practitioner/poets.  Perhaps because Whalen got there first, before the Buddha dharma was truly available in U.S.A., he had few preconceptions of what to expect on "the PAth." And, being an eminently honest poet, he wasn't going to gloss over the negative states of mind just for the purposes of spiritual propaganda, which is what most Hindu and Buddhist poems written in America now are.

In "True Confessions", Whalen says: "My real trouble is/Pepople keep mistaking me/ for a human being/Olson/being a great poet says: Whalen! --that Whalen is a--a--That Whalen is a great big vegetable!"  He's guessing in the right direction" from 1964 (CP p. 384.  Not only does he invoke Olson here as a mentor and guide (one suspects the poets had contact with one another although Whalen could be making it up, too.), he alludes also to the Buddhist concept of anatta (no soul, not self) by humorously allowing himself to become a vegetable in Olson's eyes.  In a poem called "I/O" one of the few questions or responses to or from the other great "projective open field" poet Robert Duncan, Whalen's line "O tickle star, rut that purple rind c(hat) & c" with "there's not very much of that left, either" Robert Duncan said " (CP pp. 445-446).  These kind of curious jump-cuts from one context to another seeminly unrelated or only dimly related one are another common stylistic device in Whalen's poetry perhaps meant to be "pictures of the mind moving" as Whalen said earlier.  We think of the human mind as rational but on closer examination it is full of these strange transitions or, if you will, interruptions in thought we would normally edit out but not Whalen.  He wants to give us the whole picture as it came to him, not embellishing or prettying it up in any way.  In "Never Apologize Never Explain" he talks of "strange new birds" a "father and mother visiting me." As dead parents they reproach him for not having had children.  But then he says" They speak Homer's language/Sing like Aeschylus".  I for one have never heard birds sound like ancient Greek but clearly Whalen sees some similarity there . Also it gives him a chance to refer to the classical "canon" culture of Western civilization he loves so much although in other poems he makes fun of the idea of Western civilization.  That's not what he means here.  He was an incredibly learned man and he saw the best of this tradition being forgotten, even fifty years ago, and thus stubbornly insists on reminding us that the greats are still here or there and an acquaintance with them is important, perhaps essential.  But this line "Sing like Aeschylus" is followed by the last line of the poems which reads as follows: "The life of a poet: less than 2/3ds of a second." (1967) (CP. 641).

Although this book is large, the only sadness I can think of about it is that there are not even more poems than there are.  His period of greatest prolificity would appear to be the 1960's.  (The last poem from the Sixties is to be found on p. 657 in a book covering his whole life (He died only a year or two ago) whose poems end on p. 799.  Apparently as (after a trip to Kyoto, Japan in the late Sixties) he got more and more involved in the practice and dissemination of Zen meditation, he wrote less and less.  This may also have been because, due to too much reading or whatever cause, his eyes began to fail him early, in middle life, in which case it became harder and harder for him to write at all.  Some of his later poems are among his best, however.  He published a lot in his lifetime.  This book claims to be a compilation of all his "published poetry"  Is there some vast cache somewhere of later poems that he never bothered to publish, for whatever reason?

This is a question this reviewer is unable to answer.  I only met Philip Whalen twice, once at Naropa Institute in 1976 and once in NYC at The Poetry Project toward the end of his life, at which point he had understandably no recollection of our previous meeting.  I regret that I didn't have more opportunities to encounter him during his long life, both as a poet and as a meditation teacher.  But he came rarely to New York City and since the mid-Eighties, I have rarely left New York, where I write these words now.  I don't mean to dwell on my own limited connection to Whalen here but merely to explain why I have no knowledge whether this volume is a "complete poems" or just a "collected poems." At any rate, what we have here is wonderful and deserves to be read by any English-speaking person, young or old, Buddhist, Atheist, Christian or whatever religion he or she aspires to who wishes to call him or herself a poet.  There is much to learn from and to enjoy in the poems of the great Philip Whalen, poet and person, immortal and everyday.

To close this review, I will quote in full two of Whalen's later poems:


Endless fruitless propinquity

Mr. Michael Wynne assures me that it is

Minot's Ledge straight out beyond Boston Harbor.

For he has culled and fished those waters many years.

He remembers photographs of the lighthouse tower

Attacked by forty-foot waves from the open Atlantic

I wondered about the name fourteen years

Did I have it right

One, four, three

I love you, Olson was saying.

One , four three -- Minot's Ledge Lighting

What better way to remember?

I still haven't forgot" (1977)


"Back to Normalcy

My ear stretches out across limitless space and time

To meet the fly's feet coming to walk on it

The cat opens an eye and shuts it

That much meaning, time, significance

Wind chime, hawk's cry

Pounding metal generator

Bell and board reheating bluejays,

Dana phoning shouts "You mean fiberglass?"

Telephone grapeleaves shake together

Dull blonde sycamore sunshine

Dana says "All you guys bliss out

Behind the carrot and raisin salad?'

Brown dumb leaves fall on bright forms

New and thick since the fire."

Tassajara 8-11-77

*Tassajara is where Whalen's Zen Center both was and still is.

   The End