Philip Whalen: Plums, Metaphysics, an Investigation, a Visit, and a Short Funeral Ode
Philip Whalen reads
On Friday, October 7, 1955 Philip Whalen read at the underground art gallery the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Also reading that night were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Lamanita, Michael McClure, and Gary Snyder. Conceived by Wally Hedrick, co-founder of the Six Gallery, the reading brought public attention to the West Coast Beats. Though Whalen hung out with beat poets, his own voice differs from theirs. On the Poetry Foundation’s biography web page for Whalen, they point out that his work’s reverential treatment of the mundane, its self-deprecating humor, and its generally apolitical tone. distinguishes him from other beat poets.
Born October 23, 1923 in Portland Oregon, Philip Whalen grew up in the small town of The Dalles, eighty miles south of Portland. He attended Reed College on the GI Bill after serving in the US Army Air Force in WWII. In High School he had read Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. In a 1999 interview he told David Meltzer that after reading Blavatsky …I went to see where was she coming from? Where is she getting all this stuff? And then I found the actual translations of the actual Vedanta writings. You know the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita and so on. And that was very satisfying that this system was really there, and it made sense to me…. After release from the army, he visited the Vedanta Society in Portland, but did not attend due to the expense. He was introduced to D. T. Suzuki’s books lent to him by his roommate Gary Snyder, and followed a Zen path eventually becoming head monk of Dharma Shagha in Santa Fe.
Whalen wrote his poetry in notebooks and accompanied them with doodles and other visual elements. He considered his calligraphic text an important layer in his work. In her introduction to his selected works Overtime, Leslie Scalapino says: Whalen not only posits the poetry to be a graph of the mind moving, but he contrives to break that mind apart: writing is to make no connection as it’s being in the instant of and being the act of disjunction.
He appears as the character Warren Coughlin in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums. In addition to poetry, Whalen wrote two novels: “You Didn’t Even Try” and “Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head”.
Philip Whalen is often labelled a “Beat poet” because he enjoyed his first creative achievement during the years when Beat literature thrived. As an ally and confidant of the major figures of the Beat Generation—and as a significant poet in his own right—Whalen is generally considered one of the pioneering forces behind the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the mid-1950s. The author’s work differs from much Beat writing in its reverential treatment of the mundane, its self-deprecating humor, and its generally apolitical tone. Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Paul Christensen writes: “Whalen’s singular style and personality contribute to his character in verse as a bawdy, honest, moody, complicated songster of the frenzied mid-century, an original troubadour and thinker who refused to take himself too seriously during the great revival of visionary lyric in American poetry.”
As a writer living in the West during the Beat era, Whalen certainly shared many of the concerns of other Beat writers—Zen Buddhism and other Asian religions, a concern for the environment, sexual freedom, experimental poetics, and exploration of hallucinogenic drugs, for instance. Christensen notes that the poet “got his start from the wild energies released in his early years in California,” but adds that Whalen’s “purposes and his ambitions always lay outside the immediate ethos of that original circle. He shared in its good ties and believed in the purposes of the other writers, but his humor and curious loneliness made for a different vein of verse, not better necessarily,
but unique and durable as the voice of a diffident, intelligent American.” Christensen concludes that Whalen “thought of art as an act of personal delight and as a consolation to solitude…. It was in keeping with his image of writing that he could devote himself to his work without making it serve any other end but its own self-fulfillment.”
David Kherdian comes to a similar conclusion in Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists. “Many poets today look on themselves as the saviors and martyrs of their time,” Kherdian writes. “Whalen, on the contrary, is not concerned with revolutions and social panaceas. If he sees the big man at all he sees him in the small situation: tripping over a pebble on his journey to deliver a rose. Out of themes that are often seemingly mundane and prosaic he creates poetry of significance because his vision is peculiarly his own and because the clarity of his intelligence is capable of grasping and arresting meaning in seemingly ephemeral and unimportant subjects.” Christensen sees this unique vision as a particular strength of Whalen’s work: “Whalen has managed to espouse the religious principles of Zen Buddhism without renouncing the world around him, retaining a humorous, whimsical balance in his poems, and mixing the pleasures of California life with contemplation in such a way as to persuade readers that the flesh and spirit may be enjoyed together in the fulfillment of one’s life.”
Whalen was born in 1923 in Portland, Oregon. He grew up in the small Columbia River town of The Dalles and attended public schools. He began writing poetry at the age of sixteen, experimenting with various traditional forms of verse and contributing to his high school’s literary magazine. According to Christensen, Whalen “had the ambition to follow the kind of double life of the poet William Carlos Williams, who supported a poetry career by his medical practice.” Unfortunately, the Whalen family could not afford college tuition fees, so Whalen took jobs as a laborer in a Portland airplane factory and at the local shipyards.
In 1943 Whalen was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps and was trained to teach radio operation and maintenance. The position kept him stateside during the Second World War and allowed him enough free time to read and write. Thus he was able to widen his experience with Asian literature and philosophy, an interest begun in his high school years. Also during his military service Whalen expanded the use of notebooks for jotting down his impressions and experimenting with scribbled bits of poetry.
After his discharge in 1946, Whalen returned to Portland and enrolled at Reed College under the G.I. Bill. There he worked at his studies and his creative writing at a near-frenzied pace, determined to become an accomplished writer. He received encouragement from his instructors and from William Carlos Williams, who visited Reed in 1950.
Perhaps more important to Whalen’s development was his budding friendship with Lew Welch and Gary Snyder. Whalen met Welch and Snyder in the late 1940s and moved into a rooming house with them in 1950. Christensen notes that the young writers “shared their works, encouraged one another, and established a bohemian style of their own in the subculture of the Reed literati.” As the 1950s unfolded, the critic adds, Whalen, Snyder, and Welch “brought a compelling style of writing to the California ferment—a style clearly marked by subtle intelligence, compassion for nature (doubtless borne into them by the beauty of the Oregon mountains and wilderness), and a keenly felt spiritual reality which Snyder and Whalen both interpreted religiously in later years.”
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