Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If there is one single book I’d recommend this year as a present for just about anybody who is at all open to the idea of poetry, that book is The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, edited by Michael Rothenberg, just out in a lush hardback edition from Wesleyan University Press. It’s the book that Philip Whalen has deserved for decades. Indeed, although Whalen only died in 2002, this book could have been published in 1989 with the loss of exactly one three-line poem. The only thing about this book that isn’t just about perfect is that publication date – it would have been great to have had it when Whalen was still alive and able to see it.

If Whalen is a poet who for all purposes stopped writing 14 years before he died, it turns out – something I don’t think I’d quite realized before – he was something of a late starter as well. Outside of a group of early poems collected into a manuscript at Reed College in Oregon, where his close friends included both Gary Snyder (contributing a brief but loving foreword here) & the late Lew Welch, plus a couple of poems in the three years thereafter, Whalen really gets underway in 1955 when he pens a number of poems that would find their way into Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (NAP). In 1955, he’s already 32 years old.

Allen divided his anthology into groups or clusters, the Projectivists, the SF Renaissance, the Beats, the NY School & Everybody Else. Whalen was his choice to lead off this last group &, with 15 pages in the anthology, he’s given more space than John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer & a lot of other people. In fact, in this most turf-conscious of all literary anthologies, it’s easier to note who got more space than Whalen – Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Snyder & McClure. Like Snyder, Whalen has often been characterized since then as a member of the Beats. Indeed, his publisher’s web site tries it both ways, calling him “a legendary San Francisco Renaissance and Beat poet.” Neither appellation is really quite accurate – he was never an intimate of the Ginsberg-Kerouac-Corso-Burroughs circle, who really were East Coast tourists when they came to San Francisco &, as the Duncan-less “renaissance” grouping in the NAP makes all too evident, that group was a fiction mostly of Duncan’s imagination.

But it does make sense to read Whalen as one of the key figures of another group – one that Allen really missed (tho enough of it is in his pages that I sometimes wonder why) – that I’ve called variously New Western or Zen Cowboy. These are poets mostly interested in themes local to, specific to, the Western United States, preferring the rural to the urban & with a significant interest in Buddhism – Whalen, Snyder, Joanne Kyger, the poets who appeared in Jim Koller’s Coyote’s Journal, including the likes of Drum Hadley, Bill Deemer & Clifford Burke – all largely fit this orientation, one that to this date half a century later never has been gathered into a single collection. I’ve often wondered why this group never gelled as a unit, even in terms of critical history, while the hoaxed up “San Francisco Renaissance” will get you 50,000 hits on Google.¹

Part of it no doubt has to do with the fact that none of these writers ever sought to make a group, movement or literary tendency of it. The closest might have been Koller, whose magazine was its clearest articulation. But his focus was the magazine (which still functionally exists, tho Koller himself has been in New England for many years now). Contrast that with Olson’s ideas regarding Origin and Black Mountain Review, both of which he saw as useful instruments of his vision, while his vision clearly was a restatement of the possibilities of American poetry. But Whalen, like Snyder & Kyger, was perfectly content to be away from, apart from, any scene whatsoever. His interest in Zen led him into a central role in the San Francisco Zen Center during the days of Richard Baker-roshi. After a scandal caused Baker to resign, Whalen practiced elsewhere, culminating in his work running an AIDS hospice in San Francisco. All the while, he kept writing and publishing until his eyesight began to fail.

In all my years in the Bay Area, I only saw Whalen give two readings, one at the UC Art Museum during the early 1970s with a number of other poets and a solo reading he gave in a crowded bookstore in San Francisco to celebrate the publication of On Bear’s Head, largest collection of his lifetime, brought out by New York trade publisher Harcourt Brace in conjunction with Coyote’s Journal. In both cases, he was so unassuming and humble that you sensed that he really didn’t know just how many people were deeply passionate about his poetry.

I’ve always thought of On Bear’s Head as the definitive book of Whalen’s work – until this Collected, it’s certainly been my favorite. In part, it’s just the size of the volume, but it also has a sprawling nature that feels very accurate to his poetry. I was surprised, therefore, to read this at the end of Michael Rothenberg’s editor’s note:

sometimes Philip Whalen’s “creative process” was simply to allow a publisher or editor to make their organizational choices. For example, when I asked PW why the poems in On Bear’s Head were not organized chronologically, he told me he had no idea, “It just came from the publisher that way.”

So this volume, it turns out, is the first one, really, that gets it completely right – the sprawl, but also an order that one can argue back from or to the poetry itself.²

The sprawl is important because it touches on one of the two aspects of Whalen’s poetry that are unique, and which really account for his importance, not just to his peers in the 1950s, etc., but to poets & readers anywhere. The first is that Whalen has less of a distinction between poem X and poem Y than most any other writer around – it’s something that only Olson in the final volume of Maximus, Blackburn in his Journals, of Eigner in his infinite variations of the same few nouns over & over really approach. Phil Whalen is a master of poetry, but not particularly interested in any mastery of poems. If anything, he is the first relatively pure practitioner of the idea that the definition of the poem is a sitting. Thus in June 1961, he’s already capable of a two-line work:

Caption for a Poem

A home of many-colored gas,
A way from     A S I A, monster. Soul trap.

The first line is an allusion not to Ronald Johnson, whose book The Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses won’t appear for another eight years, but to Johnson’s own source, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eleonora” where it is the Edenic scene in which the blissful but incestuous relationship between the narrator and his doomed cousin takes place.

The second line is exceptionally complex. Whalen may have gotten his strategies for fragmentation & layering from Pound & his followers – the spacing between letters of A S I A is taken directly from Paul Blackburn. But what does he mean by monster. Soul trap. In Poe’s story, the narrator has promised his dying cousin that he will not abandon her nor their valley, but it ceases to blossom in his eyes and he departs, in turn marrying Ermengarde, only to be told by the voice of his dead cousin that he not worry about breaking the vow,

thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora.”

In spite of the assurance, that’s an ominous & indeterminate climax for this tale. Whalen has posed Asia as his “home away from” home, that term all the more powerfully invoked by its absence. Is he likewise trapped by a vow. If so, which way? Bactria is not a misspelling of bacteria (tho I think there are few English speakers who won’t hear that echo) but the northwestern province of Afghanistan, once the border of the Greek empire & home of the young Zarathustra.

The short poems of Phil Whalen often have this concentrated energy, but it’s their positioning amidst the longer pieces, the sprawl, that make you realize just how casually Whalen might insert something like this into a longer sequence not at all about his love/hate relationship with Asia. It was Whalen’s use of linked verse forms that, more than anyone, brought this tradition to America (the person who picked up on this first was Ted Berrigan, but you can see it in Creeley’s Pieces as well).

My favorite of these – for my money, Whalen’s best poem ever, bafflingly left out of Overtime – is “My Songs Induce Prophetic Dreams,” a 20-page linked series that took 15 months to write between late 1963 & winter ’65. It conveniently falls just about at the absolute center of this 860-page tome. It begins by quoting a letter from Artaud to René Gully some 15 years earlier”

“…Books, texts, magazines, are tombs … tombs that eventually will be opened. The duty I say again THE DUTY of the writer, of the poet, is not to go shut himself up as a coward in a text, a book, a magazine from which he will never emerge again but on the contrary to go out to shake up to attack the public spirit … if not of what use is he? And why was he born? … the quest for a speech that any road mender or dolt would have understood ….” (ellipses in the original)

This is, in fact, a radical program, even by the standards of the New Americans. What follows it is an inspired notebook that ranges between Whalen’s obsessive worries – he is the great worrier of his generation – where will he get money? where will he get food? who will love him? he’s growing old? (at the poem’s start, he’s five days short of his fortieth birthday, tho in the first section he displaces this anxiety by focusing instead on the fact that “I shall be 41 years old on 20:x:64.”

Other moments are more optimistic – “awake, I’m not sad any more / I have the chance to steal some food.” He imagines fortunes dropping out of the sky. One section reads simply “Genius”.

Yet just two pages later we find

I have
Friends who
No longer want
To know me

Whalen incorporates his reading, lists of who attended which party, natural phenomena (he’s good on plant life), overheard phrases plucked out for what they reveal about speech. Some lines comically imagine the reader:

This is not what I paid lots of money to hear


        Rare & fleeting Magic!

One result is that you’re never completely sure just how seriously to take any given complaint, situated as they are betwixt the completely serious and the studiously comic:

I have no food, no money; therefore, my friends say, I am foolish and wicked. Are they right? (Who cares?)


“Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers,
Long as you got a kiss that conquers?”
so Ira Gershwin says.


Wisdom. I must change my character. The flavor, shape smell taste color must be different. Whizbang.


Ezra Pound says, “More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.”


You always do what you have to do
I’m the one who has to like it – “irregardless,”

                      as people say


Now I am 40, I wish that I had died of my vices, excesses or violence at the age of 29

Elsewhere, he calculates the value of this poem at the 50¢ per line Poetry then paid for verse “if Mr. Rago were to find the poem / “convincing”.

Whalen closes what he calls his “food opera” by noting that

      When I’m hungry, I’m free, and I have chosen freedom at this
price, a very small one to pay.

It’s worth noting that more than a few of the New American poets & their immediate friends were living very close to the edge – Ron Loewinsohn & Richard Brautigan lived for a time in a parked car, Bob Kaufman really was a street person much of his adult life, Neal Cassidy died of exposure next to a railroad track. At the moment when Whalen is writing this, he’s already quite famous, at least by poet standards.

Part of what makes this volume work so well, the chronology laid over the scrawl, is that you can see here exactly how very little formal distance there is between “My Songs Induce Prophetic Dreams” and the next poem, “April Showers Bring Rain?” written just two days later followed by a meditation on fish, I swear, entitled “Love Love Love Again,” penned that same day. Whalen’s loosey-goosey linked meditations, diaristic as they are, are as much an instance of “the words are my life” as the formal sweep of Zukofsky’s “A.” The number of poets you can directly track back to Whalen’s influence are sometimes startling – Snyder & Welch & Kyger, obviously, really all of the Zen Cowboy poets³, Anselm Hollo, Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan, Clark Coolidge & you could certainly throw my name in there for good measure.

With the publication over the past two years or so of the collected poems by Joanne Kyger, Ted Berrigan & the second volume of Creeley’s collected, we’re living in a moment of extraordinary access to what may yet prove to be the definitive generation of American poets, not just of the 20th century. They were, after all, the American poets right at the moment when this empire peaked. Wesleyan is soon to bring out a seriously expanded collected Jack Spicer & UC Press finally has the pieces in place to go forward with a collected Robert Duncan. It’s not a perfect view, by any means. But books likes these demonstrate just what is at the core of the New American Poetries in ways that “greatest hits” volumes never could. Nowhere is this more true than in the work of Phil Whalen, still the most underrated poet of his generation.


¹ The New Westerns weren’t the only group that largely disappeared. The Spicer Circle – the real SF grouping of the 1950s – met a similar fate, tho there it is clear that Spicer himself willed it by refusing to have any sort of cordial relations with poets east of the Caldecott Tunnel.

² Given the “in conjunction with Coyote’s Journal,” designation of On Bear’s Head, I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that Koller or another of the editors associated with that mag may have done the major editing work for OBH. The order may not be chronological, but it certainly isn’t bad.

³ You could diagram an integral, not unlike the one Zukofsky did for poetry, for the Zen Cowboy scene with Whalen at one end, Ed Dorn at the other, one all Zen & no cowboy, the other just the reverse. But it’s remarkable what a sweep passes between these two writers.