Friday, June 03, 2011


I couldn’t afford On Bear’s Head, Philip Whalen’s 405-page magnum opus, when it first came out from Harcourt’s Harvest Books imprint back in 1969 (published jointly, I only noticed today, with Coyote / New York, which methinks must have meant James Koller, explaining at least in part how this reclusive Zen monk could issue a volume that large from a major trade publisher – when it came to self-promotion, Whalen was the antithesis of Tao Lin). So when finally I found a copy in pristine condition in a used book store circa 1973, I purchased it instantly & began to read through it the way a man might eat a meal they have been waiting for for years. On Bear’s Head is a completely masterful volume, still my favorite of all Whalen editions, and one that deserves to be reissued just as it was originally published.

But pretty soon thereafter, I realized that everything I was writing myself at that point was coming out suspiciously Whalen-esque. This is an effect I’ve noticed only a few times in my writing life – I get this way if I read too much Robert Duncan (especially Roots & Branches or Bending the Bow) or listen too much to Bob Dylan¹. But I’m immune largely to even the finest work by other great writers – I might love it, feel totally enthused by it, but generally I don’t find myself instantly turning into an echo, even if it’s Stein, Williams, Shakespeare or Watten. One can learn an enormous amount from inhabiting the skin of a great poet for a while, but only at a significant risk…you might not find the bread-crumb trail back home again.

So when I read the following note by William Corbett – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t call him Bill – on the rear jacket of a beautiful little Hanging Loose volume with a cover by Philip Guston that I’ve always taken to be a comic rendering of some ur-text akin to Gutenberg’s Bible or Moses’ tablets – I sensed that I knew exactly what Corbett meant:

I spent the summer of 2007 reading the galleys of Philip Whalen’s Collected Poems. I was in Vermont and had the leisure to read slowly, ten or so pages a day. About halfway through the master’s poems I began to write The Whalen Poem. I kept at it until just after Halloween. No book I have written, poetry or prose, has given me the deep pleasure I felt in writing The Whalen Poem.

Maybe it helps that I’ve never come across a volume by Corbett that has been anything less than superb, but I instantly felt, even before I opened the edition, that I was going to love this book. I was aware also that I was setting myself up, as I have sometimes done, for a disappointment. It’s plausible that no book might meet my expectation of just what a project of this sort might suggest to me, given my own personal investment in Whalen’s careful, never sentimental, attention to dailiness & detail.

I’m happy to report, however, that Corbett’s poem – really a linked series of pieces, some of which easily could stand alone as first rates works, others that serve as no more than an amuse-bouche between courses at what proves to be a wonderful feast – exceeds all expectations. It does so, I think, precisely because William Corbett is not Philip Whalen, and makes no attempt to be other than what he is – an Irishman of a particular type from the city of Boston, a working-class intellect at home in the finest art museums & galleries, and any number of drinking establishments along the Boston-New York corridor.² His love & knowledge of baseball is as intense as his interest in art, and his interests in poets resists being pigeon-holed – he has good things to say of Auggie Kleinzahler, Charlie Simic, Jim Behrle & Robert Hass herein, though his strongest influences, here as always, appear to be Jimmy Schuyler & Clark Coolidge. His allusions to the Rat Pack will, I fear, be lost to a generation of readers who don’t immediately get it that Frank means Sinatra. It’s a unique mix, distinctly American, but not like any other American I can think of, including Philip Whalen.

Corbett, even when he’s on retreat in Vermont, is a profoundly urban creature. Whalen, who was raised in The Dalles, Oregon, area, never became comfortably urbanized, even after decades in San Francisco & Kyoto. Whalen’s commitment to Zen Buddhism, which he wears pretty lightly in his poems, is nonetheless real – it gave him a context for his being-in-the-present regardless of how quotidian that might be. Corbett simply has no interest. He doesn’t read philosophy, and characterizes “mind” as

VAST midden of sports
Trivia, mostly baseball

Yet the Catholic Church, its doctrine & practices, is as present here – more so than Zen is in Whalen – as is Corbett’s Irish heritage. Both come across more deeply felt in Corbett than they do in Ted Berrigan or Frank O’Hara, other Irish poets from the Boston-Providence vortex. Corbett’s Catholicism feels more cultural than spiritual, which separates him also from the sisters Howe. The result is a text that is not a Philip Whalen clone save in the most incidental sense – it’s as distinct from Whalen’s writing as, say, Zukofsky’s “A” proved to be from Pound.

Zen helped to alleviate the obsessive fear in Whalen – it can be overwhelming in his earlier work – that he’s somehow a loser, a failure who doesn’t grasp how to live in the modern world. Corbett, on the other hand, is confident without ever putting on airs. Yet it’s on just this point where Corbett seems to find Whalen most clearly in himself:

11 October 20 October

Whalen, Corbett Libras
The boys of balance
Waiters, workers on high steel,
Tightrope-walking brothers in poetry
Who never look down, never meet,
Exchange one letter, mine typed,
Whalen’s a banner of calligraphy
And colored pen framed:
keeps us all sweaty & irritable …”

They paid to have me tested
Empty room, heavy dark desk,
Golden Hill Avenue doctor’s building
Some sort of diploma brown suit,
Vest, rimless glasses, read
In my blackened test boxes
I could be lawyer
I could be king
Just about any old thing
It all depended on applying myself.


I’ve often wondered if it was the nature of Whalen’s personality – I only met him a half dozen times – that kept him from really cementing what I’ve called elsewhere the New Western or Zen Cowboy tendency in poetry into something as widely recognized & felt as, say, Black Mountain or the San Francisco Renaissance. Certainly the Zen Cowboys – the folks around Coyote’s Journal, poets like Drum Hadley, Bobby Byrd, Bill Deemer, Lew Welch, Andrew Schelling, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder – were more solidified aesthetically than the SF concoction, which was never more than the Spicer Circle plus whomever Robert Duncan had not excommunicated that week, a catch-all section for the Allen anthology that makes no sense there or elsewhere. Yet an utter disinterest in being “a thing” in the poetry world, in any sense of poetic competition, is also very close to the (anti-)center of the New Western aesthetic. And the bias toward the rural, the outback rather than the urban center, is not a strategy for marketing success, whatever else its value for writing or life. But if there was one poet whom every one of these others looked to, it was Phil Whalen. In this sense, he was the leader of what may have been the most significant literary movement that didn’t quite exist.

So too in his own way Corbett. I’ve often wondered why the Boston scene itself is so undervalued in recent American poetics, or else confused simply with a handful of quietists who studied with Robert Lowell. If there has been a there there, at least over the past half century, it would seem to be located at 9 Columbus Circle at Chez Corbett. Yet reading the vehemence in Corbett’s epistolary poem to Elliot Rothman, declining to apply for the position of Boston poet laureate – something Corbett has been in practice for decades – one feels that same recoil against the Fantasy Baseball aspect of poetics, only with a sharper, more urban edge. Whalen would never have voiced his own objections in such tone, even tho I suspect he would agree with Corbett’s position 100%.


¹I pretty much have a one-song-per-day limit unless it’s a brand new album.

² I find myself wondering if Corbett has tried Bobby Valentine’s in Stamford, CT.

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