Inside Philip Whalen
What began as a series of loosely organized readings, publications,
and meetings has been read as a unified narrative of the literary and
artistic life of the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1950s and
early 1960s … an emphasis on the creative imagination, enthusiasm,
and transcendence to the exclusion of more problematic areas of
skepticism, irony, and existential despair …
— Michael Davidson
This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving, which is a
world body being here and now which is history … and you.
[…] and yet I live in a single room in the city — the room a lens focusing on a sheet of paper. Or the inside of your head. How do you like your world?
— Philip Whalen, “Since You Ask Me (A Press Release, October 1959)”
During his lifetime Philip Whalen (1923–2002) authored some twenty collections of verse, more than twenty broadsides, two novels, a huge assemblage of autobiographical literary journals, nine or ten experimental prose works, and dozens of critical essays, lectures, commentaries, introductions, prefaces, and interviews. He is remembered primarily as a Zen Buddhist poet-monk of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat generation who read his work at the famous October 1955 Six Gallery reading organized by Allen Ginsberg and emceed by Kenneth Rexroth. Whalen is highly regarded by contemporary scholars and poets in part for his idiosyncratic poetics, arrived at through a complex hermeneutical project of Buddhist phenomenology, the East Asian poetics of Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, a deconstruction of language and space influenced by Gertrude Stein and W.C. Williams, and a lifelong devotion to eighteenth-century British satirists Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, et al. Whalen’s practice of Sōtō Zen meditation, discursive and deeply philosophical, was the unifying principle for these disparate literary influences, as well as his soteriological path as a clergyman.
In Leslie Scalapino’s analysis, Whalen’s poetry is “phenomenological rather than visionary […] it’s not about something — rather, the writing is the mind’s operations per se”; not image-based, but “sound schemes, frequently the leaps and omissions of conversational exchange whose space and processes are active mind phenomena … the mind creating self, the inside and outside together.” In these radical aspects Whalen’s work points ahead to writers of the Language school, particularly loosely affiliated Buddhist practitioners such as Scalapino, Norman Fischer, Denise Newman, Hank Lazer, et al.
But as Schneider points out, poetry was, in a sense, Whalen’s second career choice. He harbored great ambition to be a famous and financially successful novelist, a fact he reiterates repeatedly in the journals. This fact is reiterated again and again throughout his voluminous journals in excruciating detail. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, and into the early 1970s when he entered monastic life at the San Francisco Zen Center, Whalen struggled with ten to twelve different novels, driving his friend Jack Kerouac to advise him in a January 5, 1956 letter to write more spontaneously in a style Kerouac referred to as “autobiographical naturalism.”
How else can you spit forth yr. intelligence? In meats, in parcels of meats? In wrappings? In hesitations, in bean-pots, in hooks and hams and ahems and holes of thought? in hems and haws?
By Whalen’s own reckoning, his first complete novel was his fourteenth attempt, summarily rejected by his most devoted and supportive editor, Donald Allen, as well as four or five New York publishing houses, before it was finally brought out by Coyote Books in 1967 as You Didn’t Even Try.
Schneider’s biography of Whalen makes for delightful coterie reading for devotees of Whalen’s poetry, for Beat and San Francisco Renaissance scholars, and for general readers. However, in spite of excellent segments and insights, Crowded by Beauty suffers from several serious omissions and inaccuracies. Some of these may stem from the methodology Schneider describes early in the book, where he relates his biographical task in hagiographical terms, asserting that key details of Whalen’s life cannot be “pinned down” because Whalen was an enlightened Buddhist monk, and therefore the ordinary mundane humanity of his life somehow transcends historical analysis. Nothing of course could be further from the truth, as we continue to see in this century how radically misinformed it is to separate human religion from human history.
Still, Schneider’s book is an achievement in many respects, and given that a figure such as Whalen, surrounded by more famous friends and associates, is unlikely to be the subject of multiple biographies, Crowded by Beauty is a welcome, if problematic, contribution to Whalen scholarship. The chapter on Whalen and Ginsberg, for example, includes a useful historical account of the Six Gallery reading and provides valuable testimony to the sense of community and mutual support that Whalen and his poet friends created and lived. Ginsberg became financially successful following the huge aesthetic impact of Howl and shared his success through a nonprofit foundation he established to help struggling poets in need of money for rent, food, etc. Entitled “Banjo Eyes,” the Ginsberg chapter also makes it clear how serious both men were about their induction into formal Buddhist training. While this generation of writers and artists did not shrink from carnal pleasure, they took their newly adopted religion very seriously; it was absolutely not a cultish fad for them. Ginsberg became known during this period as America’s most famous “out” gay poet, yet as Schneider makes clear, he had many female lovers as well.
Likewise, the chapter on Whalen’s relationship with Jack Kerouac includes one of the best literary-critical moments in the book, an engrossing narrative of a philosophical contretemps between Ginsberg and Kerouac over their respective interpretations of the Buddhist concept of “emptiness.” It comes to a head when Neal Cassady’s girlfriend Nathalie Jackson, coming off several (presumably sleepless) nights and days high on methamphetamines, commits suicide, resulting in Whalen’s sharply didactic poem “Unfinished, 3:XII:55,” a brilliantly misanthropic dirge on Jackson’s senseless death. Similarly, the section on Michael McClure takes readers on the poetry tour McClure and Whalen embarked on in November, 1959, with initial public readings at The City College of New York and Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, where the professor that invited them was fired after McClure recited his Whitmanesque “Fuck Ode.”
The McClure section has other treasures as well, including notes from their side trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts for a visit with Charles Olson, and McClure’s and Schneider’s detailed recollections of Whalen’s traditional Zen funeral ceremony at the Green Gulch Farm temple in Muir Beach, California, a remarkable fusion of classical Japanese culture and California transcendentalism.
But Crowded by Beauty manifests critical flaws that would probably not be tolerated if the book’s manuscript were submitted to a university press today. For one, Schneider’s treatment of the scandal that rocked the San Francisco Zen Center’s religious principles to the core is severely lacking. In the annals of American religion, the Richard Baker scandal ranks with the ignominy of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s recently disclosed sexual predations, yet Schneider avoids even the slightest intellectual or ethical consideration of this crisis involving the leading monastic abbot in American Buddhism, who happened to be Whalen’s religious superior. Schneider blandly asserts that since journalist Michael Downing’s delineation of the scandal was “exhaustive” there is no need for further writing on the topic. “This biography, then,” Schneider writes, “will not attempt to treat the Zen Center crisis of 1983, except to note its effect on Philip.” Yet, what is doubly distressing about this statement is that in surmising “its effect on Philip” Schneider simply cites a January 1984 letter from Whalen to Gary Snyder in which Whalen relates nothing of the personal torment he felt relative to the unseemly behavior of his abbot and religious confessor. But here, and not for the first time, Schneider passes over his subject’s own richly detailed autobiographical journals, where Philip Whalen inscribed hundreds of deeply personal entries on the Baker scandals, none of which Schneider references, relying instead on vaguely relevant letters and interviews with celebrity writers.
Michael Davidson’s magisterial work The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century,which argues that literary history becomes literary mythology as scholars, biographers, and reviewers uncritically repeat the self-generated myths and narratives of the “movement” writers and artists they set out to examine, is a tailor-made critical counterweight to Crowded by Beauty. Though Schneider develops much of his narrative firepower on interviews and correspondence with the four commercially famous Beat poets (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Jack Kerouac — plus the late Joanne Kyger, who never considered herself a Beat), most of Whalen’s celebrity friends, with the notable exception of McClure, left him behind in San Francisco shortly after the Six Gallery reading, scattering themselves around the globe. Literary celebrity had rendered them aesthetic symbols of a tight-knit, mythical community, but for the next thirty years none of them but McClure lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Whalen continued to live and write except for a year or two in Japan. The Beat Generation’s celebrities soon realized that their literary correspondence was a highly profitable source of revenue, as university libraries from Columbia to Berkeley to Stanford remitted handsome checks for correspondence, journals, and notebooks, and Beat letter writing became a self-conscious and tightly preserved revenue circle.
Whalen’s community of friends and lovers during the late 1950s and 1960s was instead comprised of other poets, novelists, filmmakers, Zen monks, painters, composers, sculptors, and musicians, including the likes of Diane di Prima, Dave Haselwood, Robert LaVigne, Irving Rosenthal, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Donald Allen, Bruce McGaw, Robert Creeley, David Meltzer, Lewis Warsh, Anne Waldman, Bruce and Jean Conner, Leslie Scalapino, Gail Sher, Morton Subotnick, et al. These were the people with whom Whalen hung out, dined, drank, smoked pot, discussed art and poetry, and even made love while his celebrated confreres circled the globe. They spent enormous amounts of social and professional time together. They read each other’s work, were vitally interested in each other’s lives, and attended each other’s readings and gallery openings. This may not be obvious from Whalen’s correspondence, but that’s probably because they didn’t feel a need to send each other letters across town when they were meeting regularly for drinks and dinner.
Whalen was very close with several gay and bisexual men during this period of his life, including the painter Robert LaVigne, publishers Dave Haselwood and Donald Allen, his “gay conscience” Irving Rosenthal, and Clarence Leslie Thompson, the lover he lived with at 24th and Douglass in the Castro district of San Francisco for over two years. During that juncture, even in San Francisco, it was not easy for many men and women to come out of the closet, and for Philip Whalen, a man of rural working-class Irish American extraction, it was certainly no less the case. Diane di Prima counseled me, with regard to Whalen’s sexuality, that despite San Francisco’s contemporary reputation as a beacon of sexual liberty, during the 1950s and ’60s it was a conservative city in terms of public attitudes towards acceptable structures of sexuality. Michael Rumaker has written eloquently about being harassed by police in the San Francisco of the 1950s, along with other gay men, or anyone out on the street past a certain hour. Even Michael McClure, one of Whalen’s closest friends at the time, confessed that he could never figure out who Whalen was living with in the gay Castro district, adding that he had never met the man.
Based on the historical record, including the Kerouac-Whalen correspondence, I must respectfully dissent from David Schneider’s representation of Whalen as an asexual man who did not fall in love with Clarence Leslie Thompson on repeated “Brokeback Mountain” hiking trips in the Sierras, and who did not live with Thompson in a committed relationship for over two years in a tiny two-room, one bedroom flat in the Castro. Further, I would argue from textual evidence that their relationship caused Thompson’s wife to divorce him, and that Philip Whalen suffered a nervous breakdown when Thompson broke up with him in order to resume a heterosexual lifestyle.
I find it odd that Schneider did not explore Whalen’s affective and sexual morphologies more deeply, for where Schneider fails to address gender dynamics, relevant scholars like Wayne Koestenbaum would describe the Beats’ gender structures as a “male-male buddy huddle,” contextualizing Whalen’s sexual identity within Beat patterns of homosocial bonding. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick created the term “homosociality” as distinct from homosexuality in order to develop a better intellectual and historical understanding of the social relations involved in what is commonly referred to as male bonding. Sedgwick’s perception of homosociality enables writers and researchers to shift the focus of discourse from sexual behavior to sexual structure, a process that makes it possible, as Koestenbaum puts it, to inquire about “the business-as-usual arrangements of patriarchy” without the messy business of sex.
I believe Sedgwick’s analysis also makes it possible to hypothesize Whalen’s sexuality with more than the misleadingly apocryphal commentary that Schneider applies. Not that Joanne Kyger didn’t play an important role in all this — she certainly did, building on her experience as one of the few females welcomed into the circle of gay male poets and artists centered around Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. One of the finest poets of the era, Kyger was married for a few years to Gary Snyder, a crucial role model and authoritative patriarchal figure for Whalen. Richard Baker, Whalen’s charismatic abbot and teacher within the Buddhist monastic institution, was supposed to fill that role for Whalen, but Baker was ill-suited to the function of male patriarch. He simply could not pay close enough attention nor devote the time necessary for Whalen’s apprenticeship. In this vacancy Snyder became the more applicable male persona for Whalen, who continually fantasized about fleeing Baker’s strict institutional setup for a more relaxed lifestyle with Snyder at his Zen retreat in the Sierra foothills.
Snyder, Kyger, and Whalen evolved into a classical triangular relationship in which Whalen, the boy, subordinated himself to Snyder while remaining obsessed with Kyger, the strong mother figure with whom he fantasized sexual relations. This is, for me, the only logical way to make historical sense out of Whalen’s mysteriously evanescent sexuality, a sexuality which virtually breathes out of the cover photograph of Crowded by Beauty: a photograph of Whalen with a slyly mischievous grin and twinkle of the Irish eyes, all but declaring, “I know my sex, and I’m not telling you about it, so you figure it out!”
A new community of friends and artistic colleagues gradually formed around Whalen beginning in early 1972 when he entered the Zen Buddhist institution for intensive monastic practice. He cultivated and became close with the young poets he met there, including David Schneider himself, Norman Fischer, Leslie Scalapino, John Bailes, Gail Sher, David Silva, Peter Coyote, Britt Pyland, Rob Lee, plus various writers, photographers, actors, artists, priests, scholars, and the fabulously droll monk Shunko Michael Jamvold, whom Whalen adored unreservedly.
His new friends and acolytes supported him through the psychologically and physically arduous years of monastic life, and Whalen wrote about them with great affection in his journals, revealing his sincere devotion to them and their intimate devotion to him. Hopefully, someone will chronicle these monastic years with more detail and candor than Schneider was able to muster, for Whalen’s version of monastic life à la Abbot Richard Baker is an astonishing lens into California’s avant-garde culture of the period, as well as a vital window on an important slice of American religious history.
It is probably a good marketing strategy to structure a book like this with ad hoc interviews with celebrity authors such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, McClure, and Kyger, but I believe it has skewed the narrative of Whalen’s life off a more reliable and accurate textual record, undermining historical appreciation of the dozens of productive relationships he enjoyed with acolytes, colleagues, friends, and lovers who were not and are not public celebrities. Interviewing and quoting celebrities at great length is like an argumentum ad auctoritatem, but utilizing celebrity does not impute to a third party automatic intellectual authority on matters of culture and literary history. However reliable the testimony of these more celebrated figures might be, one wishes that Schneider had utilized his access to their archival records and verbal testimony to greater effect and with more specific literary-historical focus. Still, Crowded by Beauty is a valuable addition to the research in this period in American letters, raising a plethora of important issues that future scholars may productively take up.
4. Leslie Scalapino, “Language as Transient Act, The Poetry of Philip Whalen,” in The Collected Poems of
Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2007), xxxv.