Philip Whalen

Inside Philip Whalen

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. 

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[1]

'It felt like many lifetimes'

The last issue of Angel Hair

Angel Hair 6, cover art by George Schneeman

“Only three years had passed,” Lewis Warsh writes of publishing the journal Angel Hair, “but it felt like many lifetimes.” By 1969, when the last issue of Angel Hair appeared, Warsh and Waldman had begun publishing books--mainly because many of their poet friends needed publishers for their book-length collections, but also because The World, a new magazine published by the Poetry Project, was covering much of the same ground as Angel Hair. “I also felt,” Warsh says, “that we had made our point in trying to define a poetry community without coastal boundaries--a community based on a feeling of connectedness that transcended small aesthetic differences, all the usual traps that contribute to a blinkered pony vision of the world.” 

A note on the visual poetry of Whalen, Grenier, and Lazer

Left to right: image courtesy of Wesleyan University Press, from 'The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen,' edited by Michael Rothenberg, 2007; image courtesy of Bob Grenier; image courtesy of Hank Lazer.

From the beginning of my writing, I have been concerned with (floored by) the fact of a word, or a letter, as a thing, a physical, elemental, thing — and the act of contemplating such a thing. In the late ’60s, I noticed the poems of Aram Saroyan — one word, say, “crickets” — printed repeatedly in a single column, in Courier type, down the page. My first works were less poems or writing per se about something than memorials to the fact of words, that they appear and seem to signify.

Whalen on Stevens

A passage from 'Scenes of Life at the Capital'

In August 1971, Philip Whalen performed “Scenes of Life at the Capital,” a 45-minute reading recorded by Robert Creeley who’d brought his tape recorder to the event. In a passage of “Scenes” — it comes to around two minutes of the reading — Whalen responds to Wallace Stevens. Here is that 2-minute passage: MP3.

Gordon Ball: Unknown collaborators: Photos

From the world of Allen Ginsberg and his many friends among the Beats, from 1969 to Ginsberg’s death in 1997

Cadets read Howl, February 19, 1991, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Vir
Cadets read Howl, February 19, 1991, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia. Photo Copyright © Gordon Ball, 2006.

From the mid-sixties on through, photographer Gordon Ball took thousands of photos of Allen Ginsberg and his many friends and colleagues: Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Herbert Huncke, Philip Whalen, William S. Burroughs, and many others.

“We often think of photography as an individualistic, solitary art — a single man or woman working the alchemy of a dark room, or one with a frequently small sometimes large mostly metal object that has a magical, transforming effect on others before that little ‘click’ is ever heard. We don’t usually speak of Annie Leibowitz and collaborators, of Alfred Eisenstadt and partners, of Robert Frank and co-workers in the writing of light. But much of whatever I may have managed to do in photography involves, in a variety of ways, a debt to others — and wouldn’t have been possible without them.”

More here in Jacket 33.

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