Brian Unger

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]

Syndicate content