Philip Whalen

My real trouble is
People keep mistaking me
for a human being.
Olson (being a great poet) says
“Whalen!–that Whalen is a–a–
That Whalen is a great big vegetable!”
He’s guessing exactly in the right direction.

Photo credit: Larry Keenan

Photo credit: Larry Keenan

Philip Whalen was born October 20, 1923, Portland, Oregon and died June 26, 2002.

Philip Whalen’s significance is so often underplayed in the beat scene, and the only reason I can explain that is that he chose to fully involve himself in Buddhism as a priest and not a lay practitioner as did his peers. We know that Ginsberg, Snyder, Kyger, and Welch were or are Buddhists, but the difference is that Whalen was the high priest of Zen Buddhism for the Beat Generation. After years of practice and monastic life, he became Abbot at the Hartford St. Zen Center. Philip’s interpretation of his lifestye as a Zen priest resulted in a life that did not involve having a high profile.

Not that seclusion is a prerequisite for Zen priesthood, but it seems this kind of monasticism suits his personality as did living on Sourdough Mountain in the seclusion of his thoughts, books, and “no-thoughts.” Considered by many to have been the most scholarly of the beats, Whalen was a compulsive reader who thought it was entertaining to read Tristram Shandy once a year, for 7 years, in addition to reading all of the English classics, Buddhist classics, and esoterica that he could get his hands on. His library is stacked with monstrous volumes of the complete works by little known English playwrights and poets from the 17th century. His pursuit of Tristram Shandy is remarkable in that most of us would only find time to reading this book once in a lifetime. To top it off, he has been nearly completely blind and has always had bad eyes, so reading for him was a task.

The degree of respect and admiration the beats had for Whalen is remarkable. He was adored by Kerouac, who found him easy to be with and confide in. Philip’s nonjudgmental nature and education is probably one the keys here in that. Ginsberg considered Whalen the only Zen Master Poet practicing in America. So as not to narrow the breadth of influence and admiration of his peers, it is interesting to note that upon publication of Overtime the following luminaries came out to praise and celebrate this wise and good-hearted “Zen Falstaff”: Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Diane diPrima, David Meltzer, Clark Coolidge, Joanne Kyger, Bill Berkson, Lewis MacAdams, Phoebe MacAdams, Jackson Mac Low, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Anselm Hollo, Jack Collom, Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge, Charles Bernstein, Lewis Warsh, Anne Tardos, Eileen Myles, and many others. The spirit of honor and admiration for Philip Whalen extends beyond the Beat Generation. He is honored by some as one of the progenitors of the Language School movement of poetry. And by others he said to be the progenitor of Zen poetry in America. One thing for certain, he spread an “ecology of permission” that enabled poets of every style and taste to go beyond the limits of the known to explore their new creative selves.
–Michael Rothenberg

Philip Whalen served in WW2 in the Air Corps, and after the war roomed with Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. Like Welch, he was interested in Gertrude Stein’s poetry. He also went to Reed College. William Carlos Williams made a visit to Reed College and met Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and Gary Snyder. Whalen, like the other writers, gave Williams poems to critique. After the meeting with Williams, Whalen made an entry into his journals that essentially said that his meeting with Williams showed him that it was time to make a big leap into the unknown, to explore new directions and take chances in his work. Later when Ginsberg read “Howl,” Whalen realized how he might write long poems himself. The result were works like Sourdough Mountain and Scenes of Life at the Capital. Whalen, among five other beat poets was one of the readers at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October, 1955.

Whalen’s most recently published books are Goofbook (a collection of letters with Jack Kerouac) and Overtime, both edited by Michael Rothenberg, who had known Philip for about 10 years before editing Overtime.

About five or so years into their friendship, Michael asked Philip during a lunch what hadn’t been published before. Philip gave Michael lots of work to go through (not just text but “calligraphic doodles”), and Michael began a bibliography. The next step was to publish some of the poems in Michael’s Web site Big Bridge, as a feature chapbook. Though Philip wasn’t sure whether anyone would still like to revisit his works, Michael encouraged him to do a selected poems book, and sent a proposal to Penguin, which was accepted. Michael had been travelling around the country, writing songs and poetry, but then came back to San Francisco, where he worked further with Philip–sorting out poems from Bear’s Head, reading to Philip, and laughing a lot. They found a good rapport, paying attention to layout as notation, line breaks, pauses, and Whalen’s voice. Michael also was mindful of Philip’s calligraphy (some of which is in Overtime), the chronological dating of poems with Roman numerals, the poet’s self-shape expressed in his poems, and the blend of poetry into an entity. Through many hours of this connection, Overtime was born. The title of the collection comes from the fact that these poems were written over a period of time (over time), and as a double entendre, Philip was “done” writing, and this was his overtime score.

Cosmos, Michael Rothenberg, Philip whalen, Joanne Kyger. Permissions: M.Rothenberg

Cosmos, Michael Rothenberg, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger. Permissions: M.Rothenberg

Photo credit: Nancy Davis

Whalen’s characters in some of Kerouac’s books are Ben Fagan in Big Sur and Warren Coughlin in Dharma Bums.

When Philip Whalen moved into a smaller room with better sunlight in the Zen center it was necessary to reduce his immense library into something more portable. In addition to all of his Buddhist books, he requested the following books be kept as his own portable selection:

Wallace Steven’s Collected Poems

Paperback of Emily Dickinson Collected
Lloyd Reynolds’ Books

Copies of his own books

Large Print Bible

Copies of Joanne Kyger’s books

1 volume edition of Plato

Krazy Kat books

Selected Writings of Aristotle

Mountains and Rivers Without End, Gary Snyder
Thomas C. Wolfe, The Story of A Novel

1986 Edited Copy of Finnegan’s Wake, Random House (confused maybe with printing of Ulysses)

All Volumes of Stravinsky’s Letters

Edith Sitwell’s Collection

Robert Craft’s Book about Stravinsky

Archie and Mehitabel

Journal to Stella, Jonathan Swift

Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats

Selected Robinson Jeffers

Tristram Shandy

Annotated Wasteland in paperback

Humphrey Clinker

Old Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 2 or 3 volumes

All books by Gertrude Stein: paperback of the Making of America, Narration, What Are Masterpieces?, Lectures in America

EE Cummings Collected

2 large volumes of Thoreau journal

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