Excerpts from the Notebooks of Philip Whalen
Curated by Brian Unger

The following excerpts and images from the journals of Philip Whalen have been transcribed and reproduced from the poet's archive in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. For the material featured here in Big Bridge, I selected a brief but fascinating section from one of the 'Kyoto Notebooks' found in the Notebooks, 1957 – 1990, Box 1, folder 10. Physically, this particular object is rather typical for Whalen, one of those small writing tablets with a faux marble cover, 8" by 10", common in elementary and secondary school classrooms in the 1950s and 60s.

If you are a fan of Philip Whalen's work the journals are a profound joy to peruse, and if you are a student of the Beat Generation or of American Buddhist literature, these journals are an indispensable lens into the life of a late 20th century American Zen monk-poet and his circle. Whalen's journals embody a literary project far removed from, for example, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, written around the same time. In retrospect, Merton's ruminations and meditations seem to reflect the positivist, ecumenical optimism of the period in American Zen dominated by Columbia University lecturer D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966).

With Whalen (and other poets like Snyder, di Prima, and Kyger) we begin to see the fruits of a writer's sure-footedness in Zen practice, linked not to D.T. Suzuki's theoretical exposition of Zen but to the intense devotion to and practice of the seated zazen meditation espoused by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), and his successor and dharma heir in the U.S., Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971, and no relation to D.T.), who taught meditation and Zen Buddhist philosophy to many of the Beats in San Francisco.
During his sojourns to Japan Whalen studied Buddhist scriptures, philosophy, art, iconography, and Japanese and Asian culture generally. He also spent significant time in Kyoto with the American Zen priest Richard Baker (who had helped organize the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference), and with fellow poet Gary Snyder.

On the first page of this notebook, Whalen executed a brightly colored mantric drawing of the Hindu-Buddhist warrior deity Vagiśvari wielding a sword of wisdom while seated on a pedestal nestled in white clouds. It's followed by an interesting prose poem dated August 9, 1967, perhaps a fragment connected to the previous journal contained in folder 9, the "LSD Notebook."  It actually sounds more like a description of a psychedelic trip that took place during a Sierra hike rather than in Kyoto.  There are poetic musings and meditations, a poem or two, a poem fragment. Most have not been previously published but "Pine tree child soaks in teapot" is extant, having appeared in Michael Rothenberg's excellent Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press, 2007) as the poem "October Food."

A word on my editing philosophy: Philip Whalen's original manuscripts, in this case inscribed in his arrighi calligraphy style, are available in a carefully restricted but fairly accessible venue in a university rare book and manuscript library. Making literary work such as this available to many more readers inevitably raises questions of transcription, transmission, authorial intention, perfection, imperfection, etc. I am sure Michael Rothenberg faced these questions (and more) in the production of his 800+ page edition of Whalen's poetical works.

I don't want to belabor the debate, but simply point out that no subsequent edition of any original work is ever final or complete. And no new edition is ever a substitute for the original. The textual history of a worthwhile literary work necessarily continues, and continues, and continues. Every new edition inevitably complicates the history and trajectory of the poem, the novel, et al., and the process is both inevitable and necessary.

I would argue, too, that this same process is necessary and essential for the ongoing appreciation of Philip Whalen's art, and for a critical re-evaluation that is long overdue. The line of his influence on so many superb contemporary poets runs deep and wide. I hope these journal excerpts, and more to come, will help continue and bolster the posthumous reputation of this great writer.

Brian Unger
CUNY Graduate Center
New York City