by David Schneider


In early 1964 Philip Whalen's work helped cause a scandal in his native Oregon, one that brought sustained public and private protest, resulting in the suspension of publication of The Northwest Review, and the firing of that journal's editors. The trouble about his poetry brought Whalen some notoriety, but also eventuated in the establishment of Coyote's Books, a publishing house that would present virtually all his work for the next ten years. [1]


Since the early 1950's, and vigorously from the middle of that decade, Beat writers on both coasts had been driving back the dogs of censorship in America, reclaiming words and topics tacitly forbidden in poetry. Whalen, Ginsberg and McClure, to name just three from the Six Gallery reading, as well as their publishers — Ferlinghetti most notably &mdsh; had had works confiscated, had endured legal proceedings, had been threatened with arrest, or been arrested, for poetry.

Whalen explained: "You've the feeling that you can't do anything personally about a situation, which is too large to deal with. Here we're sitting and there are those people in the Pentagon who are able to push buttons and make catastrophic things happen. All we can push is words . . . For many years this silly puritanical police morality blocked up all kinds of artistic and intellectual communication. So the idea of not being able to use about two thirds of the language was one of the things that we wanted to break out of . . . " [2]

Accordingly in 1964 it dawned on Oregonians that a portion of their tax money had gone to publish works lashing out at organized religion, as well as for poems quite open and frank about human body parts and their functions. Reaction flowed back in two streams: supportive praise, mostly from the literary community; and virulent, bold-face attack from the conservative community.

The issue of The Northwest Review (Vol. 6 No. 4) as a whole provoked these reactions, printing as it did not only a generous selection of Whalen's poems, but a long radio play by Antonin Artaud — To Have Done With the Judgment of God (translated for the first time into English by Guy Wernham, and introduced by an essay from Michael McClure) — an extended interview with Fidel Castro, and pictures of post-revolutionary Cuba. The Cuban material appeared the year after the missile crisis of 1962, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion the year before that; these may have been politically explosive, but what inflamed local fury were the writings by Artaud and Whalen.

Artaud's radio play was no stranger to scandal. A harsh, extreme piece, full of anger at the Catholic Church and at American "imperialism," the play also contains lengthy, utterly unembarrassed meditations on flatulence and defecation. It was banned from the air on the eve of its French premier in 1948.

The Whalen poems singled out for display and attack by The National Eagle — a right-wing Portland news-sheet spearheading the protest — does not actually contain not any swear words, beyond "ass." In fact, the General Counsel's Office of the United States Post Office cleared the whole magazine of obscenity, or of being in violation of any existing laws and regulations. But Whalen's work pressed hard on one of the conservative right's sore spots: he displayed an outright disrespect for their religion. It wasn't the word "ass" that caused problems; it was that he juxtaposed it with the word "God's." Now that stung.

From The National Eagle's front page excerpt:

. . . . 2 thousand years of work yourself to death
building God a house
tending God's ducks & pigs
killing God's enemies
kissing God's ass... [3]


Begun in 1957 as a student-run journal of the English and Journalism departments at University of Oregon, The Northwest Review was generally seen by 1962 as a somewhat bland little magazine, publishing poetry and other writing chiefly from the Pacific Northwest. Then at the beginning of the year, the journal came under the editorship of an energetic graduate student named Edward Van Aelstyn, and its smooth surface began to crack.

Possessed of an excellent academic record, Van Aelstyn also displayed native curiosity, absorptive openness, and enviable spine. At first he continued the magazine's established direction, but began as well to solicit work from a wider geographical and aesthetic range, based partly on recommendations of the poetry editor, his friend David Bromige. In school at U.C. Berkeley himself, Bromige opened Van Aelstyn's eyes to work from the San Francisco Bay area and to writers anthologized in Don Allen's New American Poetry. Bromige and Van Aelstyn together attended the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, where they heard and met Whalen, Creeley, Duncan, Ginsberg and Olson. The Northwest Review profited greatly from these connections. By late 1963 it had published or was committed to publishing work from all these writers, as well as from Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Ron Loewinsohn, Margaret Randall, J Miles, Ed Dorn and Charles Bukowski. The Northwest Review had become a dynamic, leading, literary voice.

The staff as well as the content of the journal shifted during Van Aelstyn's stormy term: Bromige — possibly sensing a coming scandal — devoted himself to his graduate studies at Berkeley and left the poetry editor post. Poet Jim Koller filled it, coming onto the staff around the same time as writer Will Wroth, just before the explosion. Koller later remarked "I wasn't there long enough to be on the masthead of a single issue, but I was there long enough to get fired."

In January of 1964, the Artaud-Castro-Whalen issue emerged into a contentious atmosphere at the University of Oregon, already charged by the screening earlier that month of an avant-garde film from San Francisco poet Gerd Stern. But an evening's screening comes and goes; whatever the outrages [4], they are fugitive. Without the offending material continuously at hand, complaint is difficult to sustain. The Northwest Review on the other hand — a magazine that just sat there in black and white for anyone to see, read, study and cite — furnished the conservatives with a stationary target for their wrath, and they fired. Holding university president Arthur Flemming responsible (only marginally moreso than Oregon's liberal governor, Mark O. Hatfield) protesters deluged public officials with angry letters, petitions, and a stream of articles in The National Eagle, demanding Flemming's resignation.


Whalen's letter captures The National Eagle's fondness for running lines of upper-case type, but his take on their message is no parody, and hardly an exaggeration. He concludes this report to Ginsberg with a detached observation: "Well anyway, poetry is on the scene in Oregon. Who could ever have believed or expected it?"

"On the scene" says it politely: President Flemming endured two summons from the Oregon State Legislature "to explain use or misuse of public funds," and the professors in charge of English and Journalism schools were made to submit briefs on the topic. The situation quickly polarized, as praise and support for the journal began to arrive from writers, academics, and sympathetic readers. Charles Olson sent a five-page "manifesto" supporting the journal and its editors, and local professors formed the Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom. Members of this august group defended in the Oregon press the rights of self-expression, even as they publicly doubted the artistic merit of the issue.

Finally the pressure on Flemming proved too strong. His first step was to wrest the magazine from the editors hands — those of Van Aelstyn, Koller and Wroth specifically- and to give responsibility for it to a "Faculty Publications Committee." But the committee immediately re-appointed Van Aelstyn as editor, and this forced Flemming to suspend publication altogether. Since there was no magazine, he let the staff go.

Fighting a half-year's running battle with moneyed conservatives had done nothing to diminish the editors' enthusiasm for publishing new, interesting material. They'd already prepared a double issue devoted to Olson's Mayan Letters and had galley pages ready for issues beyond that one. They did what any group of hot young editors would do — they absconded [6] with the galleys and manuscripts they'd collected, and they copied the magazine's mailing list. Three months after the university left them dangling, Van Aelstyn, Koller and Wroth put out the first Coyote's Journal, 75 cents the issue, $3 for a 4-issue subscription. The cover proudly announced that was from "the former editors of The Northwest Review." For those who'd been drawn into the struggle, even as spectators, Coyote's Journal was a welcome sign of indomitability; beyond that, the content of the magazine reflected the editors' forward tastes. The journal attracted praise on both counts, and continued for the next decade as a pivotal outlet for new and experimental writing.

Coyote's editors planned from the outset to publish books as well, and it was this happy decision that affected Whalen most directly. Coyote Books #1 was given over to his poetry, a handsome yellow volume of 53 pages, the cover calligraphy in Whalen's own hand reading Every Day7 [7]. The first edition *mdash; 500 copies — sold out quickly, as did the second edition printed a year later. In 1966, Coyote brought out a collection of Whalen's graphical works — drawings and calligraphy and poetry he modestly termed "doodles," and immodestly titled Highgrade. One year later in 1967, Coyote published Whalen's first novel, You Didn't Even Try.

Coyote's role — specifically Jim Koller's — in the preparation of Whalen's big early collected ON BEAR'S HEAD can not be underestimated. Koller labored on every aspect of the project, liaising for Whalen with novelist Donald Carpenter and other representatives of Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich to put the deal together, then collecting, and arranging the works to be included, keeping up a reassuring stream of correspondence the while about issues large and small with the fussy poet, who had decamped to Japan.


The Whalen poem excerpted for front page critique by The National Eagle - A Short History of the Second Millenium B. C. — purports at first to be about Egyptians, but slips like a person in a heated argument into a general and stark condemnation of organized monotheism, before returning to theme in the last lines. This articulate loss of temper is typical of Whalen, both the writer and the man, and contains the juice of this poem.

He calls the confluence of religion and politics a "manipulation, a slick robbing job"

then continues:

"Total control of energy, animal & human
           'The earth is the Lord's'
           also innumerable brains & hands
Keeping fingers busy with God's work
Keeping books and letters locked up in God's house
Thoughtless holy suffering hands
a tyranny so complete, a captivity, reduction to animal existence
You see the delicacy of it," [8]

This tough examination of religion's effects was not new in Whalen's work, nor would he abandon it when he neared entrance himself into religious community. More subtly, more maturely, and in a more nuanced manner some seasons later in Japan, Whalen looked the Buddhism there in the eye — and also in the armpits and asshole. He found it on balance worthy. Still his vigilance continued. Even years after he'd taken up residence at San Francisco Zen Center, after his ordination and assimilation into a lineage stream, his unmistakable voice could be heard at Zen Center on any given day blaring that he was feeling "very much over-organized by this outfit," or that life there reminded him of nothing so much as his years in the United States Army, a tour he described as like prison. But at Zen Center, he jostled from inside the fold; his jibes were intended as caution and correctives to an organization he knew benefited him spiritually and materially.

Feeling forward toward a formal religion, Whalen already had definite politics in the early 1960s: in works long and short, in prose and poems and letters, Whalen delineated the platform. On the one side, he saw blind, obedient, bestial workers, suppressed by military-religio-governmental corporate materialism: that, he knew; that he'd grown up in and had had quite enough of it. Against this, he exalted freedom - to live and think and express oneself — himself -—according to the dictates of mood, Muse or visions. Whalen paid for this freedom personally with poverty and ridicule, with hunger and deprivation, and with loneliness, but it was the deal he struck - part of what Gary Snyder meant when he eulogized his friend as "the purest, the highest . . . of the Dharma poets we've known." [9]

Closing the letter to Ginsberg, and with it the topic of The Northwest Review, Whalen abruptly urges Allen to "lock the door, turn out the lights, get high, and write poems for the next two weeks — don't answer the door or the telephone. I authorise you to do this, HEREBY, in fact, this is a DIRECT COMMAND" and then Whalen continues in capital letters, "SEND ME NEW POEMS! WRITE ME A CYCLE OF BEAUTY SPIRIT LOVE ZOP BREAKTHROUGH ENLIGHTENMENT YUMMY INSTANTLY."

One must wonder if he were only talking to Allen.


Attacked for his godlessness, Philip Whalen was in fact a deeply religious person. A decade after this incident, he was quite literally a man of the cloth. In poem after poem from every period in his writing life, Whalen grappled with spirituality. He engaged it with all the resources at his command: memory, logical analysis, practical experience, through conversation, correspondence, and scholarship. From an early age Whalen tried earnestly to like his mother's Christian Science, but found it "unnecessarily complicated." [10] He saw clearly how her faith had sustained her, and how she'd been able "to make it iron all our clothing, cook our meals, provide us with total security and love," but — and he apologizes to her for it in the same poem — he rejected her form of worship. He did not reject her example though, nor the heart of Christian Science, which he understood to be "God is love." This view sustained Whalen himself through many a lean and trying time. Contemplating "love" moved him by degrees toward the classical Buddhist virtue of compassion. "I guess it doesn't matter so much what it all means, the thing is more like how do I treat other people, how do I use myself?" [11]

As a seeker, Whalen's interests ran broader and deeper than these innocent lines to his mother suggest. In the eight poems published in The Northwest Review, and in other works of this period, Whalen countenanced a wide range of spiritual traditions. He quoted the King James Bible chapter and verse, he cited the Upanishads, reached facilely into Greek and Roman and Egyptian mythology for iconography, example and vocabulary; he was at ease with the names and histories of the Chinese and Japanese patriarchs of zen's lineages, and with Mahayana Buddhism generally, such as it could be known in English in the early 1960s.

Extensive though Whalen's book learning was, it was secondary in his personal religious quest: direct experience served him best, and it served him often. By 1964 Whalen had gone through a number of markedly altered psychological states, many of them containing spiritual insight and message, some of them intentionally induced with psychotropic plants, others simply welcomed upon spontaneous arrival. He had also cultivated for more than a decade formal meditation practice - sporadically during certain periods, but faithfully.

A great many of his exotic experiences made their way into Whalen's writing. Memories of past lives flit through the poems; visions — in which he appears in other bodies, as other species, in other times or other realms — occur regularly. He conducts an ongoing, personable conversation with the Muse, far beyond the standard poetic conceits of that form: a reader can not help feeling Whalen was really talking with her, and she with him. Ghosts and other disembodied beings show up regularly in his work. Indeed a rather greedy, silly spirit appears in Monday in the Evening, one of the poems so provocative to the readership of The National Eagle. Several of his poems record overpowering epiphanies and theophanies, close encounters with the gods.

Being open to this range of experience could make life inconvenient for him socially, and it posed artistic riddles as well. Euphoria for example was not easy: "I have trouble displaying, expressing that sensation, it drives me to dance & laugh, to write, draw, sing, caper, gesticulate wildly. This seems to frighten many of the people who happen to see me hopping and giggling… For several minutes at a time I become a glowing crystal, emitting rays of multicolored light . . . " [12]

Beyond the frustrations of sharing such experiences, Whalen strongly felt and later taught that it was necessary for a poet to get loose from rutted ways of perceiving, if he or she were going to produce interesting work. Summarizing his friend's visions through the years, Gary Snyder put it succinctly, with love and approval: "Philip was nuts."

Whatever he was, he most certainly was not a God-fearing, clean-living, line-toeing, married Republican wage-earner-tax-payer, with kids and two cars in the garage. The National Eagle correctly identified Whalen as a smart young Oregonian gone off the straight and narrow. His work rudely challenged their society and good order.

The attack against the The Northwest Review catalyzed his cause and others, and brought about — as if they were elements in a (bruising) energy-producing chemical reaction what everyone seems to have wanted. Whalen came away with a publisher; editors Van Aelstyn, Koller and Wroth came away with COYOTE, an independent journal much stronger journal than The Northwest Review; the folks associated with The National Eagle got to flex muscles and push people around, and the University of Oregon, after a suitable pause, resumed publication of The Northwest Review, printing work by exactly the same writers they had in the pre-Van Aelstyn years.



   [1]Juliet McLaren published Brief Season: The Northwest Review Crisis — an excellent account of the events at University of Oregon, in Line, Issues 7/8 Simon Fraser University, 1986. The introductory essay to Simon Fraser's archive of materials from The Northwest Review, and from Coyote also provides a clear summary of the events. It is unattributed. My descriptions draw heavily on these two sources.
   [2] "you've the feeling . . ." Off the Wall: Interviews with Philip Whalen, Donald Allen, ed. Four Season Foundation, Bolinas CA 1972 p. 60, 61
   [3]Who knows better . . .Whalen, A Short History of the Second Millennium B.C., On Bear's Head Harcourt, Brace & World, and Coyote, New York 1969
   [4] whatever the outrages..."The film was shown at Van Aelstyn's house, and alternated images of naked lovers with highway images, a mix of sexual & highway sounds." Private correspondence with James Koller.
   [5] wrote Whalen to Ginsberg... Private correspondence 8 June 1964
   [6] "absconded" ... Koller's word
   [7] Every Day: the title refers to Whalen's habit, during the period of the book's composition, of walking from one end of Golden Gate Park out to the other end, at the Pacific Ocean, each day. The book is dedicated to the memory of John McLaren, the builder of Golden Gate Park.
   [8]manipulation... Whalen, A Short History of the Second Millennium B.C., On Bear's Head
   [9] . . "the purest" Snyder, in Continuous Flame, Fish Drum, New York 2004 Rothenberg and Winson, eds.
   [10] . . . I guess it doesn't matter "Life and Death and a Letter to My Mother Beyond Them Both" ON BEAR'S HEAD
   [11] . . . unnecessarily complicated, Ibid.
   [12] . . . I have trouble Minor Moralia, ON BEAR'S HEAD, p. 190