PHILIP WHALEN INSIDE AND OUT
by Dale Smith
It was far out to see Ron Silliman connect Philip Whalen and Edward Dorn under the moniker "Zen Cowboys" in an essay republished here. As central figures in a constellation that might also include Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Tom Clark, Lewis MacAdams, Kenneth Irby, and several others, I find the grouping of keen interest. These poets, in different ways, have inhabited the geography of the West and written about their experience there. They have been informed significantly by the New American poetics, and by a previous generation of "Zen Cowboys" such as Kenneth Rexroth, and, with a stretch, perhaps Jaime de Angulo, or, even, Ezra Pound, the Idaho native whose kinetic imagination pushed modernist poetry into hyper-drive. While "Zen Cowboy" refuses to deliver any satisfaction as a category heading, with its problematic binaries of action and reflection, keen attention and withdrawal into meditation, Silliman identifies a branch of American postwar poetics that locates its energy in the American West and derives its poetic know-how from the modernism of Williams, for whom poetry was "a field of action," and Pound, who charged it with political commitment and spiritual vision.
Years ago while living in San Francisco I was led to the poetry of Philip Whalen and Ed Dorn. Perhaps more than any other poets of their generation I studied their work and sought to understand their peculiar range of attention to the outside. I find it compelling to consider what Whalen and Dorn hold in common, and what they don't. Certainly their affinities for language, attention to cultural, historical, and geographic particulars motivate their work in very different ways. Whalen, the bachelor-turned-Zen-priest, accommodated his life to a provisory form of subsistence. By remaining free of teaching obligations he could, through extreme poverty, conduct his craft without inhibition. Like Olson, he drew on the work of Pound and Williams, but he took that inspiring modernist model in another direction away from the Olsonian epic toward the space of the long poem as material collage. His writing coordinated complex phenomenal registrations within the daily reality of a studious mind. Elements of surprise always enter his work to subtly alter attention in the compositional process.
Dorn, by contrast, studied the morphology of given cultural coordinates to create poems that addressed, particularly in the satiric work published after Slinger, a "correction of the public mind." He had pedagogical interests too, surviving as an itinerant instructor of poetry until his hire at the University of Colorado in the late 1970s. His intent in the poem was to address an outside whereas with Whalen we see a man intimately engaged with the morphology of private experience. The poem gives that personal investigation a public shape, but its address is to an order of intelligence that evolves in the poet, from his growing sense of awareness, incompleteness of form, and compromises by nature in phenomenal reality. Dorn assumed a public of equals or near equals while Whalen's more inward compositional process relied on his ability to restlessly motivate his own intelligence beyond itself. The notational and the collage gave Whalen's poems a seemingly spontaneous life of their own, and yet they remain dynamic, providing a reader with a model of self-reflection.
This reflective potential gives his poems range and suasive potential. In "T/O," for instance, he writes:
Open. Open bubbling pools and
I quote this at length to indicate the complicated formal structure of the poem and to show how rhetorically it moves between a contemplative ethical argument about the nature of the world, the self, and the imagination along with the particular substance that allows such internal measure into existence. Conversational fragments, song lines, and notes-to-self come together here to help ease the meditative strain of the first portion of the poem. A kind of self-mocking awareness prevents "T/O" from descending under the weight of the universe, which, in a sense, is the poem's concern. But it is a universe "inside the brain: / their 'outside' location (please scratch my back) an illusion?" (446). This is the key difference between Whalen and Dorn, for whom the outside is a central concern. For Whalen, cognitive dissonance between the inside and outside prevents a fuller identification with events "out there." Unlike Dorn, Whalen's "outside" remains within and becomes the subject of considerable energy and scrutiny in his work. What he reveals, finally, is not simply a problem of internal and external resistances, but that there is indeed a membrane through which an inside and outside curiously interpenetrate. That things exist outside as well as inside comes as no great surprise. But the intrusion of a membrane does introduce problems to this philosophical conundrum. Is language the membrane, the medium in which distinctions of inside and out are revealed? Whalen's work suggests this and his arrangement of the poems allows us to see how he works with its slippery fact as mediating force.
fresh springs of new water. Open
the rock. hide the secret, but know
what it is.
I: tough thin substance
expanding flexible glass
I traveled past the sun
found other nights and days,
this universe of countless worlds and
stars I find many more. Beyond
this temporary imagination I call myself
and mine there are countless others.
Far away, all by their lonesome,
August royal blackness, brilliant night, &c.
O tickle star o rub that purple rim, &c. (hat) &c.
"...there's not very much of that
left, either...," Robert Duncan said.
certain flowers. I'll put all this into my book, decorate all
these blank white pages. Remember Oktavian in
Think of Hebe and Ganymede. (Collected Poems, 445-6)
This feature brings together work by several writers, all of whom honor Whalen's achievement in poetry and in his life. Silliman and Karl Young look at the recent publication of Whalen's collected poems while Neeli Cherkovski responds to Alexandra Yurkovsky's insurmountably misinformed and willfully negligent review of that recent publication in the San Francisco Chronicle. David Schneider offers his methodology on his approach to a biography of Whalen. He also describes a scandal from 1964 in which some of Whalen's poems in The Northwest Review contributed to the firing of that journal's editors and, eventually, the establishment of Jim Koller's Coyote's Books, the imprint that would publish Whalen's work throughout the next decade. Schneider's essay provides a marvelous description of the motives behind a situation in postwar American literary history and the fall out from it. In addition to these fine essays, I am delighted to include Brian Howlett's 1991 interview with Philip Whalen, Big Mind at Little Joe's, with thanks to the Pacific Zen Institute, where the interview first appeared.
Others have sent poems to honor Whalen and to acknowledge the publication of the Collected Poems. Tom Clark, Anne Waldman, and David Meltzer present poems and memoirs that reveal the person Whalen was to them individually. The range of the body of feeling addressed here provides a reader access to a fuller understanding of the man whose work in California meant so much to the continually changing scenes of poets and artists living there.
The work gathered here offers a testament to the vitality of Whalen's poetic achievement. Hopefully this feature will inspire curiosity in his poetry. Tom Clark has described Whalen as one of those rare, but influential writers known as a poet's poet. From him there is much to learn about the craft of poetry as a tool of discovery in the process of composition. But great pleasure, knowledge, and feeling are related in the pages of the collected too, and should be required reading of any serious student of postwar North American poetry. Whalen's work testifies to the stamina and strength of perseverance in the face of spiritual solitude and material want, all undertaken in fidelity to the perceptive apparatus of the poem. With his words as testament to the complex interactions of life in word and image as understood by one Philip Whalen, we discover not a man, but a universe as it entered through his poems.