THE LIMNS OF WHALEN'S COLLECTED
by Karl Young
The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen; Edited by Michael Rothenberg
Wesleyan University Press; 812 pp.; $49.95
I've shown this book to several people, and the first thing they've noticed is its size. From a comic point of view, it's interesting to note that its author moped about being fat. But there are more aspects to its fullness. In this review, I'm going to discuss one of the many characteristics of Whalen's poetry, and go on from there to a consideration of the book as a book among others at a certain point in history.
If the size of the book resembles that of a dictionary, this may be appropriate in several ways. One is Whalen's delight in showing off his erudition, particularly in matters related to Buddhism. If it contains lengthy discourses, but no final definitions, Whalen would be amused at my inconclusive allusion to dictionaries. I'll return to the lack of final definitions presently. The second type of pun on the size of a dictionary is that the book and the opus, from the late 50s on, contains embryonic stems of tropes and concerns that would become increasingly important to other poets, often working at odds with each other and in different "schools," for the rest of the century. Whalen was a master at different degrees of disjuncture, oblique connection, both linear and anti-linear logic. Unlike such antecedents as Ezra Pound or the Dadaists of Europe, Whalen's connections and lack thereof make a full spectrum, create varying rhythmic and sonic patterns, seldom involve any sort of violence, and if they did not begin with Buddhist ideas and models, they acquire at very least a Zen aura from their base in intuition and association with Whalen's Buddhist framework. As an example, I decided to open the book more or less at the middle and pull out the one-line example that first appeared to me, rather than pick something from a favorite poem. As the Whalenesque comedy of doing something like this would assure, the poem to which I opened was a familiar one, "THE WAR POEM FOR DIANE DI PRIMA" on p 499. The example comes as a superscription:
The War as a Manifestation of Destiny. Whose?
Here Whalen begins with a slogan, which he has recast before initially repeating, assuming that the reader has heard it so often that it need not be defined. It becomes something else when changed from "Manifest" to "Manifestation of." Part of the felicity in the transformation comes from the political and social use of the term "manifestation" and the use (perhaps overuse) of its transformation in mystical texts. The strongest spark in the line pivots on the period. You get the feeling that Whalen was thinking about what Manifest Destiny meant for whom before he got the first sentence written and the second, the one word question, out. This word changes the tone of the line, amplifies its significance, and by undercutting its original meaning, creates a spectrum of alternative significance. Check out the sound pattern: If you drop the first article from the first sentence, scansion of the rest yields four dactyls (/--/--/--/--), a pattern used in military verse since the Greek classics and an essential part of American bellicose rhetoric from the early 1800s into the Cold War Era. This galloping thunder gets deflated by a single word, which could be whispered with a quizzical expression on the speaker's face, or could be propelled into something like a barking retort by the spaced thuds that lead up to it. Pound may have been the supreme modern master of this kind of sonic device in abstract terms, but had he written a similar line, the last word would not have had the intuitive flash of Whalen's. In Whalen's line, the major disjuncture works back through the words before it, giving them a hearty slap, but doing so in a comic manner and with a comic sound. If you read the line to someone who did not understand English, some of the comedy might remain, in part because of the asymmetry of the sound patterns. In English, however, the weight of the single, plain word at the end seems to balance out the thumping that leads up to it.
You can go through the volume and find related though not identical patterns of disjuncture and logic. Again, the book seems like a compendium of variations on degrees of breakage and continuity. Throughout the succeeding decades, all sorts of literary, linguistic, artistic, even political movements would try to simplify and even turn into dogma patterns that Whalen sketched or hinted at. Robert Bly, for instance, could write simplistic essays on "leaping" poetry. Post Modernists could assemble arsenals of theory to make the degree of distance in relations of significance into Neo-Rococo extravaganzas. Perhaps the strongest pillar of Modernism had been collage. This relied heavily on regular, usually harsh and repetitive, patterns of disjuncture. Modulation and the working out of smaller scale fractures became more important in the second half of the 20th Century. Whatever Whalen may or may not have been able to do if he had found himself in other circumstances, he refused to either dumb down his linguistic structures or make them more complex than necessary. And he certainly had no desire to turn them into the basis of a movement or genre or anything else that would regularize them and those who used them.
Disjuncture is an odd concept: it indicates a break, but it also necessitates something on the other side of the break — something to which it is in some sense joined. Such is the case with the structures in the preceding paragraphs. Poems, however, have ends, and even within many larger poems, there are units that function as entities in their own right. Traditionally, writers and their readers have expected these units to come to some sort of decisive conclusion which ties them off and perhaps sums up or makes sense of them. During the last decades of the 20th Century, some critics and artists became increasingly distrustful of what they came to call "closure," borrowing a term from psychology. This uneasiness spread through other arts and disciplines. Whalen had started working out variations on degrees of "closure" in the middle of the century. This came from no theory or dogma, though it may have had some relation to schools of Buddhism, and certainly included a strong element of intuition. As with the kind of disjuncture discussed above, Whalen worked in gradations and degrees rather than absolutes. Thus you can find instances in which Whalen poems simply stop because he seems to have no more to say, or perhaps because he has decided to do something else — say, go into the kitchen and take his supper off the stove. On other occasions, the lack of a conclusion seems as deliberate a smack as the "Whose?" in the line quoted above. The last line may be as it is to provoke the reader to come to an unstated conclusion. Whalen poems which avoid closure tend to produce effects ranging from comic to wistful to speculative. You just might be able to discern, though perhaps for the wrong reasons, something like a Koan in the incompletion of a short Whalen poem. Following the pattern with disjuncture, however, Whalen does not follow a consistent pattern, and many of his poems come to decisive, even traditional, periods.
Traditionally, one of the pleasures of poetry has come from slight reaches into what critics have called subliminal areas of the psyche. "Limn" is an older form of the word "line," and the "line" in this compound term is that between the conscious and subconscious mind. A few more recent commentators have discussed poetry as "liminal," that is, hovering at the line between conscious and unconscious. Surrealist theory and practice stressed this, and perhaps by doing so also stressed its limitations. Dualistic conceptions of the world imply a single limn around which to hover or below which to dip. Whether taking cues from Buddhism or not, Whalen's poetry suggests a number of different divisions of reality or awareness. You can, for instance, see a line between the inner life of contemplation and the outer life of activism. Is the difference between daydreaming and puttering around your apartment a variation on this distinction, or a different type of separation? What about the difference between public discussion of spiritual tradition and the states of mind induced by long practice of internal discipline? How do abstract thought, talking to yourself, and rehearsing a speech to deliver to someone else divide themselves? What happens when a poem is so free in construction that it encompasses some of the pattern of deep meditation, frivolous daydream, casual comment about the room in which you find yourself, and delivering a formal oration to a picture on the wall, which you'll more or less repeat to your friends or students the next day? Most important, what happens when you don't do anything to separate these forms of articulation but allow them to cross their lines of demarcation freely and spontaneously?
The kind of poem you get, at least in Whalen's case, may not be as dynamic or as gripping as a poem more focused on one frame of mind, or a poem that obsesses about the nature of one limn. It may, however, have more to do with the experiences of your daily life. If you're a practitioner of spiritual discipline, and plain lucky, it may help you achieve a greater integration with dedicated practice and what you do with the rest of your time. If you're simply a devotee of poetry, it can give you a greater range of poetic tropes to explore. Read over a period of years, there's a good chance that you'll change your mind about which poems you like most, and a collection such as this one will make that easier to do. However the poems work for you, the degrees of continuity and the lack thereof in each poem don't remain in the range of aesthetics or formal devices: these are maps of the articulation of life as lived rather than theorized or prescribed.
In a time when poets howled and whimpered, tried to pass their work off as the utterance of home-spun farmers and small town neighbors when farms, small towns, and plain speech could be nothing more than nostalgia for a no longer existent America, or invented arcane crit-speak argots for their Court of Star Chambers while claiming that language alone creates reality, or moved into the full-blown stridency of evangelical preachers and the smooth assurances of snake-oil salesmen, Whalen was one of the least pretentious and least affected of American poets. This basic freedom is something that I can't reduce to a formula, and if it is indeed irreducible, that may be as close to its essence as we can get. Still, I find it fun to say that Whalen may have been the only poet of the century who could enrich your life by moping. Despite the fact that this statement focuses on a peculiarity which does not make him a major poet, it may be as close to definition of his singular ability as I'll ever be able to manage.
It's extremely easy to find fault with any compilation of previous books, and particularly so with a Collected Poems volume. Most tend to be cheapshots or tautologies. Nothing should be more obvious, for instance, than claiming the works in a collected are uneven in quality. The best answer to such claims comes from a bit of now aging slang whose sound Whalen might have liked: "Well, DUH!" I haven't studied the manuscripts or made a word by word comparison of printed versions, or engaged in other scholarly activities. I assume an academician bent on finding nits to pick could find enough, as invariably happens with works of this size. But as a reader over many years, nothing about the present edition suggests inadequacies in editing to me. There are some inevitable trade-offs, however, between the row of small volumes and the fat collected. In this instance, despite the inclusion of hand lettering and drawings in some of Whalen's books, the consistency of format imposed by a collected is less a problem than usual. The Whalen books I have beside me at the moment provide examples of what can and can't be lost for me. I add that "for me" because, unlike younger readers, I've had the opportunity to read books more or less as they came out, and thus had spaces between readings which can't be precisely repeated.
I don't remember whether I bought my copy of the 1960 Totem/Corinth edition of Like I Say in New York or ordered it from Jim Lowell's Asphodel Books. This is not a book I would like to lose. This has nothing to do with it being a fine press edition or for reasons that relate to design or graphics or print quality or anything of the sort. My attachment to it has more to do with autobiography and the development of American poetry than anything else. I got it in the mid 60s, a time when I was discovering contemporary poetry and was highly charged with the discoveries I made. Other young writers felt the same way. This is one of the books we read and re-read and discussed among ourselves. In addition to being an important book to read both silently and aloud, interspersed with conversation, the modest 48 page, saddle stitched tome, with text set in what looks like no more than 10 pt. type, served as an example for me and other young people who wanted to publish books ourselves. As such, it made a contribution to what has come to be labeled the mimeo revolution. After more than 40 years of going from mimeo through basement offset and onto the web, it is a book that's survived midnight moving parties and other adversities, and as a result may survive longer. My copies of the 1976 Four Seasons Foundation edition of The Kindness of Strangers and the Parallax Press's 1996 Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek, both of which include poems dating back to the time of Like I Say, are nicely printed and easily readable books. But they are also books which I could more easily lose than Like I Say, and for which the present Collected could easily make up. The slender volumes are easy enough to misplace on bookshelves. They aren't particularly easy to grab and box. It strikes me as interesting and instructive that whether you find yourself in the precarious positions of youth or age, books that can be found and moved quickly and easily have advantages for poets who tend not to live the more comfortable lives of collectors. In my essay, "The Roman Alphabet in its Original Context," [Open Letter, 6th Series, #7; Toronto, 1987, bpNichol, Frank Davey, et al, eds.,] I argued that one of the reasons we use books bound along spines instead of scrolls is that early Christians found their compact Bibles more portable and more easily concealed than the scrolls of their ancestors. If my argument made sense, a collected such as this one may carry forth a convention started two millennia ago by a group of presumptuous outsiders, whose beliefs may have come closer to Buddhism in America today than to the dogmas, aggressions, and repressions of early 21st Century denominational or evangelical Churches.
As the latest in the selected and collected poems series edited by Michael Rothenberg for Penguin and Wesleyan, the book futhers an important program. The poets in this series are those who have received enough attention to be saleable, but have not yet had appropriate collections issued. With Whalen, as with Meltzer, Kyger, and Dorn, it's about time. My biggest hope, however, is that the series will push farther into the areas of lack of recognition than other major series have before. The 20th Century was the century when consumerist advertising has had as much effect on what we see as the canon as has the quality of the work. Consumerism, with its disposability and planned obsolescence, distinguishes this from the previous dictates of aristocracy and religion which took durability and long-term if not eternal perpetuation as their core. What has achieved recognition in the world of rapid promotion, consumption, and disposal hasn't necessarily been the best, and my own sense is that much of the great work of the century goes unread. This is not completely new: John Donne, for instance, went dormant for some three centuries; it took four times that for Li Ho to emerge from the shadows as one of the greatest poets of China's T'ang era. I'm not particularly interested in setting up a pecking order for its own sake among the poets of my time. However, there's way too much out there that goes without the editions that it deserves. Such editions should allow a more democratic means on the part of readers to establish value. I'd simply like to see more room for good editions of under-recognized work. Michael Rothenberg's editions may go beyond filling a niche to expanding it. If Whalen's Collected could assist in such a long-run project, it would be completely appropriate to Whalen's sense of inclusiveness, and would enhance the book in ways which perhaps a Buddhist monk could best understand.