A Letter to the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

by Neeli Cherkovski


I write to celebrate The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen. The appearance of this collection is a major literary event, bringing together poetry lovers across the country to mark the moment. Like many of his Beat Generation colleagues, Whalen is part of the canon now, someone we seek to study, a deep source of inspiration. The poet, a Buddhist scholar, would have been honored to see his work published by Wesleyan University Press, deservedly known for its interest in contemporary poetry.

Phil Whalen was rhetorical, self-obsessive, humorous, satirical, a giver of wisdom and devoted to his craft. One of his more notable gems, "Further Notice," crescendos into an ironic self-appraisal that has become one of the most quoted bits of post-World War II poetry: "I shall be myself -/Free, a genius, an embarrassment/ Like the Indian, the buffalo/ Like Yellowstone National Park."

At times, his lyrical precision would break through the playfulness that marks much of his writing. Like the haiku poets, he loved to wander through the details of the natural world. Golden Gate Park became his personal preserve. He plucked from its gardens and sweeping lawns such lines as "blossom pollen scatter seed swell dwindle and perish/ come back next year crimson, purple/ masses of blossom, the rhododendrons/ and perform." Such a probing observation goes beneath the surface of what is seen and provokes images of a grand narrative of life and death, procreation and recreation.

Armed with clarity, the poet ventured into what he termed a "graph of the mind." He could, in the manner of all good poets, imagine himself into any object near at hand. Of a record sent in the mail he wrote, "Precisely the color of raspberry licorice whips./ It got bent in the mail too near the steampipes .../ The music is in there someplace, squeezed into plastic/ At enormous expense of knowledge." This is the poet at his supple best, daring us to leap with him into the possibilities of a playful imagination and true to the magic that is always there for the taking.

From the 1960s on, we have been fortunate to learn from Whalen's devotion to spontaneity and intuition, with his work coming to be recognized as a latter-day wisdom literature. His own learned nature was legendary. With little effort, he could quote from Zen teachings, classical literature and the works of such modernists as William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Younger poets who visited him were rewarded with erudite lessons threaded with a combination of wit and generosity, two strong elements one also finds stitched throughout his written work.

Like earlier inventors, he pushed his art beyond preconceptions of what a poem should be, striving to make his creation into a realm of experience that charges language in new and daring ways. He was a risk taker, yet his poems are often awesomely straightforward, at times prompting a reader to question, "Did I just read a poem?" Allen Ginsberg once told me in conversation, "Philip takes your mind deep into his own, but you don't always know it is happening until later, when his perceptive voice finally dominates your own thoughts."

Philip Whalen's voice was immeasurably large. He made sure to record minute instances in such a way that they continue to reverberate, renewing language, showing us that we are not often aware of just how much splendor we can find around us, immediately, when we open our thinking eyes. In an intimate foreword to this new collection, Gary Snyder writes that we are fortunate to have "this volume of his collected verse, which will keep his voice alive for everyone and help secure his legacy as one of our greatest poets."

Snyder knows how well Philip Whalen rendered the "ordinary" occurrences of life and of the mind into marvelous language depictions. In the poem "Tassajara," he writes, "What I hear is not only water but stones/ No, no, it is only compressed air flapping my eardrums/ My brains gushing brown between green rocks all/ This I hear in me and silence."

It is receptive poetry, a vessel capable of listening, absorbing, capturing and reflecting deeper truths with ease and authority. "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," a poem considered a modern masterpiece since its appearance in Donald Allen's collection, "The New American Poetry 1945-1960," demonstrates that the inward-dwelling poem is an open road to the world around us: "What we see of the world is the mind's/ Invention and the mind/ Though stained by it, becoming/ Rivers, sun, mule-dung-flies -/ Can shift instantly/ A dirty bird in a square time."

A recent review of Whalen's new collection by Alexandra Yurkovsky (Book Review, Dec. 2) begins with the observation, "Being fat bothered Philip Whalen his entire writing life." This serves as a springboard from which the reviewer goes on to make a case for a kind of fatheadedness by the poet ("Bloated as the collection may be ..."). While I do not wish to wield a Zen stick in an attempt to whack a reviewer into enlightenment, such commentary is enough to make one wonder if that reader really took the time to delve deeply, take in and understand the book in question. For that matter, looking to the essence of the meaning of a volume of "collected poems," one might well surmise that it will not be a thin one. Rather, it rightly will be a means to express a substantial writing life and will lead the reader to explore both smooth and rough terrain, high and low points, grand poetry and even some that are not so grand. Philip Whalen was a sharply observant and skillful poet and Zen monk/priest who appreciated the surprising perfection to be found in imperfection, the wabi sabi of life.

The collection's editor, Michael Rothenberg, a recognized poet in his own right, has done a magnificent job in capturing the honored poet in his true grandeur. He arranges the poems chronologically, giving a true and revealing portrait of the artist at work over five decades, and, in an appendix useful to scholar and general reader alike, arranges the titles by their original book publication dates.

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen reveals once again his status as a master and secures his place in American letters. As Joanne Kyger (whose own collected poems were wonderfully published recently) states so aptly in a blurb on the back of the collection's jacket, "This book should be the cornerstone of every poet's library."