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Hall: Remembering Philip Whalen
By Richard Wirick
I needed a break from the symbolic logic I was studying as a freshman. It reduced
all discourse to truth tables, little grids whose premises yielded
conclusions whose validity depended on the initial premises’
truth functions. Berkeley was godawful enough of a place to be
in those days, shocked into apathy after the Kent and Jackson
State shootings. It was like getting to town after the circus
had left. The logic course, a mine-sweeper for the philosophy
major, made the curriculum feel monochromatic, trade-schoolish,
vocational. I felt like I was studying diesel mechanics or dental
And the prof didn’t like me. He was the great logician Ernest
A_____. My papers veered off into metaphysical implications of
logical properties, an area—though I didn’t know it
yet—called philosophical logic, which happened to be his
specialty, and which of course he wouldn’t tell me about
until I stopped getting D’s on his quizzes and learned the
fundamentals. When I sat across from him and watched him touch
the cover of my blue books, I thought of the Holden Caulfield
line where the headmaster “[T]urned my paper around and
around in his hands like it was some kind of turd or something.”
So I need a break from the quantitative. I needed a Blakean interlude,
a genuine surface explosion from the imaginative sun. Of course,
Bill himself had had the same revulsion at geometry, homeomorphs
and symmetries and undergirdings, rational superstructures and
their champions: “The atoms of Democritus/And Newton’s
Particles of Light/Are sands upon the Red Sea shore/Where Israel’s
Tents do Shine so Bright.” True dat. I needed to grab Dionysus
by the horns and get down in the suck.
My roommate had gotten us tickets to a reading at the College
of Marin: Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, clearly a supergroup
of Beat show musicians. The campus had a small chapel in a pine
grove off Highway 101, deep in the foothills of Mount Tamalpais.
The air in the sanctuary was damp and salty for a place so far
inland; it reminded me of the “chilly Buddha halls”
and Yukon River roadhouses Snyder had celebrated in his newly
released Regarding Wave. Though I’d carried the brick-like,
unwieldy On Bear’s Head around in my backpack, Whalen’s
was the work I knew least. And there he was in front of me, staring
at some point in the chapel’s rear where the whale-ribbed
nave rose up and left dangling above us all kinds of strange detritus:
white paper lanterns and bones of mountain rams, dried rattling
kelp, glass balls from Asian fishing nets that cornered the knotted
hemp and kept it afloat.
The poets, chummy-seeming and circled around a little altar of
incense, nevertheless seemed destined by the hosts—the old
Panjandrum Press—to go in the order of their fame. Ginsberg
started with his majestic, wintry “Open Window On Chicago,”
his voice an incessant, hypnotic Shaman’s drum, and finished
with “Please Master,” his sado-masochistic plea to
his guru to strip off his blue sweat pants and blow him and finger
his ass. We were rolling. Our sinuses cleared. Little hash pipes
blinked on and off like fireflies.
Snyder went next. He read his merchant marine poems, all seemingly
set on the deck of the freighter he took to his Kyoto sabbatical,
“digging the earth as playful, cool, and infinitely blank.”
His voice was the opposite of Ginsberg’s—circumscribed
and delicate, as modest and composed as his tidy, calligraphic
Whalen went last, bald and great-bellied, blazing in his crinkled
robes and maize and scarlet sashes. We waited. He swung the mike
boom toward his head, spectacled and freckled, wreathed with smoke.
We waited, waited. His stare still held on the chapel’s
rear. Absolutely nothing came out of him. Pure silence.
Then he uttered a few clear, pure syllables, and suddenly, all
around us, people joined the chant he had begun. It was a sutra,
a Buddhist prayer, its cadences and rhythmic hum as loud and deep
and even as a cloud of bees around our heads. And there were only
a few of us who weren’t chanting: the sutra was the calling
card here, the ticket to the party. But it struck me as what we
called in Christian churches a welcome hymn, or “welcome
table”—secret and exclusive in its diction but purely
selfless, a gesture of entreaty and inclusion.
He had been so sonorous in his chanting, but the verse he recited
was even more stunning: strange and funny and fresh and playful.
For someone so rejecting of maya, the world of illusion, he wrote
almost entirely about the familiar, the stable, the domestic.
It was a poetry of whatever came into his field of vision, of
Things Presenting Themselves, quotidian-lists as flat and glibly
descriptive as anything one found in the overly worldly O’Hara
or Koch or Jimmy Schuyler.
Listening to him recite—all clearly from memory—was
to hear a holy voice as uncompromising in its spirituality as
that of Dante or Pierre Emmanuel. But unlike these fellow “religious”
poets, Whalen steered away from descriptions of systems, explanations
of beatific states or journeys. He was not just a Buddhist but
a Zen Buddhist. Which meant wisdom was reached by surprise, that
literal truth and recitation of facts alone transcended the spiritual
clottedness of facticity. Repetition of minutiae was the cutting
tool, the knife that sliced through those same facts lying fallow
and undescribed. Such is one of the paradoxes of Zen. Such is
the ethical touchstone of Whalen’s prosody.
I knew Whalen was a slow-working, exacting craftsman: none of
the Ginsbergian “first thought is best thought,” spontaneous
composition for him. Listening to him reminded me of an earlier
formalist (Yeats); more properly, it brought back all formalists’
recipe for veiling verse’s hard labor behind a cultivated
effortlessness, something Auden captured later in a poem title:
“The truest poetry is the most feigning.” And the
way Whalen trilled his hard consonants made me think of Yeats
on the old, scratched Caedmon recording; like the Irishman’s,
the Zen poet’s voice cultivated a weariness, as if to stress
how only hard work and hard forms can push the ephemeral toward
I praise those extra Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
splashed picture—bug, leaf
caricature of Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.
[“Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinesis”]
The poet delivered his lines like a pugnacious football captain.
He was never mythological or symbolic. The voice coming through
the incense and flower scent was the straight stuff. But its effects
were echoing, mysterious, hallucinatory; as back-lit and off kilter
as the “plainest” image in a Magritte painting. Whalen
is nothing if not a nature poet, but again, his pastoral is one
of falleness, the eye turning back on itself as the describing
spirit, the age-old force of human continuity and permanence.
His intonations said a lot about the world that night, all of
it simultaneously. He saw whatever drifted by as goofy and puzzling
and worthy of our affection, of our scrupulous, passionate observation.
But what his poems “said” is that within all that
burns something deeply separate—our own yearning, the mind’s
longing for release from what it can only see. The animate and
inanimate illuminate each other, but for all its radiance the
inanimate glides away; “floating and gliding,” his
old roommate Snyder once said, “sliding by.” The animate
stays. The longing goes on.
Richard Wirick is the author of the novel One Hundred
Siberian Postcards (Telegram Books). He practices law in Los Angeles.