Monday, January 21, 2008


Edited by Michael Rothenberg
Wesleyan University Press, 2007
ISBN 0-8195-6859-7

The Collected Poems Of Philip Whalen, published by Wesleyan University Press, 2007, contains all of Whalen’s poems from his published collections, previously uncollected poems published in magazines and anthologies, and CALENDAR, his previously unpublished graduate thesis from Reed College. Also included are “visual poems,” (i.e. drawings, etc.) he produced over the years. There is a brief forward by Gary Snyder and an essay on Whalen by Leslie Scalapino in the front of the book and some essays and prefaces by Whalen in the appendixes, including “Goldberry Is Waiting” from the Poetics of the New American Poetry. The collection, edited by Michael Rothenberg is surely a must-have for Whalen fans.

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1923, Whalen attended Reed College after World War II on the G.I. Bill where he met fellow poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. Whalen was a key figure in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s and, like many who came out of that milieu, developed an interest in Eastern thought and philosophy. In 1973, he became an ordained Zen priest and in 1991 became an abbot. He died in 2002.

This collection provides the reader with an array of poems, most of which, frankly, are not to this reviewer’s liking. The poems that do work for this writer are the imagistic ones written in the vein of William Carlos Williams, a major early influence on Whalen. (Haiku poetry grew out of Zen consciousness and influenced the Imagists who influenced the San Francisco Renaissance poets and the Beats who in turn began to explore Zen Buddhism.) Here is the second poem in the collection:


Moon under a screen
of telegraph wires
Moon under no screen but the wind
Moon under the sea
and no spray but self
(Winter, 1947)

Dale Smith, writing in Jacket Magazine (1998), notes the influence that Gertrude Stein appears to have had on Whalen’s development. Many poems seem to be about mind and perception. There is an obvious humor as well to his work. His process seems to be one of watching himself think but the pathways his mind takes are elided. This does not lend itself to ready comprehension even after several readings. There are wonderful poems written in an imagistic vein but they are far outnumbered by those solipsistic pieces that, whatever they may have meant to Whalen, remain opaque to the general reader. A short example can be quoted here:

Lazy tongs
Jacob’s ladder
magnetized flywheel
folding mesh ring basket
Mr. KNIBX. a sinister
“A is for jelly,
B is for Jell-O”
“You are the how
they call panic”

Paul Christensen, writing on Whalen (Jacket Magazine, 2000), says:

(Allen) Ginsberg couldn’t understand the method; he missed the humorous
intent of the line in Whalen. ----Ginsberg kept looking for the sense to zero
in to conscience, or to a core of persecuted self—which is never there in
Whalen. So, as (Diane) Waldman tells him in her interview, Allen didn’t
“get it” when he read Whalen.

I’m afraid that, like Ginsberg, I don’t “get it” either. The poems I do like are unfortunately a rather small minority. Here’s one, though, a San Francisco poem from 1964, that represents the Philip Whalen that caught my attention years ago:


I’m coming down from a walk to the top of Twin Peaks
A sparrowhawk balanced in a headwind suddenly dives off it:
An answer to my question of this morning

Regardless of this reviewer’s likes and dislikes, true fans of Whalen could not ask for a better collection than this Wesleyan Press edition.

Richard Wilhelm
Ibbetson Update, 2008

* Richard Wilhelm is the arts/editor of the Ibbetson Street Press. He is a regular review for the Boston area small press and poetry scene. Wilhelm has upcoming work in the Istanbul Literary Review.

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