“Sourdough Mountain Lookout”

by Philip Whalen
   One of philip whalen’s most anthologized poems, “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is representative of themes and techniques central to Whalen’s work as a whole: a love of the natural world; an interest in Buddhist and Western philosophy; the use of the long poem as a format; and the inclusion of a variety of kinds and levels of language in his poetry. The poem’s dedication to kenneth rexroth not only credits the encouragement that Rexroth gave Whalen early in his career but also indicates both Whalen’s affiliation with the San Francisco renaissance and the inspirational role that Rexroth played in the Beat turn to Asian poetry. The poem was first published as an excerpt in the Chicago Review Zen issue of 1958, thereby associating Whalen with Beat Zen and writers such as gary snyder, jack kerouac, and Alan Watts. It is also included as the last poem in Whalen’s first published book of poetry, Like I Say, 1960, and represented Whalen in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology of The new american poetry, 19451960 of that year.
   “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is based on Whalen’s experience working as a fire lookout during the summers of 1953–55 in the Mount Baker National Forest in Washington. In an interview with John Suiter, Whalen noted that the poem came from “bits and pieces” of writing that he did up on the mountain, adding that allen ginsberg’s “howl” was a model and inspiration as he put the poem together from journal entries the following year in Berkeley. The poem is similar to other poems of this period in that it is written in an open form. Often a rough blank verse in rhythm predominates with somewhat irregular stanzas, usually ranging from three to six lines each with occasional instances of rhyming couplet and even a nursery-rhymelike ditty about the miracle of the egg. Whalen varies the tone and the language of the poem, too, mixing casual conversational colloquialisms and slang with homespun sayings of his grandmother, philosophic musings, ironic selfreflections, and quotes from books that he is reading, making for a rich mixture of voices. The poem is thus an example of how Whalen’s poetry graphs the mind’s movement, although it does not contain the daring linear experiments of such later poems as “Self Portrait, From Another Direction.” The speaker of the poem is a fire lookout (recalling Whalen’s experience) who also acts as a contemporary version of the Chinese or Japanese hermit poet or Buddhist priest who spends time in the mountains contemplating and communing with nature. The poem begins in a conversational and humorous tone as the speaker climbs the mountain to the lookout at the beginning of summer: “I always say I won’t go back to the mountains / I am too old and fat there are bugs mean mules / And pancakes every morning of the world.” It ends as he closes up for winter and comes back down the mountain. In between, the speaker recounts his solitary life on the mountaintop in company of a bear, a mouse, a deer, and stars, juxtaposed with philosophical musings on the nature of the universe in flux. Critic Geoffrey Thurley notes of this poem that “reflections upon the relations between the mind and the outer world constitute Whalen’s major theme.” Throughout the poem, the speaker contrasts opposites: the hot sun of midday with the starry night and the speaker’s memories and meditations with his view of mountains and lakes.
   As he meditates further from his rock lookout, reflection becomes more focused on Buddhist tenets. He compares the surrounding mountains to the circle of beads of a Buddhist rosary, which the speaker imagined as the Buddha meditating in the center’s void. Toward the end of the poem, Whalen refers to the Prajnaparamita Sutra, a key text of Zen Buddhism whose message is that the seeming opposites of form and emptiness are one. His hip translation of the closing lines of the sutra describe his departure from the lookout, while suggesting the loss of ego experienced in meditation: “Gone / Gone / REALLY gone / Into the cool / O MAMA!” Whalen’s Beat use of slang here is a more effective way to express alternative consciousness than ordinary language. The last two lines of the poem also play with meaning, characteristic of the way Whalen ends many of his poems: “Like they say, ‘Four times up, / Three times down.’ I’m still on the mountain.” The speaker may suggest that though he is leaving, he takes the mountain state of mind with him or that he has never really left the mountaintop. Such a paradoxical ending can challenge, but for Whalen, such challenges, including his use of quotes from other writers, are ways to educate and encourage readers to further research and deeper thought. The idea of education also relates to “Since You Ask Me,” Whalen’s statement of poetics and his claim to the title of Doctor or teacher: “I do not put down the academy but have assumed its function in my own person. . . .” Thus, “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is not only deservedly one of Whalen’s most well-known poems but also an important early expression of his poetics, Buddhist interests, and role as poet and teacher.
■ Holsapple, Bruce. “A Dirty Bird in a Square Time: Whalen’s Poetry.” In Continuous Flame, edited by Michael Rothenberg and Suzi Winson, 129–149. New York: Fish Drum, Inc., 2004.
■ Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002.
■ Thurley, Geoffrey. “The Development of the New Language: Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gregory Corso.” In The Beats: Essays in Criticism, edited by Lee Bartlett, 165–180. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1981.
   Jane Falk

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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