Whalen, Philip

(1923–2002)
   Best known as a member of the Beat Generation, Philip Whalen has also been associated with such other movements as the San Francisco Renaissance and language poetry. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, Whalen grew up in The Dalles, a small town on the Columbia River. He came from a working-class background and joined the army air force soon after graduating from high school. After World War II, he attended Reed College on the G.I. Bill where he met gary snyder and lew welch and was first acknowledged as a poet by William Carlos Williams, who had come to Reed on a lecture tour. He was also introduced to Zen Buddhism at this time. Whalen graduated in 1951, his senior thesis being a book of poems. Whalen spent the 1950s and 1960s traveling up and down the West Coast, spending considerable time in San Francisco where he participated in the Six Gallery poetry reading in 1955, meeting allen ginsberg, jack kerouac, and michael mcclure. An important year for Whalen was 1960. His first two books of poetry, Like I Say and Memoirs of an Interglacial Age, were published, and he was included in Donald Allen’s The new american poetry, 1945-1960. At about this time, Whalen wrote “Since You Ask Me,” his memorable statement of poetics that was originally meant as a press release for a reading tour which he made back East with Michael McClure. It epitomizes his method of writing by claiming that “poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is history . . . and you.” In 1966, at the suggestion of Snyder, Whalen first traveled to Japan where he started to practice Zen Buddhism more regularly. He also wrote prolifically in the 1960s, including three semiautobiographical novels that explore relationships between men and women and question the artist’s relation to society: You Didn’t Even Try (1967), Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head (1972), and The Diamond Noodle (1980). On Bear’s Head, Whalen’s first collected poems came out in 1969. Significant poems from this period include “The War Poem for diane di prima,” a protest poem of the Vietnam War, and the longer work, Scenes of Life at the Capital, about his life in Kyoto amid palaces, temples, and cafés. Returning to the United States in the early 1970s, Whalen first stayed in Bolinas, north of San Francisco, where friends and fellow poets such as Donald Allen and joanne kyger lived. Soon Whalen wanted to return to the city, and Richard Baker–Roshi invited him to move to the San Francisco Zen Center. He became a monk in 1973, was given dharma transmission in 1987, and became abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in 1991, retiring from that position in 1996. Whalen remained as a resident teacher there until his death in 2002. Even though he published less as his Buddhist responsibilities as practitioner and teacher increased, several major volumes of poetry appeared in the 1980s and 1990s: Heavy Breathing (1983), a collected volume of poems that was published in the 1970s; Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek (1996), a selection of Buddhist poems; Some of These Days (1999), poems from the 1970s and 1980s; and Overtime (1999), a final volume of selected poetry. Off the Wall, a collection of interviews with Whalen and an important source of information about his life and work, was published in 1978. Whalen’s poetry is known for its wit, humor, and casual, conversational style. His poems also exhibit an experimental and open form. Placement of the poem on the page is important, including the dynamic use of line breaks to graph the movement of the mind in time and space. Similar to other Beat writers, Whalen faithfully kept journals and notebooks, and many of his poems are created from journal entries, typed, rearranged, and sometimes edited and considered by some critics to exhibit a collage technique. He is also known for his elegant calligraphy and the drawings that often accompany poems when published as reproduced from his notebooks. Highgrade is a volume devoted to what he called his doodles and such short calligraphed poems.
   Whalen’s poetry may be a challenging read due to the way he combines levels of language, including slang and colloquialisms, quotations from authors whom he is reading, overheard conversations, memories, and ambient sounds, sometimes without indicating sources. His poetry is also intellectually demanding in its exploration of philosophical questions, often from a Buddhist point of view, and the wide range of ideas from the arts, sciences, and Western and Eastern culture that he includes in his poems. Some critics have claimed that his contemplative and personal poetry is lacking in drama, as he explores how the mind perceives the outer world and then records and transmits that perception through the poem. However, Whalen also addresses political issues, especially how the poet can survive in America and how poetry itself can bring change to a society of consumerism and conformity. For example, his poem “Chanson d’Outre Tombe” addresses the outsider status of the Beat poet directly, evidence that although Whalen has both denied and affirmed his Beat affiliations, his affinity with other Beat writers is certain. Important influences on Whalen include William S. Burroughs, e.e. cummings, Ginsberg, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Kerouac, Kyger, charles olson, Kenneth Patchen, Ezra Pound, Snyder, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Welch, and William Carlos Williams, along with Chinese poet Su Tung-p’o and Zen master Dogen. Such widely ranging influences demonstrate Whalen’s unique position as a poet who merges the traditions of West and East.
 Bibliography
■ Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
■ 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.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Whalen, Philip — ▪ American poet in full  Philip Glenn Whalen  born October 20, 1923, Portland, Oregon, U.S. died June 26, 2002, San Francisco, California       American poet who emerged from the Beat movement of the mid 20th century, known for his wry and… …   Universalium

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  • Whalen — /hway leuhn, way /, n. Philip, born 1923, U.S. poet. * * * …   Universalium

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  • Lamantia, Philip — (1927–2005)    A misfit and a rebel for most of his life, and certainly from the time he became a teenager, Philip Lamantia achieved fame as a poet a full decade before his Beat contemporaries. “To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets! …   Encyclopedia of Beat Literature

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