Although often considered experimental and sometimes obscure, the poetry of Philip Whalen is marked by a directness of expression that matches his concern with directness of experience. The seemingly oblique or broken sentences reflect the movements of mind, in its perceptions and thoughts.
The poem “For C.,” written in 1957, presents one of the clearest expressions of a mode characteristic of Whalen’s work. Perhaps tellingly for a man who became ordained as a Zen monk, a note of retrospective longing comes to the fore in many poems, with the object of longing often being, or being represented by, a woman in his life. “For C.” begins with a moment of vulnerability: “I wanted to bring you this Jap iris/ Orchid-white with yellow blazons/ But I couldn’t face carrying it down the street/ Afraid everyone would laugh/ And now they’re dying of my cowardice.” His embarrassment arises from the idea of the “yellow blazons” announcing to the world his sexual desire, which ironically he displays to the world in the poem itself. His awkward yearning for bodily satisfaction finds its counterpoint in his other embarrassments, including the recurring worry over being overweight. The poem itself is expression of frustration: “After all this fuss about flowers I walked out/ Just to walk, not going to see you (I had nothing to bring—/ This poem wasn’t finished, didn’t say/ What was on my mind; I’d given...
(The entire section is 1138 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Philip Whalen Critical Essays. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!