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 up).”
The directness of “For C.” recalls the 1956 poem “Invocation and Dark Sayings in the Tibetan Style,” another expression of sexual longing and loneliness, which identifies “the biggest problem in the world” as the question, “Where are you?” The young poet presents his sexual feelings for his absent lover unabashedly, while offering a parallel presentation of his feelings, in lines he is “not saying.” What he is not saying, Whalen tells the reader, are lines such as, “This is a picture of a man./ The man is hiding something./ Try to guess what it is.” Although Whalen rarely points directly to the fact that in his poems he is passing along direct experience of the moment, by offering the reader what he might have written, had he been trying to transform the moment poetically, he effectively does so.
“Small Tantric Sermon”
Similarly another 1956 poem, “Small Tantric Sermon,” treats the sexual act itself as seriously as poets of a previous century might have treated the purely emotional quality of romantic love. In this poem, he finds that the effort to talk directly about sex “. . . breaks down,/ Here, on paper,” although the effort to do so has its own rewards, as he notes by continuing, “although I am free/ To spread these words, putting them/...
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