Philip Whalen Essay - Whalen, Philip (Vol. 6)

Whalen, Philip (Vol. 6)

Whalen, Philip 1923–

Whalen, an American, is a prolific and highly regarded San Francisco poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Many poets today look on themselves as the saviors and martyrs of their time. Whalen, on the contrary, is not concerned with revolutions and social panaceas. If he sees the big man at all he sees him in the small situation: tripping over a pebble on his journey to deliver a rose. Out of themes that are often seemingly mundane and prosaic he creates poetry of significance because his vision is peculiarly his own and because the clarity of his intelligence is capable of grasping and arresting meaning in seemingly ephemeral and unimportant subjects. He has an ear for conversational language that reveals those absurd convictions which render him immune to any belief in sweeping changes. For Whalen, social responsibility means friendship in a field of limited reaction. The power of action is nonexistent. There is no decision or choice, only "discovery," as he puts it….

There are no moral crises, no wars, etc., only this vague eternal sing-song. The poet, adamant in his passivity, becomes his situation. His watery journey precludes no shore. This is his immortality. (p. 74)

David Kherdian, "Philip Whalen," in his Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by David Kherdian), The Giligia Press, 1967, pp. 71-92.

[Whalen] is a greatly learned man, more in the mainstream of international avant-garde literature than almost anybody else of his generation, a man of profound insights and the most delicate discriminations. It all seems so effortless, you never notice it, as you never notice until it has stolen up and captivated you, the highly wrought music of his verse. It all sounds so casual and conversational, just as a lot of Mozart sounds like a country boy whistling along his way to the swimming hole.

Kenneth Rexroth, "The Authentic Joy of Philip Whalen," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 31, 1969, p. 15.

Philip Whalen is the Old Faithful of contemporary American poetry. For twenty years he has averaged a poem a week—some three hundred of which are collected [in On Bear's Head] on 406 pages—and since 1958 he's published on the average of one volume every two years. In one of his best poems—For My Father—he describes himself as a poem-producing phenomenon in a figure in which he appears as a Rube Goldberg contraption which manufactures countless poems: a "Cross between a TV camera and a rotary press/Busy turning itself into many printed pages…". (p. 338)

A handful of Mr. Whalen's poems are excellent, the kind of poem one reads again. Many, many other poems are merely average—a good line here, a flicker of insight there; sometimes the title itself may be worth one's attention—Mr. Whalen writes the best titles since Wallace Stevens. A lot are simply boring: the poem to be read as penance during Lent. Still, I suggest that an interesting way to read Mr. Whalen is to read everything—the warts-and-all method of Appreciation of Poetry 101. Read On Bear's Head straight through as you might read Whitman if you loved him because he wants to give the reader a poem big as the whole world. Don't restrict yourself to finding only the moments of high poetry.

The reason I suggest this is that Mr. Whalen is the laureate of the day after the Seven Days of Creation, the prosaic everyday, the world of Monday at 10 a.m.: the poet of the drawing room to which Alice returns after her adventures behind the looking-glass, Dinah and her kittens become cats once again, the ball of worsted safely tucked in a corner of the great arm chair, the fire cheery in the fireplace, sister as exacting and unimaginative as ever, the chessmen in their proper positions on the chessboard on the table. What On Bear's Head offers us is, in short, the everyday world as poem. And the interesting possibility is, it seems to me, that the more one reads Mr. Whalen—even the punk and Lenten poems—the more one can participate in his special vision that the routines and newspaper and streets and books of Monday are as poetical as the glory of the creation that began one week before when the spirit of God moved over the waters.

What Mr. Whalen accomplishes by means of such inclusiveness is, of course, good news. It is a condition of grace for which many poets have longed, I would bet: the freedom to include any reality from one's daily life into the poem one happens to be writing at the moment. This is the core of his ars poetica and it accounts, I suspect, for the veneration he arouses in some of the younger poets.

One sees this freedom in action at its most attractive and successful in Twin Peaks, for example, where in the midst of what is probably the description and exploration of a nightmare we read how the poet sneezes five or six times; or in the merry confession of cupidity which begins at line 70 in the long My Songs Induce Prophetic Dreams: "69 lines/$.50 per line/$34.50, if Mr. Rago were to find the poem 'convincing'"—or in his decision to include cold-turkey reflections on what the delicate, poignant haikus of Japanese Tea Garden Golden Gate Park in Spring might mean in both the philosophical and literary sense: an inclusion which creates both a new poem and a fresh image of the poet writing a poem.

What emerges from On Bear's Head is, finally, a portrait of the artist seen in a new, revolutionary role: the poet as the fellow in the apartment next door: an affectionate, lonely, extremely witty, good-humored, intelligent, still dutiful, often deprived, quite well-read, occasionally whining man named Philip Whalen who likes to spend most of his time writing poems about what he's thinking or eating or the scene in which he's living at the moment or about the art and act of poetry. Other features in the portrait, however, aren't so compelling, as far as earning the reader's sustained attention is concerned: his sensibility is, at best, no more than a cut above the average; his world pretty parochial; his attitudes at times sophomoric as in the god-awful poem Dear Mr. President; and his ear wooden as the alleged acting of Mr. Mel Ferrer.

With these reservations, I suspect that Mr. Whalen's primary distinction is that he's a poet's poet. Now, this may seem an eccentric opinion: he lacks all of the traditional attributes. He doesn't live in or east of the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa; he has always lived out in Joachim Miller country, usually in or near the San Francisco Bay area. Translations or imitations of his of the latest Russian or Transylvanian poet never appear in The New York Review of Books nor does one come across his work in The New Yorker; he publishes in Coyote's Journal and Desert Review (edited and published "somewhere in New Mexico"). Nor is he a familiar, beloved figure on stage at the 92nd Street Poetry Center or in the small lecture hall at the Guggenheim Museum in which the rituals of the Academy of American Poets are celebrated; on the contrary, Mr. Whalen has been seen reading with Beat poets in sweaty, endless poetry orgies held whenever possible in locations such as the Longshoreman's Hall on the docks of San Francisco. But I call him a poet's poet because no other poet has duplicated, as far as I know, the exemplum he offers his fellows; namely, poetry can be found anywhere in one's immediate, daily life and thoughts, and it can be found there day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. (pp. 339-40)

Paul Carroll, "Laureate of the Day After the Seven Days of Creation," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1971, pp. 338-40.

It is Philip Whalen's gift that, regardless of what you may feel about his poetic method, he can touch you with the sense that you are more than a mere onlooker…. Whalen is capable of keeping his language charged. Often, but not so often as one might wish, it ignites, sometimes in long passages, but mainly in brief but knowledgeably provocative lines….

Read separately, Whalen's individual volumes of poems are more interesting than when they are taken together, since there is a certain cloying repetitiveness of manner…. For me, Whalen is most moving when he writes directly and without the many superficial exuberances so common in his poetry. (p. 52)

John R. Reed, in Poetry (© 1973 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1973.