Study Guide

Sourdough Mountain Lookout

by Philip Whalen

Sourdough Mountain Lookout Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The style and structure of “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” not only reflect and express Whalen’s Buddhist views but also express his way of thinking. Whalen speaks for himself in the poem as a witness to his experience. He clearly does not take himself seriously, a stance appropriate to any spiritually oriented poem and especially to a Buddhist poem. In the Buddhist view, the “self” is unreal, an aggregation of various elements. The quotation from the Buddha expresses this view: “All the constituents of being are/ Transitory.” That being the case, the constituents of this poem are also transitory, as Whalen’s loose, notational style suggests. He does not try to create a poem as an eternal monument to his experience; instead, his poem is a loose, tentative testimony to what is passing and ephemeral. About halfway through, Whalen suggests that like Buddha and Jesus, he is preaching on a mountain: “Flies & other insects come from miles around/ To listen” to Whalen tell them and the reader that all things are transitory. Whalen’s awareness ranges from the very rocks of the mountains to the sun, from the flies that come to listen to him to the brontosaurus that has left fossils in the rocks. The sun flames in the background of the poem as the unavoidable fire that burns and transforms all things. In referring to Heraclitus, Whalen introduces a Western philosopher of change to match the Buddha’s sense that all things are in flux. The second quotation from Heraclitus presents the world as a system of transformations that flow without ceasing.

In the first lines, Whalen says he is too “old and fat” to go up the mountain again. In the last two lines, he says that he has never left: “ ‘Four times up,/ Three times down.’ I’m still on the mountain.” He is still on the mountain because his experience of transcending the world of flux remains with him. The mantra that just precedes these lines expresses and engenders that experience. The Heart Sutra teaches that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Whalen implies that he has somehow incorporated that teaching and that it stays with him. Written about fifteen years before Whalen formally became a Zen Buddhist monk, “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” clearly expresses the Zen teaching that samsara, this world of change, is nirvana, the world of freedom.