Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
Philip Whalen grew up in the small town of The Dalles on the Columbia River, where he attended public school. In his high school years, he contributed to his high school literary magazine and commenced his readings in Asian literature and philosophy. Since his family was unable to send him to college, after his graduation in 1941, Whalen took minor jobs before being drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. He received training in radio operation and maintenance and was given stateside military posting during the war. His military service left him adequate free time to continue pursuing his writing.
Receiving his military discharge in 1946, Whalen returned to Oregon, where he enrolled at Reed College on the G.I. Bill. He pursued a course in creative writing and developed several important friendships, including with fellow students Lew Welch and Gary Snyder. The trio shared lodgings in a rooming house in 1950, the year they also met and received encouragement from William Carlos Williams, who spent a week at Reed on a reading tour. The encounter marked the point when Whalen began taking himself seriously as a writer. After leaving Reed, Whalen supported himself with a string of odd jobs along the West Coast that ended with summer employment as a fire spotter in Mount Baker National Forest, in 1955. This experience is reflected in his poem “Sourdough Mountain Lookout.” That fall, he moved to San Francisco, and at Snyder’s invitation took part in the historic Six Gallery reading of October 13 at which Allen Ginsberg presented his ground-breaking “Howl” for the first time. The event was pivotal, marking the beginning of the West Coast Beat movement. Whalen’s circle of literary friends expanded rapidly, growing to include Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso, among others. Ginsberg and Kerouac were expecially influential in freeing Whalen’s poetic sensibility from earlier conventions.
The maturing of Whalen’s poetic voice during the mid-1950’s saw fruition in 1960, when two major Whalen collections, Like I Say and Memoirs of an Interglacial Age, were published. In the same year, he was included in Donald Allen’s influential anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. In the mid-1960’s, he joined Snyder in Kyoto, Japan. Kyoto would serve as his primary residence until the early 1970’s, although he spent time in the United States in 1969 overseeing the publication of his first major volume of collected poems, On Boar’s Head. After his final return to the United States, he moved to the San Francisco Zen Center, where he was ordained as a Zen monk in 1973. Several volumes of Whalen’s poetry appeared in the 1970’s, subsequently collected in Heavy Breathing. In 1991, he was made abbot of San Francisco’s Hartford Street Zen Center. At the end of the decade, in 1999, his major collection Overtime was published. He died in 2002, after a long illness.
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