Philip Whalen Whalen, Philip (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Whalen 1923–

American poet and novelist.

Best known as a poet, Whalen has been praised for his skill at conveying emotion through evocative language. Much of the emotional impact of Whalen's verse results from his use of free association, a technique which developed out of his relationship with the group of San Francisco-based avant-garde writers known as the Beats. A strong literary force during the 1950s, the Beats were united by various interests: unconventional poetic form, altered consciousness through the use of hallucinogens, sexual freedom, Eastern philosophy, and antiestablishment politics. Whalen's informal grammar and syntax, irreverent wit, and his belief in Zen philosophy both represented and reinforced the group's style and beliefs. Whalen became a Zen monk in 1972.

Whalen's most noted poetry collection, On Bear's Head: Selected Poems (1969), contains elements which recur in his later works, including a casual, ambling style of free association. This style represents a break with the concisely refined imagist poetry of Ezra Pound or the formal, intellectual verse of T. S. Eliot. Like most of Whalen's verse, many of the poems in this collection are crafted by splicing together short, often single-line observations recorded earlier in notebooks. The result is spontaneous, conversational language which, while called by some critics undisciplined and chaotic, is generally regarded as aurally appealing. Another aspect of On Bear's Head, typical of Whalen's work and usually noted by critics, is his reverential treatment of the mundane.

Two of Whalen's more recent poetry collections are faulted for having only personal, rather than universal significance. In The Kindness of Strangers: Poems 1969–1974 (1976), many of Whalen's friends from the Beat Movement appear as characters, but the references made to events in their lives have little meaning to the general reader. Critics also find Whalen's use of Oriental terminology in this work unnecessarily obscure and his emphasis on detail tedious. Similarly, Enough Said: Fluctuat Ne Mergitur: Poems 1974–1979 (1980), although praised for its offhand humor, has been referred to as a montage of images and ideas which fail to cohere into a unified whole.

(See also CLC, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 16.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Whalen's first novel [You Didn't Even Try], belying his title, shows that a fair life inside an American family—a series of related families, in this case—is more or less possible so long as you do not rely on the family for every source of nourishment, or as one more substitute for warfare. Mr. Whalen is well known as a San Francisco poet, expert at carefully controlled and highly original poetic forms for private experience. His novel has little of his customary experimentation and in that sense may be disappointing to readers of his poems. It concerns what happens to beat and intellectual attitudes when their owner-occupiers grow middle-aged. The hero's wife, Helen, is a centre of malcontented energy, a Fury of the monogamous system whose ability as an art-historian has petered out and left her with one full-time occupation: getting her husband, Ken, to conform. The rest of Mr. Whalen's middle-class artists, scientists and writers communicate because they can speak from levels and varieties of self-conscious experience which are not concentrated in the family. Their lack of inhibition would probably appear grotesque in Liberty Center or Winesburg, Ohio, but at least their lives manage joy pretty regularly. The women do not need to energize themselves from preying on their men.

Mr. Whalen writes in a relaxed and witty manner about people whose independence springs from knowing something professionally and having...

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Robert Sward

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whalen's You Didn't Even Try is amiable, rambling, intensely self-involved. Tired. Nothing very much happens and no one seems to mind, which is pleasant, but wearing—especially since the writing has so little to do with the liveliness of mind that forever mocks its own activities including those of the setting-down of words. The book alludes to varying recognizable tensions, actions (anxiety, affection, anger), yet Mr. Whalen seems preoccupied, at some tonal distance from the thing he is saying. What can one make of writing out of touch with the very feelings it is intending to convey? What is best in the book are those points where Kenneth, the protagonist, goes off on some distracted flight, an imaginative sidestepping where there is clear tonal accuracy.

"She was talking. He thought about nasturtiums, he'd seen a great field on a sloping hill-side in the park just for a moment on Saturday. It had been foggy the ground was dry the nasturtiums glowed…."

Yet even here there is some evasion in that the writing remains tentative, fails even after an entire scene to follow through. One is continually struck, in Whalen's poems, by the mind's speed, the tonal and rhythmic rightness (as in Delights of Winter at the Shore). Why in the fiction is there a need for discursive qualification, thoughts and afterthoughts, talk-talk-talk, an author's bland intrusion? (pp. 355-56)

Robert Sward, "Poets at Novels" (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXII, No. 5, August, 1968, pp. 353-56.∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The kindness of strangers, a] grab bag, as opposed to collection, might be readable provided you were "Allen," "Tom," or another of the author's friends whose names are tossed around in it: then you might know whom and what Whalen is talking about, and be in on the many arcane references and Oriental words he uses. The connections attempted in these poems often do not work unless the reader has access to the brain that originated them, and the attempts at a description of "objective reality" (the poet would probably reject the phrase) are often merely lists of objects, in the manner of, say, Gary Snyder at his worst. The late Frank O'Hara raises his head here as well, in fragments that try to catch the aura of a moment by listing its trivia. The kindness of strangers seems to have been written exclusively for the poet's friends, and so sometimes seems the recorded conversation of "Bobbie," "Mickey the Sun," and others. Whale has done better work, notably in his collection, On Bear's Head …, which this present pastiche does not approach in any way.

A review of "The Kindness of Strangers: Poems, 1969–1974," in Choice (copyright © 1976 by American Library Association), Vol. 13, No. 9, November, 1976, p. 1140.

Edward Butscher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Kindness of Strangers once again proves that imitation is a measure of love, not skill. Whalen belongs to the "spontaneous composition" cadre of poets associated with the West Coast and the so-called New York School since the 1950's, particularly Frank O'Hara and Ted Berrigan. He has, however, neither Berrigan's integrity nor O'Hara's wit.

Self-indulgence is Whalen's nemesis, the puerile belief that whatever he puts on paper assumes significance, bird-droppings raised to the curb heights of avant garde sculpture: 'Everybody downtown / Miserable today / Bought the wrong size / Overdrawn at the bank". This is the initial stanza of a poem intent upon relating the author's parochial hipster milieu to the larger inequities of a flawed American scene. Like so many of his fellow free spirits', Whalen's verses are readily identifiable by their persistent diatribes against national materialism and other of society's hideous crimes, which presumably grants automatic relevance to automatic droppings, and their more persistent, incestuous cross-references and dedications to comrades-in-arms, Kenneth Rexroth, Tom Clark, and that most minimal of minimalists, Aram Saroyan….

The only things missing [from Whalen's verse] are truth, beauty, discipline, and the back-breaking labor required to transform raw experience into poetry. If this sounds harsh, it is the consequence of frustration, because Whalen is not without potential. From time to time, he is capable of witty perceptions, does push language to the tension point where a metaphysical shift appears imminent, as in a Message about winter: "Uninvited lily / (what bulb so dim / what Dora so dumb / Not to see sun's heat / snow white) / howling flower in my skull" When he learns to distinguish between mirror and self, Whalen might yet conduct electricity between word and idea. (p. 171)

Edward Butscher, "Fathers and Sons," (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXXX, No. 3, June, 1977, pp. 167-72.∗

Geoffrey Thurley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whalen has never produced the magnum opus he seems intellectually qualified to have written. Instead, there are the shorter ironic pieces ("For C," "Fond Farewell to the Chicago Quarterly") which are often perfect, and the longer, fragmented works which only occasionally achieve the moments of penetrating insight…. It seems to have been Whalen's destiny, his function perhaps, to accept a kind of failure. We may speculate … on the influence of the feminization of the mind encouraged by Buddhism. It is unlikely that a forthright Christian ethic of duty, obligation and striving would have been able to give us the things Whalen has given. If we compare him with Roethke, for instance, whom he resembles in...

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Cid Corman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Phil [Philip Whalen]—my nextdoor neighbor and friend—mostly makes poetry out of local deprecations—usually wired to explode in his own face—little detonations. A born executioner of the petty but irremediable self. [Severance Pay contains] 29 poems by my count: most quite short, the final "Birthday Poem"—17 pp.—out of the 51 of text.

American Chaplinesque: the poems deceptively easy; i.e., they work with more care and economy than immediately registers. And they live with a remarkable easy immediacy. References are close to home—some would say private and I cannot tell since I live too close to the man—but the particulars are clear and always given. (p. 151)

The poems are each and all given their date of ascension. And the dying implicit in the meaninglessness of any occasion tinges each and all.

Phil is the comedian who always cries at his own jokes. (p. 152)

Unmuffled delight in speech, in petulance, in shit. The anger. The love that keeps creeping out—like nobody's dog in anyone's yard.

Playing Bach for himself and the passing neighbors, shrieking at the mongrel cats who bring in dirt while he vacuums the tatami or cursing the cat that bites (gratuitously) the foot of one who often does the feeding, the doors back and front open—letting the air flow through—at almost any hour. The cleanliness, the thoughtfulness, the daintiness of a bear of a man, beard of a man, who relishes whatever it is that it is to be…. (p. 153)

Cid Corman, "'Severence Pay' (Whalen)," in his At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language, Vol. II (copyright © 1978 by Cid Corman), Black Sparrow Press, 1978, pp. 151-54.

Hugo Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading Philip Whalen's Enough Said made me feel nostalgic for a moment at the end of the 1960s when it seemed possible that relaxed thinking and a jotter by the ashtray might be the longed-for alternative to failure and the midnight oil. Lines like Whalen's "I looked inside the refrigerator and said 'Credit Lyonnais'" seemed to catch a certain explosive humour and to be always on the point of delivering something profound. They never did: such flashes looked pale in the light of day. Yet there was a mood of giggly disjointedness, and an aesthetic of stoned silliness, that tolerated such cuteness. It was a reaction to the world of "You Know it Makes Sense", a poetry of jingles, headlines, and politics rather than a poetry in which feeling or wit might properly figure. It was also, in the end, one of poetry's blind alleys: fun for a year or two (there were Paris Review poems about forks made of celery) but then a bore.

Like many of the poets of that period, Philip Whalen writes poems in which pretentiousness is used in inverted commas to disguise what has become a real pretentiousness…. The strange thing is that the poems in Enough Said were written as late as 1979, a date which should have seen Whalen suppressing such whimsy instead of dressing it up in a book. "The most interesting thing about this book", he writes in a preface, "is that it was written under ideal conditions. The author was living a life of elegant retirement in the character of a Zen Buddhist priest at the Hossen Temple in San Francisco". Is this enough to explain lines such as the following?

           A freezing factory; somebody else's jewels
           used in an attempt to incriminate
           Fat shaving brush flower

That is the poem in its entirety. I particularly like the semicolon. Mr Whalen is photographed in monk's robes looking very pleased. Either the conditions were a trifle weird up at the temple, or else the Buddha spoilt him:

            X: You can do anything
            Y: I'm so glad. One day
            I shall buy a full gallon of Best Foods Mayonnaise….

What a super idea, Philip!

Hugo Williams, "The Jotter by the Ashtray," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4081, June 19, 1981, p. 707.∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Those who buy [Enough Said: Poems 1974–1979] will know what to expect. Philip Whalen has been around for a while, at least in San Francisco, and the kind of poetry he writes—lightheaded rococo graffiti—has passed from cult to corporation. Through the shredder of what he calls his "blissed out" sensibility he feeds the "incunabula tightrope novel of blank mind," so that a "neutrotic smoke alarm gribbers in the zendo."… Whalen's book is mindful of its abandonments, its "aimless luxury." There is little conceptual shape, no argument of vision or from experience. Still, there is a certain charm. Some of it may be the misérable miracle (in Michaux's phrase) of drugs; certainly it is the "trill and...

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Tom Clark

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nothing wrong with being small…. Poets from time immemorial have achieved big things not only in long forms like epic, but in such small packages as haiku, epigram, and lyric. Two of today's important poets whose stature owes largely to their meticulous care for the small details of writing, Philip Whalen and Anselm Hollo … have excellent new books out this summer.

Whalen, nearing sixty, was an authentic mover in the San Francisco "Poetry Renaissance' of the 1950s. In Heavy Breathing, a collection of all the poems he's published in the last dozen years, his gifts of ear and eye, split-second emotional annotations, speed and lightness and occasional flashing pipeline-rides along the crest...

(The entire section is 243 words.)