Philip Whalen Whalen, Philip (Vol. 29)

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Introduction

(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 wide and deep interests. The outsider friend, Ken, works on "other people's problematical numbers and machines", the extreme of deadening white-collar...

(The entire section is 3,907 words.)