Philip Whalen

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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

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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 labour these days…. But he is still a comic agent, a mind full of curious and connected facts, streams of speculation, and a sociable detachment from the world of compulsive work and husbandry. Work for him means a minimum of labour for the right amount of money required to read, think, walk, eat and make love. When his wife nags him with "Why don't you do something?", there is one obvious reply: he is doing something, and he likes it on the whole.

But anarchistic dropping-out has penalties: "quasi-paralysis", feelings of disintegration and being gaoled, and a sense of "exploded nerve tissue". He escapes the juggernaut sacrifice to the Family and steers clear of the world of a workmate…. Ken's way out is by way of the Sierra but not so completely as for those earlier Dharma bums on their desolation peaks. Mr. Whalen can only leave his hero with a brief statement of the problem the whole novel enacts:

The mountain before him was pleasing. The actual intimate presence of a woman could occupy his consciousness, evoke his love in the same way, but no single woman he could think of could bear the whole weight of his love; he must build a work of his own which would bear the rest of that weight, that pressure, distribute it to the rest of the world…. But always the main question: how to tell my love, how to act it out?

"Family Man," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3436, January 4, 1968, p. 5.

Robert Sward

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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.∗


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[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

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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

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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 many ways (they write the tragicomedy of obesity), Roethke's labor and strain seem inadequate recompense for the loss of the humor and the play of mind Whalen's detachment affords him…. Curiously, many of Whalen's most strange and powerful perceptions are … entirely unmetaphoric. It is enough, he intimates, merely to observe. There is, in my opinion, nothing in Carlos Williams or Olson to match the eerie reality of these things in Whalen. "All that comparison ever does," Olson had observed, "is set up a series of reference points: to compare is to take one thing and try to understand it by marking its similarities to or differences from another thing." Yet Olson's own verse swills around pointlessly, unless some metaphor creeps in. It is to Whalen that we must turn for evidence of the power of annotated reality.

This is especially true of the earlier work. Like I Say (1950–58) still seems his best collection. The wryness is already there. But the intelligence about himself (what we have come to regard as intelligent behavior in a poet this century being largely a matter of laughing at himself) is displayed as much in the mental energy that vaults beyond itself in order to see itself as it is in the self-depreciation. Whalen notes his failure—his obesity, his never getting anything done—with an athletic intellectuality strangely inconsistent with it and with the image of himself that he otherwise projects in his verse. This intellectual energy was what made possible the notation of unadorned reality just noted as being so important in Whalen's verse: the logs swilling about in the tide, the cut-off flowers still growing—these things are comprehended by an act of the imagination, in Coleridge's understanding of the term, not copied by a prose-camera. In his best pieces Whalen sets these natural images in a sound-pattern of considerable subtlety and a very complex intellectual frame. "Homage to Lucretius" … suggests a systematic scheme in the title which is belied in the characteristic throwaway manner:

            It all depends on how fast you're going
            Tending towards light, sound
            Or the quiet of mere polarity

But the casual manner is supported here (or it supports) a very wide-ranging and economically presented argument. "We want crystals," he observes, but "can't easily imagine another world"—and the reason is that this one (we remember at this point the atoms of Lucretius) is itself "barely / Visible." Enough to say that this genuinely philosophical inquiry lacks altogether the portentousness of Robert Duncan's pronouncements, but also that it succeeds in giving the abstract speculation a natural expression: the root-experience, which, I imagine, gave rise to the poem in the first place, is now disclosed, to fill out and illustrate the Lucretian speculations which were in fact suggested by it:

            We lined up and pissed in a snowbank
            A slight thaw would expose
            Three tubes of yellow ice….
            And so on….

The last phrase is disarming, and—of course—charming: we are meant to be delighted by the performance, and we are. This seems to me to be close in many ways to William Empson's more successfully philosophical explorations. What is characteristic of Whalen is not just the colloquial casualness which he shares with Empson, but the ease with which he succeeds in giving the insights—the piss frozen into tubes yields an insight into "A world not entirely new, But realized …"—a greater context of meaning. And the point is this meaning, not the attractive casualness, which is inerely instrumental.

At his best, Whalen succeeds in relating this order of intelligence to the random events of a life—wasted, according to the world's view, in meditations, reading, and staring out of the window—and in holding it all in one perspective. The best of these complex efforts to marshal everything is, in my opinion, "Sourdough Mountain Lookout" …, which displays, in its moments of inertia and fatigue, as much as in its explosions of mental energy, a wholeness rare in contemporary writing…. (pp. 202-04)

The poem exercises a fine virtuosity of feeling, moving from sharp imagist observation, instinct with life, to the inward world, the relations between which are Whalen's real theme. The intellectual vitality which holds together the details and the percepts is revealed also in the apparently random reading which structures the poem: Heraclitus, Byron, Empedocles, Buddha—the sources and influences file into and out of the poem according to a rhythm of walking, resting, climbing and reflection. When he is tired ("pooping out, exhausted"), the ironic awareness of himself comes to the surface ("Remember smart guy there's something / Bigger, something smarter than you"). And this wry self-ridicule—what a reader fresh to Whalen is most likely to take away from the experience—is a product of his intellectual vigor as much as the ability to "get around"—come round the back of—his wider intellectual interests. He concludes with a generalization that holds the whole of what has gone before easily within itself:

            What we see of the world is the mind's
            Invention and the mind
            Though stained by it, becoming
            Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies—
            Can shift instantly
            A dirty bird in a square time….
            ["Sourdough Mountain Lookout"]

Such reflections upon the relations between the mind and the outer world constitute Whalen's major theme. It is a slippery ramp to get on: it is easy to feel, in moving through On Bear's Head, that Whalen is too clever for his own good. He does not work up the excitement in the face of the world which we see in the best of McClure; he cannot, it could be, put all the bits together right. He finds it easier to negate what he has just said than to find reasons for moving from it onto something greater. Scepticism is his essence. (p. 205)

Geoffrey Thurley, "'The Development of the New Language': Wieners, Jones, McClure, Whalen, Corso," in his The American Moment: American Poetry in the Mid-Century (© 1977 by Geoffrey Thurley; reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, Inc.; in Canada by Edward Arnold (Publishers) Limited), Edward Arnold, 1977, (and reprinted by St. Martin's Press, 1978), pp. 187-211.∗

Cid Corman

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276

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

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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.∗


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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 marble hallelujah" of language and free association. Is it self-indulgent? Very. Hans Memling and Sonny Rollins are thrown together in the same poem, while Thomas Mann boogies with "'a lady who comes in' daily." His method is the pan-shot or zoom-in, "not to claim or be claimed." Latin tags, paranoia flashes, lunch leftovers, ex-lovers, radio spots, and reading scraps—all drift through the poems. Whalen's is, if not a wise passivity, then a mellow one.

J. D. McClatchy, in a review of "Enough Said: Poems 1974–1979," (© 1982 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol: CXL, No. 6, September, 1982, p. 353.

Tom Clark

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243

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 of the imagination, confirm his position as a contemporary local master.

Whalen's work may eventually stand as the number one production of the whole strain of West Coast poetry which weds naturalism and Zen-style reflection into something like a pure regional style. Rexroth, Snyder, Everson, McClure also belong to this strain. What Whalen has going over all the above is a sense of humor. In this book, it survives largely in the classic self-deprecating form, although the inroads of age and a decaying culture—from which the poet chronically flees, retreating to Kyoto, Bolinas, Tassajara—have also made him increasingly testy about those who expect him, a "genius" with "limitations," to "grow up, shut up, die."… (p. 5)

Tom Clark, "Flashing Pipeline Rides," in Exquisite Corpse, Vol. 1, Nos. 8 & 9, August-September, 1983, pp. 4-5.∗

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Whalen, Philip (Vol. 6)