The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

“Sourdough Mountain Lookout” reflects on Philip Whalen’s experience as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains in the western United States. The poem does not develop ideas or narrative in a linear fashion; instead, it wanders and loops in a manner that suggests the natural course of the thoughts of someone ruminating on experience. In his notes on poetics in The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960), Whalen describes his poetry as “a picture or a graph of a mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is historyand you.” The title names the mountain where Whalen was a lookout in the summer of 1955. The poem is dedicated to Kenneth Rexroth, a poet of the generation before Whalen’s. Rexroth influenced and encouraged the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, including Whalen. Rexroth also helped make Chinese and Japanese poetry known in the West through his translations and essays. Since “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” makes a number of references to Buddhist and Asian topics and since Rexroth shared an interest in mountaineering, the dedication is quite appropriate.

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“Sourdough Mountain Lookout” has a loose, associational form. It is a series of more or less developed notations reflecting on Whalen’s experience as a lookout. It divides into roughly forty verse paragraphs, including several that are only one line long. On a larger scale, the poem may be seen as divided into four sections of unequal length. These divisions are marked by quotations that set a tone for that section. The quotations are introduced by the source’s name in capital letters. There are section quotations from the Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Empedocles and from the Buddha. Whalen quotes other figures as well, including his grandmother, eighteenth century English writer Samuel Johnson, and another Forest Service employee.

The poem differs slightly in its published versions. In On Bear’s Head, it has an epigraph from the ancient Chinese writer Tsung Ping that anticipates the tone of Whalen’s poem as a meditative reflection on mountains. The epigraph does not appear in Like I Say. In The New American Poetry 1945-1960, the poem includes a transliteration of a Sanskrit mantra as well as Whalen’s colloquial translation. The epigraph from Tsung Ping not only establishes a tone for the whole poem but also governs the first section. Whalen begins by stating that he always says he will not return to the mountains. This opening makes it clear that he is reflecting on his experiences as a lookout but that his perspective includes more than just that experience. In seven paragraphs, this first section establishes the feeling of being on the mountaintop. The details of fog, lakes, and animals establish the setting, with Whalen placed firmly within it: His “bootprints mingle with deer-foot” in “the dusty path to the privy.” Whalen assumes a very human and ordinary persona throughout the poem so that despite its concern with elevated topics, it never becomes ponderous or self-serious. Consistent with Whalen’s general attitude in his poetry, “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is playful and relaxed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

The language of “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is colloquial and casual without being slack or unclear. Whalen uses colloquial American language much as a music composer such as Aaron Copland may use folk tunes for formal compositions; the spoken language becomes the medium for thought and perception that rise beyond the rather cloudy level of ordinary awareness. The first three lines set the tone and attitude for the remainder of the poem: “I always say I won’t go back to the mountains/ I am too old and fat there are bugs mean mules/ And pancakes every morning of the world.”

Whalen varies line length and paragraph length expressively. The longer lines include more poetic language:

Morning fog in the southern gorgeGleaming foam restoring the old sea-levelThe lakes in two lights green soap and indigoThe high cirque-lake black half-open eye

These lines describe the fog in the gorge with respect for what it is while still keeping in mind the process of change that is a major theme of the poem. The language is careful and exact without fancy effects. The only unusual term, “cirque,” is chosen not for poetic effect but for geological accuracy. The poem’s shorter lines are terse and tightly focused. A later passage of seven lines falls into a syllabic pattern. The first two and the last three lines have four syllables each, and the third and fourth lines have eight syllables, accommodating polysyllabic words: “There was a bird/ Lived in an egg/ And by ingenious chemistry/ Wrought molecules of albumen/ To beak and eye.” This paragraph draws the reader’s attention to the specifics of avian reproduction to express the theme of change. These two passages illustrate Whalen’s skill in combining different types of diction in the same poem as well as his skill in writing in different modes. The quotations he includes extend the dictional range of the poem from the colloquialism of his father and grandmother to the aphorisms of the philosophers.

Whalen makes little use of metaphor or simile in the poem. The figurative language that he does use does not call attention to itself. An example is his description of the fossil of a palm frond as a “centipede shadow” and a “limestone lithograph.” Generally, Whalen uses literal language but loads it with meaning. Toward the end of the poem, however, he uses an emphatic metaphor that extends into symbolism. The mountains surrounding him are a “circle of 108 beads.” The description of the circle of beads is developed in detail. Whalen is referring to a string of mala beads used by both Hindus and Buddhists in meditation. As a string of prayer beads, the mountains acquire a specific meaning for Whalen as they become the means by which he meditates.

The next-to-last paragraph of the poem gives a colloquial American translation of the mantra of the Heart Sutra. A very brief Buddhist scripture, the Heart Sutra is an important text in Zen as well as in other Mahayana Buddhist schools. A translation more literal than Whalen’s would read “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone all the way beyond, awareness, bliss.” Its position at the very end of the poem suggests the mantra’s importance to the poem’s meaning.

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