The Poem

“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.

“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...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Forms and Devices

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 entire section is 539 words.)