The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)