Philip Whalen, Overtime: Selected Poems
Edited by Michael Rothenberg, introduction by Leslie Scalapino
New York: Penguin Books, 1999
Overtime brings back into print, in a new format, and with new work included, most of the essential poetry of legendary beat poet/Zen priest Philip Whalen. I have been waiting a long time for this work to come round again, because of all the Beat writers, Whalen’s work is the most relevant, holds up best, and offers the most possibilities to the contemporary reader and writer.
I am not so sure about the use of the label “beat,” (which was meant to stand for “beatific,” rather than semi-depressed). Other than describing a group of writers who happened to know each other well, and to have encouraged each other during the difficult and rather narrow period of American culture in the late nineteen forties and fifties, there is not so much that holds these writers together as a school. The one thread that does run through them all is their distaste for and rejection of conventional American cultural life: they are in revolt against the boredom, contradiction, and repressed violence that lies beneath the surface of the optimism of the post-war years. But beyond this their themes and methods differ considerably.
For Whalen, writing itself, as a practice, is everything: writing as experiment, as exploration, as active assault on reality, no holds barred. This work is not mythical autobiography (Kerouac), nor is it romantic politics or personal lyricism (Ginsberg). Instead in Whalen you will find writing at its purest and most desperate: writing that feeds on writing, writing that soars and dips inside writing, writing wrapped up in the problematics of writing and struggling to get out, writing that absolutely must be written, with all the force that this necessity implies. Because of this almost post-modern emphasis on process and non-assertion, Whalen’s work was and remains a source for much writing that is going on now, and in the early seventies, when contemporaries of mine were settling out to re-frame poetics in a new key, it was Whalen, among the writers of the previous generation, to whom they turned. (This was especially true of West Coast writers: there is a strong self conscious West Coast spin to Whalen’s work, in terms of theme, setting, and interests. He is in fact one of the first clearly identifiable West Coast writers in American literature. His serious and early interest in Asia and in Buddhism is a part of this).
And yet, unlike many post-modernists, Whalen’s writing is as personal, as friendly, and as human as writing can possibly be, addressing the reader directly, without the usual obscuring screen of high poetic rhetoric. As in Whitman, with Whalen’s work you “touch a man,” sometimes slightly deranged or obsessed, sad or distracted: whatever is going on in the “continuous nerve movie” of language is included, with no posturing whatsoever. In Whalen you have things straightforward and unvarnished- phenomenologically, moment by moment, as it actually is, as Leslie Scalapino points out in her fine introduction that situates Whalen’s work in the present rather than in a nostalgic past. Whalen writes (records is a better word) what actually is going on, the mind and hand as it moves, with all their slips, joys, jokes, wit, and woe.
I remember stumbling into this work, in 1970, in the 1967 Harcourt Brace edition of his selected work called “On Bear’s Head,” a thick wacky volume like nothing I had ever seen before. Here was writing that was utterly and completely free, elegant, sure. I remember going over passages scores of times, lines so simple and natural you could not quite figure out how he’d got them so completely perfect in rhythm and sound:
but the season UNACCOUNTABLY changes, the leaves
all brilliantly fall, thousands at a time,
Yellow red stripey and tawny splotchy crackling
vegetable brocade foam around my ankles
(new cold makes them ache) the sun blares through
wind blasted smoke of burning leaves dead twigs fallen
(from “Birthday Poem, in advance of the occasion of my next one (if any) 1967”)
Yet the stuff was seeming not poetry at all, because it was put together in ways poetry had never been put together before. Whalen’s poems seem to be, in some cases, especially in the earlier work, a species of collage crossed with doodling, the careful and at the same time completely intuitive stringing together of writing gestures (indeed the work was composed longhand in journals that often include cartoons and calligraphic flourishes that are essential to the appreciation of the work: Whalen is one poet with whom the printed page is often a disadvantage). Some of the works of the fifties and sixties are many pages long, completely disconnected in terms of theme or regular structure, yet not in any sense random or shapeless. Here was poetry that was quite clearly constructed with great delicacy and skill, yet constructed in some new as yet undiscovered way: based on the shape of writing itself, rather than on narrative, theme, or emotion.
On Bear’s Head was an instant underground classic and many poets of my generation used it, as I did, for permission to create works in a new paradigm. We had all read Williams, Stein, Zukovsky, Olsen, Creeley, Ginsberg. But it was Whalen's spirit, his humor and freedom, his compositional daring, his willingness to include everything and anything, that gave us the tools we needed to create the poetry we needed to create.
In re-reading much of Whalen’s work I feel as if I am revisiting my own dreams. Several things strike me this time round.
First, there is the fact of his loneliness and distance from almost any form of social engagement. While Whalen is passionately political, and often angry at things the way they are and were, his sensibility is essentially poetic: he lives in, or wants to live in, a world in which peace and beauty prevail. He is often desperate about love and yet is unable to find it in a world in which others are so annoying and difficult to get along with. Some of the most poignant moments in Overtime are long laments about the impossibility of living in the world as it is, and, simultaneously, soaring riffs about the beauty hidden underneath things, the imaginary perfect worlds of alternative universes that just be might be this one.
I keep trying to live as if this world were heaven
puke fish dark fish pale fish park fish
mud fish lost fish selfish
Rockers and Mods
“acres of clams”
And all my friends, all the people I’ve known, all I’m going to know
Were mistresses and lovers, all of us with each other
All intimate with me...
(from “Love Love Love Again”)
Another feature of Whalen’s work is the use, following Williams, of ordinary American speech. There are numerous passages that break in here and there of ordinary people and their everyday speech (they all sound like they are speaking in around 1935, probably in rural or small town Oregon, where Whalen hails from). It is almost as though in the middle of a ranting or an elegant or a learned passage these folks just had to show up to bring the thing back down to the world of regular folks, from which we cannot or should not stray for very long:
Well that’s a fine how de do. Now I’ve got to take and hunt up
another one of them thing to go on there! One of them little-
well, I certainly am put out!
Then there are the celebrated arrangements, the scattered lists of stuff that seems irrelevant or simply odd. The obsessions with plants or minerals or arcane studies of various sorts that are just seemingly stuck in the poems willy nilly, though their placement also seems to be just right. I remember once in conversation Allen Ginsberg confiding to me that although he was fascinated by Whalen’s work (indeed, Ginsberg was one of Whalen’s biggest fans and supporters and they enjoyed a forty-odd year warm and mutually respectful relationship) he really couldn't understand it. Ginsberg, his own work so firmly built on personal confession and subject matter, could only marvel at Whalen’s nonlinear deftness:
Octopus egg cases,
eggs of shark
purple stone mountain
green purple martin
(from “The Grand Design”)
If you consider the work at it progresses over time you can see a clear movement toward calmness, simplicity, and finally silence. Whalen’s need to find a sane way to live, a way that would take him out of the craziness of American life and toward something deeper and more real, led him finally, through his years in Japan, to becoming a Zen Buddhist priest in the San Francisco Soto Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi. He was ordained in the early seventies and practiced monastically for a number of years (he and I were monks together at Tassajara Zenshinji monastery in the Los Padres National Forest near Carmel California) before moving back to San Francisco to become abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center. This period coincides with a quieting and modulating of the work. There are fewer and fewer rants in the poems, fewer and fewer long poems, and a kind of classicism (not inconsistent in style, attitude, or tone with the earlier work) begins to emerge. By the eighties the poems have become quite short, just a gesture or two, and since then, with Whalen’s failing eyesight and less frequent reading, there have been almost no poems at all. Here is the final poem of the book, written in 1985:
For Allen, on His 60th Birthday
Having been mellow & wonderful so many years
What’s left but doting & rage?
Yet the balance of birthing & dying
Keeps a level sight: Emptiness, not
Vacancy, has room for all departure &
Arrival; I don’t even know what
Day it is.
This essay appears in Norman Fischer, Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, Dec 15, 2015). It was originally published in Jacket #11 (April 2000).