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The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/31/2009
Location: Tassajara Zen Center
In Topics: Writing / Art / Creativity

Norman reviews his friend Philip Whalen’s collected work.Review:
The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen
Edited by Michael Rothenberg
Foreword by Gary Snyder
Introduction by Leslie Scalapino
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT

By Norman Fischer

As a cultural phenomenon, Western Buddhism has always been highly self conscious. Issues of translation, of religious renewal and decay, have been part of the discussion from the start. Despite this, Western Buddhist practitioners have been curiously uninterested in culture, preferring instead to see the Dharma as a set of scientific procedures that will produce desired impacts on the psyche.

But the fact is, religion is culture, not science.

In this light, I'm especially delighted to have in my hand the new Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, a founding document of Western Buddhist culture. To be sure, I am prejudiced: a working poet myself, I not only knew and admired Philip Whalen, I was his friend, and I have missed him daily since his death in 2002. Still, his importance as a Western Buddhist poetical pioneer is well enough established that I can be forgiven for emphasizing it again now, as this wonderful, thick, beautiful volume appears.

What is an American Buddhist poetry? It's obviously not enough merely to reference Buddhist terms; for the work to reflect, through and through, Buddhist perspectives, they must be deeply imbedded in what's written, as form, as attitude, as structure and substance. As American Buddhist poets go forth with their projects, they will inevitably be building on Philip's work. He was (more than any of the other "Beat" writers, among whom he is always included) a master of form, a bold (if humble and unself-conscious) innovator. His generational American forebears, Pound and Williams, had already broken with conventional English verse, forging a poetry that was hard-edged and inclusive. But they remained magisterial in tone and spirit. It fell to Philip, influenced by his Zen practice, to let that pretence go, writing instead a poetry that was off-handed, present moment oriented, and that could include anything that came along, not because the poet wanted it to, but because it happened to be there. Philip was the first to recognize that poems are not actually "about" anything, and no one is in charge of them. So the poem's scope could be immense, its form spontaneously arisen in the course of writing. I remember first seeing evidence of this in Phil's work in the late 1960's when I was thunderstruck and suddenly liberated from my literary struggles by the elegance of these lines about not being able to write a poem:

Worry walk, no thought appears
One foot follows rug to wood,
Alternate sun and foggy sky
Bulldozer concrete grinder breeze
The windows open again
a line may
spring open, like seams of a boat high on the hot sand

(from "The Best of It" 1964)

Philip was, famously, a learned man. After the Second World War (in which he served as a radio operator) he returned home to the GI bill and went to Reed College, where he took up reading and writing in earnest, deciding that he'd devote his life to these pursuits, salary or no. He spent the rest of his life living out this promise to himself, relying on the kindness of strangers, until, after stints as a high country lookout in the Cascades, and as an English teacher in Japan, he returned to America to become one of the earliest ordained Western Zen monks.

Despite his erudition, which appears throughout his poems in the form of doodles, puns, speculations, and idle chatter ("Balzac: "brillant et tres fecond… malgre certaines/imprefections de style et la minutie de qualques de-/scriptions….")/ St. Honore preserve us against black coffee/These Japanese knickknacks & from writing ourselves/To death instead of dope, syphilis, the madhouse, jail/Suicide…) Philip was given to deceptively sophisticated recitations of plain American English. Here is the entire text of a poem called "Whistler's Mother," one of my favorites:

Mother and Ed are out in the car
Wait til I put on some clothes
Ed's in a hurry. He hasn't eaten since this morning
Wait til I put on some clothes.
Mother and Ed are out in the car. Do you have any clothes on yet?
Let me come in.
Wait til I get some clothes on
Ed is impatient. He and mother are waiting. Can I come in?
Wait til I put on some clothes.
Mother and Ed are out in the car
Wait til I get into some clothes
Can't I come in? Aren't you dressed yet?
Wait til I put on some clothes
Mother and Ed are out in the car. Can I come in?
Wait til I get on some clothes.


No one had ever written anything like this before, not even close. What's Buddhist about it? Well, not to put too fine a point on it (and I wouldn't argue with someone who called it unBuddhist), this poem reflects what's right in front of you, with nothing added, no poetical emotion, no projected meaning, not even a striking image to set it off. True, it sounds nothing like a Japanese or Chinese poem, but then this isn't the Chinese or Japanese tradition, it's the American tradition. It builds on, and takes much further, some of Pound's and Williams' use of Ammurrican slang, as well as Stein's mindless repetition. Its about the immediacy of words themselves, taken, fearlessly, to the nth degree. And it was this powerful insight ("guess what, it turns out that writing is words, how they sound, how the look lying there on the page"), essentially Buddhist in character (there's no self or person, just what arises), that influenced poets of my generation, who built on it, as Whalen had built on his predecessors. (Leslie Scalapino, in her important introduction, writes persuasively of this).

A whole other angle on Philip's immediacy in writing has to do with his calligraphic style, his doodling and drawing, that's integral to the poetry, though seldom reproduced (editor Michael Rothenberg is aware of this, and the present volume gives us a much larger sampling of this material than has been generally available before). At Reed, Philip had studied with the great calligraphy master Lloyd Reynolds, and was early on aware of the tradition of graphic poetry that was always part of the Asian tradition. Over the years Philip worked out an analogue for it in Western calligraphy, and his journals are full of drawings, drawn words, and doodles, sometimes colored and sometimes in black and white. Some have argued that a printed poem by Philip is inevitably a translation of the actual poem, which is, as with Asian poems, an original art work.

Beyond all this brilliant formal innovation, Philip is also the first poet to intimately chronicle American Zen sights and sounds. His Tassajara Monastery poems of the late 1970's are down to earth personal documents of what it is like to live a full-on Buddhist life, and his great long poem "Scenes of Life in the Capitol," takes us into the daily life of Kyoto, with its Buddhist shrines and temple bells.

So any educated Western Buddhist needs to know this book. A life's work between two covers, document of a mind in motion, Buddha Nature as screed, it tells the story of all of us who are trying to find a way to be what and as we are, as Buddhists.