December 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

“Beyond This Universe of Countless Words”

(Note: This is the first in a series of articles I want to present in this column space on the recent publications of collected poems by significant San Francisco Renaissance poets. Besides the marvelous edition of Whalen’s collected work discussed below, university presses have recently brought out collections by Joanne Kyger and Robin Blaser, as well as a selection of work from 1957-2000 by the poet George Stanley. (The latter did not appear from a university press, but contributed an important body of work for contemporary audiences nonetheless.) Last month Wesleyan released My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, whose work I’ll discuss next month.)

Presenting some of the most significant poetry of the postwar era, The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen should boost Whalen’s cultural status to the level of recognition he deserves, for it reveals an acute introspective power unequaled in the writing of the period. As a modernist in the tradition of Pound, Williams, and Stein, Whalen undertook new directions in poetry, and deserves to be read within a larger context of postwar American letters. His reception of modernism, along with influences from prolonged studies in eastern religions, allowed him to develop a unique, collage-generated serial form that inspected the phenomenological variety of the everyday as it came into contact with the epistemic reach of the individual self.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923 and raised in the Dalles, a small town in the Columbia River Gorge, Whalen served in the Air Force during World War II, and then attended Reed College on the GI Bill. At Reed he developed lasting friendships with poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch, and also met William Carlos Williams, who visited the liberal arts college in 1950. To Snyder, the slightly older Whalen offered new paths of study. “He extended us into areas not much handled by the college classes of those days, such as Indian and Chinese philosophy,” notes Snyder in his introduction to the Collected. “Philip led the way in making conversation possible, and then making poetry out of the territory of those readings.” Such erudition and capacity for learning beyond official cultural perspectives led Whalen and his fellow poets to Pound, Stein, and other modernists. Whalen, influenced by his studies of eastern religions, received these modernist authors in new ways, expanding the capacity of the poem to render perception in a language devoted to popular and vernacular usages. What we find in this collection is a west coast Charles Olson, a man motivated by the aspirations of modernism to reach popular audiences through social commitment and formal innovation. But Whalen, unlike Olson, complicated the high seriousness of the modernist project, breaking down poetic perspective to something limited within the capacity of the poet’s personal vision. While he is certainly a poet of cosmos, like Olson, his measure of it comes with humor and a self-awareness of the limitations of consciousness.

In October 1955, Whalen read poems with Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Allen Ginsberg at San Francisco's Six Gallery; on that legendary night, Ginsberg impressed the audience with his poem "Howl," introducing the Beat Generation as a significant popular force in American arts and culture. “Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac came to town,” writes Snyder, “and catalyzed the energy already fully present into a more public poetics and politics.” While the public presence of poetry increased, however, much of Whalen’s work plumbed the subjective range of experience in language that was intimately located in his unique features of perception. With extended visits to Kyoto, Japan, a meager and simple stay for periods of time in Bolinas, the small arts community north of San Francisco, and prolonged study, practice, and initiation into the Zen Buddhist tradition as a priest, Whalen complicated the relationship between the personal and the public, the inner life and outer practice of it in words.

The work in the Collected reveals the attentions of a man intimately engaged with the morphology of private experience. While the poem gives that personal investigation a public shape, its address is to an order of intelligence that evolves in the poet from his growing sense of awareness, incompleteness of form, and compromises by nature in phenomenal reality. Often poets assume a public of equals or near equals, but Whalen’s more inward compositional process relied on his ability to motivate his own intelligence beyond itself. Uses of notational and collage compositional practices gave his poems a seemingly spontaneous life of their own, and yet they remained dynamic too, providing a reader with a model of self-reflection.

This reflective compositional awareness gives his poems extraordinary range, insightful self-understanding, and a vocabulary of action that reveals motives within particular situations for which he was present. In “T/O,” for instance, he writes:

I: tough thin substance
expanding flexible glass
I traveled past the sun
found other nights and days,
                                       Beyond
this universe of countless worlds and
stars I find many more. Beyond
this temporary imagination I call myself
and mine there are countless others.
Far away, all by their lonesome,

                              *

August royal blackness, brilliant night, &c.

                              *

O tickle star o rub that purple rim, &c. (hat) &c.

                              *

“…there’s not very much of that
left, either…,” Robert Duncan said.

                              *

certain flowers. I’ll put all this into my book, decorate all
these blank white pages. (445-6)

I quote this at length to indicate the complicated formal structure of the poem and to show how rhetorically it motivates a contemplative ethical argument about the nature of the world, the self, and the imagination. Conversational fragments, song lines, and notes-to-self ease the meditative strain of the first portion of the poem. A kind of self-mocking awareness prevents “T/O” from descending under the weight of the universe, which, in a sense, is the poem’s concern. But it is a universe “inside the brain: / their ‘outside’ location (please scratch my back) an illusion?” (446). This is the key difference between Whalen and more conventional poets for whom the self is restricted within phenomenological assumptions of spiritual or physical boundaries. For Whalen, cognitive dissonance between the inside and outside prevents a fuller identification with events “out there.” His “outside” remains within and becomes the subject of considerable energy and scrutiny in his work. What he reveals, finally, is not simply a problem of internal and external resistances, but that there is indeed a membrane through which an inside and outside curiously interpenetrate -- language.

Extraordinarily sensitive to the interaction that takes place at this membrane, Whalen’s work offers staggering perspectives. The introspective personal narratives here argue for a largess and openness to the world through the architectures of the poem. These works are technically brilliant in that they propose strategies for apprehending the self within situations for which the individual can make no claims. The self arrives as part of the interwoven texture of things. Mind, intelligence, perception, language -- or whatever governing, sense-making metaphor you want to use -- establishes itself within the residual artifact of the poem. The poem, then, as a kind of “field poetics,” organizes the communicative range between author, world, text, and reader.

Remarkable too in this collection is the long poem, “Scenes of Life in the Capital.” The “capital” is Kyoto, Japan, where Whalen lived in the late 1960s; the extended narrative shows Whalen’s broad mind at work to test his restless reach for things. He extends pattern recognition from personal biography into historical knowledge that intersects with particular geographic locations. One reason his poems are difficult to write about is that the speed of thought and image never dwell, as the writing schools would have it, upon a given situation. Whalen instead enacts the movement of attention within a precise field of phenomenal relation. So, for instance, in “Scenes of Life in the Capital” we move from memories of World War II to Jack Spicer and meditations on love, Victorian sexuality, and human capacities of learning. He writes:

Failure to conform with these regulations
shall be punished by Court Martial
TAKE ALL YOU WANT BUT EAT ALL YOU TAKE
The following named Enlisted Men are transf
R E S T R I C T E D , SPECIAL ORDER #21 this
HQ dd 8 Feb 1946 contained 6 Pars. C E N S O R E D (588)

A few lines later, he follows the trajectory of a wasp “in the bookshelf” as it “rejects Walt Whitman, / Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, The Goliard Poets, A Vedic Reader, Lama Govinda, Medieval French Verses & Romances, Long Discourse of the Buddha, and The Principal Upanishads.” This is soon followed with an “accidental descent into goofball drift”:

recollections of Jack in Berkeley
Nembies & grass & wine
Geraniums, ripe apricots, & plums
Clio’s green and slanting eyes
Gentle smile of pointed face
how much love I owe to her and to all women
My mother tried to warn me,
“Let your sister ride the bike a while;
Don’t be so damned selfish!”

How can Victorian American lady
Explain to her son that his cock
Doesn’t belong exclusively to himself
But also to certain future women?

It’s a matter of some reassurance
That we are physically indistinguishable from other men.
When introspection shows us
that we have different degrees of intelligence
Varying capacities for knowing morality
We lose something of our complacency (589)

The “scenes of life” do not focus, as we see, on the capital; rather Kyoto provides a location that calls out the memory collage of Whalen’s “life.” The estrangement of travel in a foreign country can leave the isolated traveler feeling raw and exposed. Whalen takes the poem in a novel direction, building on his modernist predecessors, but he puts the poem to different purposes, holding things still, for a moment, from the kinetic motion of active life. A poet like Olson would have used the occasion to study the particular history of Kyoto, perhaps, showing its historical and geographic significance in relation to human affairs of trade, mythic ruptures of a migrant island people distinguishing a perspective from Mainland China. Whalen’s goal, by contrast, remains entirely different. The “scenes of life” are composed of those things brought to mind:
 
And so home again, among roses “Arcades of Philadelphia
The Past” a piece of Idaho scenic agate
A crystal ball “Of Hartford in a Purple Light”
And supper on “An ordinary Evening in New Haven”
Where you never lived but always heaven
Along with Stéphan Mallarmé and all the marble swans. (594)

While some might see this kind of writing as incoherent and lacking focus, the collage extends notions of self, memory, perception, and reflection in ways unique to Whalen’s modernist collage. Significantly, Whalen provides what Kenneth Burke has called “strategies for living.” Such strategies provide readers with a richly textured poem that comments on the force of memory and imagination in the creation of everyday experience. Spiritual and philosophical introspection is often tempered with humorous outbursts of self-awareness, commentary on the concretely situated flesh-and-blood body in space, and historically framed contexts that give meaning to the accident of occasion. Such accidents appear in Whalen’s work in need of redemption from the peculiarities of chance. His work suggests instead that separation is an illusion, that things cohere as experience within a life remembered and continually re-processed and situated in the subtly shifting coordinates we all must ride. Poetry provides an imposed limitation on these phenomenal movements, for it demands translation of perception into a particularly ordered language. Again, in Burke’s terms, Whalen shows us how to expand our capacities of seeing, feeling, and thinking about the world and the particular environments we inhabit.

These poems, impressively presented in a sturdy volume with introductions by Snyder and Leslie Scalapino under the editorship of Michael Rothenberg, arrive complete with biographic and bibliographic information in the appendix. Moreover, prose statements by Whalen on his work are collected here too, helping to situate his work for first-time readers as well as for students of 20th-century poetry. The range and dazzling reach of words in Whalen’s body of work deserves prolonged study; the texture of the cosmos shines through this book, translated with precision through the peculiar delights of the poem.