Whalen, Philip (Glenn)

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WHALEN, Philip (Glenn)

Nationality: American. Born: Portland, Oregon, 20 October 1923. Education: Reed College, Portland, B.A. in literature and languages 1951. Military Service: U.S. Army Air Force, 1943–46. Career: Lecturer and teacher: ordained as Zen Buddhist priest, 1973: Shuso (Acting Head Monk), Zen Mountain Center, 1975. Lecturer, San Francisco Zen Center and Zen Mountain Center, Tassajara Springs, California. Head Monk, Dharma Sangha, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1984. Head of practice, 1989–91, and since 1991 abbot, One Mountain Temple, San Francisco. Awards: Poets Foundation award, 1962; Ratcliff award, 1964; American Academy grant, 1965, 1992; Commission on Poetry grant, 1968, 1970, 1971; Morton Dauwen Zabel award, 1986; Fund for Poetry award, 1987, 1992. Address: 57 Hartford Street, San Francisco, California, 94114, U.S.A.



Three Satires. Privately printed, 1951.

Self-Portrait, from Another Direction. San Francisco, Auerhahn Press, 1959.

Like I Say. New York, Totem-Corinth, 1960.

Memoirs of an Interglacial Age. San Francisco, Auerhahn Press, 1960.

Hymnus ad Patrem Sinensis. San Francisco, Four Seasons, 1963.

Monday in the Evening: 21 Vlll 61. Milan, East 128, 1963.

Three Mornings. San Francisco, Four Seasons, 1964.

Goddess. Privately printed, 1964.

Every Day. Eugene Oregon, Coyote, 1965.

Dear Mr. President, with Gary Snyder. Privately printed, 1965.

Highgrade: Doodles, Poems. Eugene, Oregon, Coyote, 1966.

The Education Continues Along. Eugene, Oregon, Toad Press, 1967.

T/O. San Francisco, Dave Haselwood, 1967.

On Bear's Head: Selected Poems. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1969.

Severance Pay: Poems 1967–1969. San Francisco, Four Seasons, 1970.

Scenes of Life at the Capital. Bolinas, California, Grey Fox Press, 1971.

The Kindness of Strangers: Poems 1969–1974. Bolinas, California, Four Season, 1975.

Decompressions: Selected Poems. Bolinas, California, Grey Fox Press, 1977.

Enough Said: Fluctuat nec Mergitur: Poems 1974–1979. San Francisco, Grey Fox Press, 1980.

Heavy Breathing. San Francisco, Four Seasons, 1983.

Overtime. Newark, New Jersey, Penguin, 1999.

Some of These Days. N.p., Desert Rose Press, 1999.

Recording: By and Large: Philip Whalen Reading His Work, UBIK Sound, 1987.


You Didn't Even Try. San Francisco, Coyote, 1967; published with Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head, as Two Novels, Somerville, Massachusetts, Zephyr Press, 1985.

Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1972; published with You Didn't Even Try, as Two Novels, Somerville, Massachusetts, Zephyr Press, 1985.


The Invention of the Letter: A Beastly Morality (for children). New York, Carp and Whitefish Press, 1967.

Prolegomena to a Study of the Universe. Berkeley, California, Poltroon Press, 1976.

On Bread and Poetry: A Panel Discussion, with Lew Welch and Gary Snyder. Bolinas, California, Grey Fox Press, 1977.

Off the Wall: Interviews with Philip Whalen, edited by Donald Allen. Bolinas, California, Four Seasons, 1978.

The Diamond Noodle. Berkeley, California, Poltroon Press, 1979.


Manuscript Collections: Columbia University, New York; Reed College, Portland, Oregon.

Critical Studies: "Whalen Issue" of Intransit (Eugene, Oregon), 1967; introduction by Kevin Power to Prolegomena to a Study of the Universe, 1976; introduction by Paul Christensen to Two Novels, 1985; All Come to This: The Life and Works of Lew Welch in the Context of the Twentieth Century (dissertation) by Eric Paul Shaffer, University of California, Davis, 1992; "The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais" by David Robertson, in Western American Literature (Logan, Utah), 30(1), spring 1995.

Philip Whalen comments:

I try to write in colloquial American speech, but I often fail because many of the subjects I am interested in—Buddhism, Chinese and Japanese literature and painting and architecture, formal symphonic music, the history of science, historiography, archaeology—are not much discussed by my fellow Americans. I try to do the best I can. I began studying English poetry at an early age, and I continue to work at it.

*  *  *

Many contemporary American poets, including Allen Ginsberg, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, and Lucien Stryk, have been deeply affected by Zen, but none so much as Philip Whalen, who went to live in a Zen commune in California. Whalen turned to Zen rather late in life, but when he did he committed himself completely. With shaved head and saffron robes, Whalen became a unique figure on the poetic scene.

Whalen has always been different from everyone else, and he has felt proud of it. In an early poem, "Further Notice," he proclaims, "I shall be myself— / Free, a genius, an embarrassment / Like the Indian, the buffalo / Like Yellowstone National Park." In his early writings, however, Whalen's sense of his singularity often led to feelings of alienation and even, in his frequent references to his "own gross shape," to self-loathing. It also led to producing some exceedingly shrill political verse.

Whalen's Zen awakening changed his approach. Though still believing, as he states in his fine "Birthday Poem," that "the world is wicked by definition; my job is to stay aware of it," Whalen came to use methods of expression and poetic subjects that are more subtle. In his preface to Decompressions Whalen remarks, "I have a hunch that if I write a really good poem today about the weather, about a flower or any apparently 'irrelevant' … subject, that the revolution will be hastened considerably more than if I composed a pamphlet attacking the government and the capitalist system." Thus, instead of overt political statements, his later work offers insights gained by and expressed in the traditional Zen manner, as in his arresting poem "Never Apologize, Never Explain":

A pair of strange new birds in the maple tree
Peer through the windows,
Mother and father visiting me:
"You are unmarried,
No child begot
Now we are birds, now you've
forgotten us
Although in dreams we visit you
in human shape"

They speak Homer's language
Sing like Aeschylus
The life of a poet: less than 2/3rds of a second

In "Science and Language" Whalen writes, "It is impossible to write in English about Japanese / Persons, places and things," but his own work, in poems like "Eamd," belies this. Nevertheless, his subject matter is most frequently American and is usually centered on "the ruined city / San Francisco." What is perhaps most remarkable about his work is the contrast made between its Zen sensibility and its contemporary American setting, a society in which, as "In the Night" says, we "fall upward / Into a fake superiority."

Zen offers Whalen a genuine superiority. It is a discipline that requires much of a man and of a writer, and it is one that makes a person constantly aware of his own shortcomings. Nevertheless, in Zen, as in the poetic imagination, there always exists the potential for human perfection. All of this is captured succinctly in "For Kai Snyder":

7:V:60 (an interesting lapsus calami)
A few minutes ago I tried a somersault; couldn't do it
I was afraid and I couldn't remember how.
I fell over on one shoulder,
Rolled about and nearly went over backwards
And finally hurt my chest.
What kind of psychomotor malebolge had I got into...
"This is old age, &c."
After thinking it all over
Imagining how it might be done
I performed three forward somersaults, 7:V:70
Aged 46 years 6 months and 37 days.

—Dennis Lynch