Philip Whalen – Crowded By Beauty

First off, some of the stellar “book blurbs”:

His dear friend Joanne Kyger writes: “Fellowship and remarkable clarity bring enlightened and generous understanding to this rendering of the life and times of singular poet and teacher Philip Whalen.
And furthermore: “His longtime friend in the dharma, teacher and writer David Schneider transmits the delight and wisdom of this poet’s bountiful spirit”.

Michael McClure describes the book as: “More than a biography or a memoir…a CELEBRATION of Zen Being.”  (John Suiter, noting that it’s “highly original, personable, and authoritative”, declares it destined to “take its place among the very best books on both the Beat Generation and American Zen.”  – “‘Lively’ was one of Philip Whalen’s favorite words”, he writes, “and that’s what David Schneider’s biography of Whalen is..”)

Jane Hirshfield presents a testament to it’s anecdotal heterogeneity: “‘Our real life is in other persons”‘, Philip Whalen once said. His larger than life-sized poems, Zen teachings, journals, and letters all live on in this moving and big-hearted biography-by-friendships -made up equally of scholarship, personal knowledge, gossipy quotes, foodstuffs, desires, realized interconnection, and quicksilver perception.”

Alice Notley lays it down: “Philip Whalen’s poetry is complex, generous, and utterly amusing, as he was. David Schneider’s biography uses Phil’s own circular sense of time to fascinate us with this life of a poet and Buddhist; part beatnik, part 19th-century throwback, part profound animal – part roshi, still calling us to order and to rejoice”

Anne Waldman : “Crowded by Beauty is an exceedingly vivid and nuanced portrait of the inimitable Philip Whalen, a secret hero to many… Schneider captures Whalen’s life, work, and the dharma path…”

Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco, 1971 – Photograph by Gordon Ball

We’ve been waiting with great anticiption for this book and we are not disappointed. The whole book is a must-read. “A poet (beloved poet) with a (serious) meditation habit”, transforming latterly into a roshi, “a monk who (continued to write) occasional verse”

This – a few selections from Chapter 2 – “Banjo Eyes”, (focusing on the relationship between Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg):
‘Treading a spiritual path” (Schneider writes),” demands a great deal of the pilgrim and the pilgrim often feels a mess. To then be brave enough to talk about this with another person requires a further act of courage. Very few can do it and very few can hear it. This channel, however, was wide open between Ginsberg and Whalen, and remained so their entire lives, becoming finally the central theme of their intercourse. Both men tried to practice Buddhism very sincerely, and although both men possessed the necessary arrogance of the artist, neither was overly burdened with pride, a leaden obstacle to spiritual communication.”

Philip Whalen – East 12th Street, New York, 1984 –  Photograph by Allen Ginsberg  c. Allen Ginsberg Estate

“If Whalen and Ginsberg were solicitous of one another’s physical comfort, [& Schneider gives evident proof that they were], what they really cared about was each other’s voice. They met as shy brave poets, and poetry and bravery bound their friendship together. They offered their apartments to each other, but they also offered their ears. They made room, privately and publicly, for one another’s voice.”

This delightful note from Philip to Allen on the occasion of him acquiring his Cherry Valley farm [we just couldn’t resist!] – advice for the rural:

“Cows love love & they also dig listening to music while you milk them – radio in the barn delights them. Horses are brilliant but unsound – they are smarter than cows but giddy and undirected. You must be gentle but exceedingly self-assured & quite firm with them, otherwise they will take advantage of you and try trotting along  quite near the fence in order to brush you off, or will go zooming along near trees with low, overhanging branches, with the same object. What they want is exercise and to be told what to do. They respond well to charming speeches & apples & carrots & tobacco (these last three are rare treats, maybe twice a week, if you’re messing around riding or working them daily)

Chickens are congenitally stupid , but respond to pretty words & slow, calm movement (Don’t move fast or talk loud around any farm bird or animal; it scares them and they will bite, kick, stop giving milk and/or eggs if they are nervous). Egg laying time (hormones or not) won’t really get going until the approach of spring). Didn’t you ever notice that the price of eggs is lower in the spring, & late autumn and winter the price goes up? There just aren’t so many eggs then.

Flowers & vegetables vastly enjoy companionship & chants & prayers. They really do better if you talk to them while you pull out the weeds & cultivate and water them.”

Allen and Philip in the swimming pool area, Varsity Apartments, Boulder, Colorado, July 1976 – Photograph by Gordon Ball

and Allen to Philip (for Philip) – ( a)n unsuccessful) 1968 grant application (to the American Academy in Rome) :

“(Philip Whalen)… of sober scholarly temperament, of middle-age, industrious in letters, experienced in peaceful residence in US West Coast cities and forests and Japan, it occured to me that the facilities of the American Academy in Rome would be a perfect solution of his immediate perplexity and a very happy one. It would enable him to enlarge his acquaintance of the world to the European continent which he has never visited, and familiarize himself with traditions and places which he has explored extensively in his learned & varied reading over the decade; at the same time, the American Academy in Rome could be host to a most distinguished poet whose honorable impecuniousness & tranquil penurious devotion to his craft have served as a marvelous standard of patience and dignity by which his many friendly peers in Poesy have measured their own flamboyant aggressiveness with rue.”

Philip Whalen, Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg at Naropa 1975 – Photograph Rachel Homer

Schneider, sensitively and precisely, compares and contrasts their two “distinct styles”.. (made manifest when it came to the challenge of Naropa teaching):

“They were differently equipped for the job but both worked hard at it. Allen had vastly more experience speaking before a crowd and was something of a natural showman. Philip, by contrast tended to be retiring, if he could get away with it, if he could not, he was theatrical, loosely strung and Irish”  [Editorial note – as an example of Whalen and Ginsberg’s distinctive but mutually complimentary teaching practices – see, for example, the two of them conducting a 1976 Naropa class on W.B.Yeats –  (in eight parts, transcription starting here)]

Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg in Allen’s East 12th Street apartment, 1984 -photo by Allen Ginsberg c. Allen Ginsberg Estate

“..Allen – voluble, dominating, confessional, energetic, demanding – was polite to his guest co-teacher when he remembered Philip was there. Philip, sometimes left to do naught but embroider, embroidered beautifully. He supplied Allen with missing names, dates, editions, locations. He chuckled at Allen’s intentional provocations, told supportive stories, but had no qualms at all in correcting or flatly contradicting him. If Allen mentioned a particular writer or book, Philip would chime in with facts about the availability of said work or writer in various paperback editions, this one containing the letters, another the journals, a third the variorum. He could as well, and often did, extemporize a further reading list on the theme or writer or period that Allen was teaching….”

“Ginsberg seemed to feel that poetry as a skill could be taught. Whalen felt otherwise. He maintained that poetic skill was a magical, inexplicable gift, but that one could draw it out by reading a great deal, listening constantly and noting what one heard, consciously opening up ones mind through the time-tested techniques of prayer, invocation, drug use, fasting, sexual ecstasy, time alone in nature, and so forth. Philip shared with Allen the view that one could come to a clarifying knowledge of one’s mind and feelings through meditation – though both stressed that Buddhist meditation was not to be simply used in this directed way. In summary, Allen seemed to feel students could be led. Philip felt students must be pushed to find out things for themselves. Perhaps these positions are not so terribly far apart.”

More on David Schneider and Crowded By Beauty here 

Our 2011 book-in-progress posting here and here a plethora of links and more – here

Max Ritvo in Parnassus on Philip Whalen

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