The only printed biography of the poet Philip Whalen is very brief. It reads, “born Portland, Oregon, October 1923, US Army Air Force 1943-1946, Reed College, Bachelor of Arts Degree in Literature and Languages, 1951.”
[Editorial note – this is in 1965 – the posthumus biography, Crowded By Beauty by David Schneider, appeared in 2015]
Although Philip Whalen is frequently identified as a poet of the Beat Generation, the character of his life and work has little resemblance to the sensational publicity that has become associated with the term “Beat”.
PW: Oh, I work all the time actually. That’s one of the curses of this poetry that you don’t get a day off, are working every day, and most of the night (because a lot of the time I’m dreaming things and I will write them down later and put them into a story or into a poem). So it’s a twenty-four-hours-a-day job and it goes on all the time.
Frequently Philip Whalen’s books contain pages from his notebooks and examples of his excellent calligraphy
PW: “Your attention gets scattered with boiling tea water, or with worrying about the war, or about a hundred million other things, and you wander away from what I think of as being the basic necessities or basic realities, of existence. I walk, usually every day, and go out through Golden Gate Park, or go out downtown to the Library, or walk down to North Beach and see people there, or walk up here on the hill to the top of Mount Olympus to look at the weather and look at the light. I love the light here in San Francisco, the way it flattens out across everything and lights it up from different angles, and the way the whole landscape changes when the clouds go over it.”
“You don’t start being a poet, you get born that way. That’s it. – Poeta nascitur non fit, (or whatever Mr Horace said about that). I suppose that the first.. one of my first poetical experiences was that of having my appendix burst, and having an emergency operation, and being in the hospital for the first time. And having an ether vision of.. of great enlightenment, and also a physical experience of light as itself, and a feeling of the total.. an odd feeling of total.. the total meaningfulness and rightness of existence, and.. So that was one thing that has happened.
Another thing that happened was a.. was some sort of small satori vision, or what not, one day when I was, oh, four years old. I came into the room where my toys were usually kept and there was sunlight coming through French windows onto a hardwood floor. And there was something about the relation between those windows and the light and the floor and the closet where the toys were, that all made a funny kind of poetical breakthrough to my head that I always remember. And it also connects, of course, with that ether-vision that came a little later. And that, and a lot of other experiences without any other.. without ether or anything else – just.. just this walking around and looking at things. and listening to people. and watching.. watching the world and… have all, have all gone into a habit of hearing and seeing that.. is the basis of poetry (or is, actually, poetry, because, after all, poetry is a description of this high kind of…consciousness, and this understanding, I think). And, with any luck at all, when the person reads the stuff, he’ll get some feeling about that existence, or about that understanding, or about that excitement.”
“I often use a reading to test out poetry that I’ve been working on recently. And, quite often, I’ll read brand new things at a reading that hadn’t been published (or sometimes they’re not even typewritten yet, I’m still reading from hand-written manuscript) to see… to see if the poem is really there or not, and to see also whether it gets across to an audience, or to a prospective reader, what-not. Also, it tests out on my own ear that way. And, ultimately, all my poems are an ear-thing. So I hear them internally, and compose them (they compose themselves, and I compose on them), so, it’s like music is done, I suppose.”
The California Palace of the Legion of Honour is a San Francisco museum that has many of the wors of the French sculptor,Rodin Since this location is more or less on the Whalen walking route, it’s not surprising that he’s written a poem titled “Homage to Rodin”. The poem was published in 1962 in the magazine, Foot.
[At approximately six minutes in Whalen reads “Homage to Rodin”] – (“THINKER” /in the classic peristyle/ Shows up in old New Yorker cartoons, appears in some houses as plaster book-ends….”……”why/Do we insist “There is nothing we can do” – . II – LandsEnd – “The Shades” – “I won’t go to the park today informal prospects groups of noble/trees…”….”She plunges, laughing, through a wave” – III – Waterliles (and Iris) – “Fog washing past Mt Sutro Parnassus the Medical School a mirage/that city in the sea…”… “Summer flesh and winter bronze , opposite season of a single earth.”)
In 1959, Philip Whalen was asked to write a statement about his own work. The result was a press release titled “Since You Ask Me”
[At approximately thirteen–and-three-quarter minutes in, Whalen reads “Since You Ask Me”] – “This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is history..and you. Or think about the Wilson Cloud chamber, not ideogram, not poetic beauty: bald-faced didacticism moving as Dr. Johnson commands all poetry should, from the particular to the general (Not that Johnson was right – not that I am trying to inherit his mantle as a literary dictator but only the title Doctor, i.e., teacher – who is constantly studying). I do not put down the academy but have assumed itts function in my own person, and in the strictest sense of the word – academy: a walking grove of trees. But I cannot and will not solve any problems or answer any questions/ My life has been spent in the midst of heroic landscapes which never overwhelmed me and yet I live in a single room in the city – the room a lens focusing on a sheet of paper. Or the inside of your head. How do you like your world?