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Crowded by Beauty: A Biography of Philip Whalen

Identified as a member of both the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the mid-1950s, Philip Whalen (1923–2002) wrote poems and two novels marked by a sensibility that was his alone. A close friend of both Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac when Howl and On the Road were rocking the nation, Whalen in contrast purveyed a sunny, unhurried poise in his writing even while delving into his own darker corners. Here, for instance, is one of his best-known poems, written in the 1950s:

FURTHER NOTICE

I can’t live in this world
And I refuse to kill myself
Or let you kill me

The dill plant lives, the airplane
My alarm clock, this ink
I won’t go away

I shall be myself—
Free, a genius, an embarrassment
Like the Indian, the buffalo

Like Yellowstone National Park.

I remember my own astonishment, in the spring of 1967, when the first of Whalen’s novels, You Didnt Even Try, appeared. Here was a kind of West Coast comedy of manners, as if Jane Austen were reporting from mid-century San Francisco Bohemia. It begins:

Although Helen and Kenneth had been fairly happily married for almost three years, each of them had begun to think, privately, of divorce and the pleasure of living independently. They were nearly the same age (a little more than thirty), reasonably intelligent, reasonably healthy. But Ken was beginning to be afraid that any minute now he might realize that his learning and feeling, his whole being, may have reached a level kind of plain of a very definite size, shape, and color, in the midst of which he would remain until he died — afraid of hearing a voice that would soon be telling him, “This is all there is to your life, just this: this is all you have, this is all you are, all that you’re going to get.”

Whalen was known to respond promptly and generously by mail to requests for work from the multitude of shoestring literary magazines that abounded in those days. What one learns from reading David Schneider’s Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen is how terribly poor he was during those years and in fact for the better part of his adult life, until, at around fifty years old, he became a Zen monk — after which his writing, while it continued, became a less central activity of his life.

It wasn’t long after he made this change, in 1972, that I interviewed him in his flat at the Zen Center on Page Street in San Francisco and heard talk as unique as his writing. At one point, he made a passing reference to “visionary experiences of various kinds” and I asked about it. He answered:

Well, one time, for example, I was working in the Forest Service up in Washington, and — Jack Kerouac has described this, has described the place in Desolation Angels, I guess — it was a big guard station that was built on a raft on Ross Lake, way up by the Canadian border. And we used horses to pack people into the lookouts from that raft, and one night all the horses were on a raft that was tied up next to ours, and in the middle of the night one of the horses fell off, with a great splash, because they had all been jumping around— I don’t know what got at them, the moon or something — and the horses were all dancing and singing, and one of the them got excited and went overboard. And so I got up out of bed, and some other guys got up, and we were all rushing around trying to find the horse that had fallen overboard. Well, I was the one that found her. She was a horse with one eye called Maybelle, and here she was in the water, so that people yelled at me, and I said, “I found it.” And they said, “Well, hold up her chin, and we’ll get a rope on her.” And so, the packer brought the rope and wrapped it around the horse a little bit, around its throat sort of, kind of tied it up so I could hang onto it easier. And then he went off to get a boat, and I was kneeling over the edge of this raft in my underwear, and holding this horse under the chin, and the rope in the other hand, and the sense — you know, it was two o’clock in the morning, and it was a beautiful summer night, and the mountains were all around, and the lake, and this horse, and me — and I suddenly had a great, weird, kind of satori, a sort of feeling about the absolute connection between me, and the horse, and the mountains, and everything else. And — you can’t describe it very well, the feeling, because the feeling is a feeling. But it was, you know, it was a big take of some kind.

David Schneider was drawn to Whalen in the later phase of his life, and in an earlier book he recorded his table talk as a Zen monk. While Schneider’s biography has an easy, conversational tone and covers the main relationships and events of his subject’s life, for a reader to whom Philip Whalen is first and foremost a literary figure, the little attention paid to his published oeuvre is disappointing. In the short section about You Didnt Even Try, for instance, the title of the novel isn’t mentioned. Nor is there the usual list, in a writer’s biography, of his books.

Instead the focus is on Whalen’s relationships with several other writers — chiefly Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger — with whom he maintained long friendships, corresponded, and about whom he often wrote in his journals and his poems. It’s as if Schneider correlates Whalen’s insider status with being at a remove from the main literary action of the day, when in fact his writing laid immediate and lasting claim to an appreciative audience of readers, editors and publishers, as his posthumously published Collected Poems and the publication of this biography affirm. So while he was clearly a devoted and valued friend to other writers, and a fine Zen teacher and companion to Schneider, this seems less than the first order of business when his work has yet to receive the fuller attention it deserves.

As “Further Notice” attests, he was a self-possessed, quietly commanding personality, one who wouldn’t — or was incapable of — compromise with the America of his time. But then, isn’t this sort of implacable nature what we often find and value in an artist? However one might answer, the writing that he published comprises a significant legacy, a body of work that delineates a unique equanimity — alternately grave, funny and joyous — that he managed to sustain amidst the difficult balance of his life.

Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen (2015) is published by University of California Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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