A Dirty Bird in a Square Time: Whalen's Poetry
"An anatman" or nonself, a central tenet in Buddhist thought, derives from the insight that ego is transitory, that self is not an essence but an aggregate. An informal translation might be "the perception of emptiness of self," and I think this perception of emptiness provides a useful way to talk about Philip Whalen's poetry, although I should add that by "emptiness of self" I don't mean self-abnegation, and I don't simply mean that Whalen writes "about" emptiness. When I speak of emptiness in Whalen's poetry I mean a kind of detachment or watchfulness--the Buddhist term is "mindfulness"--which I relate back to his remark (in the late fifties) that his poetry was "a picture or graph of a mind moving" (Overtime 50), since at the least that implies heightened self-scrutiny, mind watching mind. Again informally, Buddhists "practice" this insight into nonself, the effects of which transform daily life. Whalen is a practicing Buddhist,1 so one would expect his practice to have an effect on the poems. The effect is most readily seen in the content of Whalen's poetry, but the detachment also effects certain techniques, like phrasing and voice, and can be seen in his methods of composition. In this essay, I'd like to show how Whalen's poems have been shaped by that insight or detachment--in content, technique, and method--and how, consequently, what begins as self-exploration becomes a way to get beyond self.
Part of the story behind Whalen's poetry involves Kenneth Rexroth, for Whalen's early work owes much to the model provided by Rexroth, especially the historical context. That context includes an active Greek and Roman tradition in combination with a conspicuously Eastern disposition, albeit shaped by a Modernist sensibility.2 In fact, Rexroth passed that context on (as well as his use of landscape) to both Whalen and Snyder, and in both you also see the early poetry used as a site for philosophical interrogation, just as with Rexroth. Whalen's "Sourdough Mountain Lookout" provides the best example, with its dedication to Rexroth, its use of landscape and its quotes from Heraclitus, Empedocles and Buddha. The poem was written in 1955-6 and proceeds (somewhat analogically) as a meditation on time, on the transitory, and on individual purpose. It's set in the North Cascades where Whalen was stationed as a lookout, makes conspicuous reference to immensities of sky and earth, and has an almost geologic context. In his discussion of time and identity, Whalen pulls together Western notions of multiplicity, flux and oneness with Buddhist concepts of the transitory and the Void in order to situate himself in that landscape both physically and metaphysically.
Within this philosophical context, Whalen employs a standard subject/object paradigm, formulated as Self and World, and he parallels this binary with several others, for instance, wakefulness and sleep, day and night, love and strife, but most importantly, with the One and the Many, for he is concerned with reconciling the unity of experience with its polarities. Towards the conclusion of the poem, Whalen imagines the mountains surrounding the lookout cabin to be a "circle of 108 beads, originally seeds / of ficus religiosa / Bo-Tree" (Overtime 19). As perhaps many know, the Buddha achieved enlightenment meditating under a Bo-Tree. The beads exemplify diversity, the Many, but there's "one odd bead / Larger than the rest and bearing / A tassel (hair-tuft) (the man who sat / under the tree) ..." The Unity of the World, Whalen says, is provided by the emptiness at its center: "In the center of the circle, / A void, an empty figure containing / All that's multiplied; / Each bead a repetition, a world / Of ignorance and sleep" (19). As Buddha once sat, so now Whalen sits, an empty figure. What we see as phenomena is Void.
One other image needs discussion, for Whalen also conceives of the universe as an egg, with Self emerging as a bird does, transforming "molecules of albumen / To beak and eye / Gizzard and craw" (Overtime 18). Consequently, Self is understood as composed of the World to which it posed in opposition (as a binary); Self reflects the World. Consider then how he writes about "mind" as he reaches the conclusion to "Sourdough Mountain Lookout"; that is, how mind is said to be both of the world and in the world:
What we see of the world is the mind's
Invention and the mind
Though stained by it, becoming
Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies--
Can shift instantly
A dirty bird in a square time
Mind has invented the world it perceives, but it has invented this world from the world it's composed of, the prior egg. Such invention may stain the mind, but mind is inherently free of its inventions, "can shift instantly," like a bird in flight. This shifting about I see as a key metaphor to Whalen's poetry. Freedom of mind is certainly central to this poem, but it deserves mention that mind is not Self and that this freedom of mind carries a further corollary, namely, a distrust of those products or inventions which stain the mind.
Whalen's equivocal conclusion to "Sourdough Mountain Lookout" allows for both the unity and multiplicity of the world, Void and phenomena, but that is largely because he won't acknowledge either as having priority, and simply sets them in parallel. He's undecided; his conclusion is simply: "I'm still on the mountain" (Overtime 20). That equivocation emerges again in another early poem "The Same Old Jazz" (1957), where he argues explicitly for duality, a distinction between subject and object, illusion and reality, rather than unity, as Buddhist doctrine states. The poem opens:
OK, it's imperishable or a world as Will
& Idea, a Hindu illusion that our habits continuously
Create. Whatever I think, it
Keeps changing from bright to dark, from clear
To colored: Thus before I began to think and
So after I've stopped, as if it were real & I
Were its illusion
But as Jaime de Angulo said, "What's wrong with two?"
(On Bear's Head 14)
The illusion of Will and Idea (or Self and World) is "imperishable," and this illusion perpetuates the duality of experience. Moreover, the world or illusion of "world" is posited as prior to the subject experiencing that world, so that any existent "self" which emerges is built from illusion, is illusory. But that entails saying that the illusion is "real," Whalen argues; the two terms define each other. Why not simply accept the world as both reality and illusion, as two?
The poem continues:
So Sunday morning I'm in bed with Cleo
She wants to sleep & I get up naked at the table
And it all snaps into focus
The world inside my head & the cat outside the window
A one-to-one relationship
While I imagine whatever I imagine
(On Bear's Head 14)
The relationship between the world "outside" (as object) and the representation of that world "inside" is part of a Modernist subject/object paradigm, and that paradigm is unfortunately troubled by the very nature of thought, as Whalen himself soon acknowledges (see below). That is, the world and its representation in the mind are not in "a one-to-one relationship." But Whalen's point again seems to be about the freedom of the mind, "While I imagine whatever I imagine," because from here on the poem develops largely as a narrative about the transforming effects of love, about Cleo. Such transforming effects entail a clear sense of purpose and a distinction between illusion and reality. Notice then that the poem concludes with that same equivocation seen in "Sourdough Mountain Lookout":
She'll go away. I'll go away. The world will go away.
( "The idea of emptiness engenders compassion
Compassion does away with the distinction
between Self & Other . . .")
But through her everything else is real to me & I have
No other self.
"What's wrong with two?"
(On Bear's Head 16)
There is no other Self than that Self which the World provides, Whalen argues, so even granting this World as Void, the World is nevertheless what makes us "real"; and in this case, sexual love provides a basis for individual purpose and identity; so Self here is taken as prime. But what's wrong with two is that the phenomenon of Self emerges from the Void, as does the World, and these "two" are both illusory; the Void is neither one nor two; hence, the pleasures of sexual love are also illusory; and Whalen is way too circumspect to stay satisfied with that answer. One can trace his explorations beyond it in several other early poems, such as "All About Art & Life," written two years later (1959).
It's important to mark first, however, that the reality or illusion of Self is an early concern of Whalen's, and that these early poems show him working from a Modernist dichotomy between subject and object, with the World identified as the object of knowledge and Self identified by a characteristic style or disposition (or simply as the person who speaks). In general terms, who you are is what you do, but one can discover a more fundamental identity through profound acts (typically through heroic feats or tragedy), as if Self were also "outside." To anticipate a moment, what Whalen is moving towards is an understanding of Self and World as fundamentally the same, without division. In "All About Art & Life," for example, Whalen argues against evaluations of good and bad, love and hate, as modes of identity or self-knowledge, because those judgments are obviously relative: "Why bother to say I detest liver / & adore magnolia flowers / Liver keeps its flavor the blossoms / drop off / & reappear, whoever / cares, counts, contends" (On Bear's Head 91). As he remarks a few lines later, to make such judgments is "merely talking to hear my head rattle." But there is a different way of perceiving the world, and in the poem Whalen tries to refocus: "Not I love or hate: // WHAT IS IT I'M SEEING // & // WHO'S LOOKING" (On Bear's Head 91). That is, Whalen steps back from acts of ascription in order to look at ascription itself, steps back from identifying to look at identity, and the poem functions as a mode of self-interrogation. What Whalen implicitly argues for (evident in the capitalization) is a more direct way of perceiving the world, one not based on superficial states of identification, same and different, that is, not based on the duality of Self and World, the very concept he argued for in "The Same Old Jazz."3 This new resolution can be further amplified with a poem written earlier that year (1959), "I Return To San Francisco" (written 20:iii:59--15:iv:59):
While I'm looking for sleep
Bright shapes of day bedevil my eyes
identification with one's "good" qualities
and vice versa--where does that put you?
identification with neither--what do you call that?
or with both?
With ANYTHING ELSE . . . shape, form, quality, mode
"What was your original face, before you were conceived?"
(On Bear's Head 86)
As said, identification is singled out in these poems because so obviously relative and consequently an illusory means of self-knowledge. Whalen is moreover acutely aware that the mind is disposed to such attributions (positive and negative) and that the mind shapes the experience it supposedly "receives" from the world. For instance, (again) in "All About Art & Life," Whalen writes: "It comes to us straight & flat / My cookie-cutter head makes shapes of it // CHONK: 'scary!' / CHONK: 'lovely!' / CHONK: 'ouch!'" (On Bear's Head 91). This disposition to ascribe positive or negative values--the Buddhist terms would be attachment and aversion--distorts as it receives experience. How do you respond, Whalen asks, if you don't sort by yes and no, good and evil. As the quote on "original face" indicates, this question brings to mind a famous Zen koan. The quote comes from Zen Patriarch Hui Neng's Platform Sutra; response to that koan reveals your depth of penetration into the fundamental unity of Self and World, illusion and reality.
Collectively, the above four poems provide us with a sense of the way Whalen understood "Self" or identity in the 1950s, namely as suspect, a construction, but the poems moreover provide an important context for his remark that his "poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is history . . . and you" (Overtime 50). The comment was made at the end of Memoirs of an Interglacial Age--entitled "Since You Ask Me (A Press Release, October 1959)"--and it was written within months of "All About Art & Life" and "I Return To San Francisco." At the least, then, Whalen's stated problems with illusion and with self-identity play a key role in the notion of "graphing" the mind.4 Further, such statements show that in 1959 Whalen was methodically taking "self" as his object, with the plausible corollary that mind was understood as not only in process but as a process, constantly in the act of construction. The pivotal term in Whalen's formulation (above) is the verb "moving," since it's the activity of mind, rather than its content, which has priority, i.e. recognizing mind in its acts of construction. And it is in the acts of construction that the sense of detachment is most clearly seen. But bear in mind also that this movement of mind relates back to the capacity of mind to shift instantly as in "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," because of its inherent freedom from its inventions. The Self is likely one such invention. The consequence of this freedom is a poetry grounded neither in Self nor in objective statements about the World--the polarities--but rather grounded between those two in the activity of the mind (understood to be a world body).
What needs further clarification at this point is that Whalen's concerns with perception and identity and his goal of documenting the movement of mind as a "world body" involves a kind of splitting or detachment. Whalen's purpose in the 1950s was no doubt to see into or develop insights about his own self-nature, to transcend routine ways of perception, like, dislike. But in order to look into or listen to that Self, a suspension from Self ensues. This suspension or detachment stands in contrast to normative processes of cognitive investment, processes in the construction of self-identity, and I think this suspension is a key element in allowing a different kind of poetry to emerge, for what begins as self-exploration becomes a way to go beyond Self. As a consequence, the poem is no longer understood as self-expression, and what the poem emerges from is not simply the poet's intention.5 The poet's intention plays an obvious role, but there is also a disposition to listen. That disposition entails, first, a propensity to listen for something unexpected--to some extent inducing novelty--but it also involves a disposition to transcend expectation, transcend the limitations of Self, i.e. those normative, largely regulatory thought processes which compose the way we do things. Said a different way, whatever "Self" is, Self is always under construction, and the mind's constructive processes are potentially revelatory.
One conspicuous place where that suspension occurs is in poems where Whalen addresses himself as the speaker, for the speaker's role then becomes conspicuously self-reflexive, dual. There "I" often becomes other, to misquote Rimbaud. Notice then how in "Minor Moralia," (written mostly in 1959), Whalen writes of the first person "I" as a phenomenon: "I change, I tell myself, 'I' IS ONLY THESE PASSING STATES, THEIR ACTUAL PASSAGE" (sic; On Bear's Head 190). What's evident here is a distance between the speaking Self and the perceived Self (perhaps best understood as a self-representation), and that "I" is not identified with, even though the consequence of identification. Rather, "I" is experienced as transitory, part of the world, the passage between states. Perceiving "I" as that passage between states--in transitions--discloses how "I" becomes constituted. In the poetry, this displacement from "I" has a doubling effect on the speaker, a kind of dialogic splitting (I becomes you), which becomes standard by the 1960s. From these early notions of Self and from this heightened self-scrutiny--taking Self as object or other--there emerges one of Whalen's most striking poetic achievements, his renditions of fallibility, an innovation of the highest order. As an example, consider the final stanza of "What Are You Studying, These Days?" (written in 1979). The "you" is Whalen himself:
Your trouble is you're not very real, are you.
Hallucinatory fountain pens, eh?
Skin chips and flaky on the outside
Internal organs all blackened and shriveled
What do you expect with too much on mind
Too busy to see or hear a single particular?
I have put on a gown of power I didn't know I had--
These renditions of fallibility, usually undermining the speaker/author's "authority," are fairly common in Whalen's poetry and probably overlooked because characteristic, part of his humor. But this banter or self-talk is also a serious form of self-reflection, a very sophisticated kind of play, as well as a mode of generating text (i.e. a procedure). While these forms of self-address may have begun with his early experiments--with "graphing" the mind6--as they develop in sophistication, these forms become a mode of self-disclosure and allow for something larger than "person" to emerge, allow for the transpersonal.
To repeat my main point, the acts of self-scrutiny that Whalen takes as his subject matter require a suspension or sense of detachment, and that detachment becomes procedural, a way of generating texts. This then is part of the second phase of my argument, i.e. that the detachment effects various aspects of Whalen's work, such as his phrasing. Notice below how "The Dharma Youth League" proceeds as a series of self-corrections and how this procedure effects phrasing and pace. Take note also of the punctuation.
I went to visit several thousand gold buddhas
They sat there all through the war,--
They didn't appear just now because I happen to be in town
Sat there six hundred years. Failures.
Does Buddha fail. Do I.
Some day I guess I'll never learn.
The poem was written in 1966, probably in Japan, and initiated by visiting gold buddhas who "sat" (or meditated) throughout World War II. But as Whalen marvels, he qualifies himself because of several unstated conflicts. The conflicts are submerged but nevertheless operate as part of the text. For example, his comment that "They didn't appear just now because I happen to be in town" is a response to a prior thought; it requires a initiating egocentricity. The profundity of the buddhas' ability to sit, as another example, is emblematic of a persistence Whalen wishes he had, so he then amplifies his statement about their sitting "all through the war" to "Sat there six hundred years." And a curious thought then emerges, as further evidence of conflict, for he then labels the buddhas "failures." He does so perhaps because meditating buddhas don't actually "do" anything; they didn't stop the war. He doesn't explain why. But at this point it's apparent that the poem partakes of a pendulum motion, back and forth. Whereas at first Whalen marvels, now he swings in the opposite direction and he criticizes the buddhas, clearly a projection. That is, the new statement is also in error, and Whalen moves to yet another position (positive and negative, yin and yang). Such a procedure, I might add, is one that undermines a fixed notion of self, and, to an extent, the poet follows the mind's motion back and forth rather than identifies with fixed points or aspects, for there's no overt position stated, and Whalen hasn't erased the acknowledged errors; they operate as part of the text. Unstated conflict, then, is the modus operandi of the poem, from which a deeper perspective emerges, for Whalen doesn't believe these buddhas have failed, obviously. That is, he listens for and incorporates conflict, allows it to unfold, rather than cancels or suppresses it. This inclusiveness is part of a method, and it's made possible by a kind of detachment.
Another point: The poem is invented and/or discovered one phrase at a time, is composed by "phrasings," rather than by larger conceptual units (such as clauses in an argument). Composing with the phrase or clause allows Whalen to shift direction and improvise with each new phrase, but that also involves active listening--what might be termed "following" the poem.7 The oscillation, back and forth, occurs as a consequence of listening to rather than engaging self, taking a step back, and it is potentially revelatory. Consequently, "The Dharma Youth League" extends as a series of oscillating phrases or corrections, each building on its predecessor, until the poem finally turns back to the source of error, arrives at the doorstep of self, with "Do I." With that question, the poem emerges (arguably from prior projections) as a meditation on the efficacy of Whalen's meditation practice. The Buddha obviously doesn't fail, and according to Buddhist belief, Whalen and the Buddha are one, so by extension he doesn't fail either. The twisted last line ("Some day I guess I'll never learn") has to do with achieving "Original Mind," enlightenment, getting beyond self-conflict, for Whalen's resolve is that he must drop such corrective thought processes (learning) "some day." Paradoxically, when that happens, he'll find himself where he always has been--since all mind is Original Mind--already beyond those thought processes. This is the same freedom of mind posited in "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," freedom from the products of mind, from thought itself. The poem works, then, by taking these thought processes as both its content and its procedure, takes thought as its subject. The progression of thoughts is composed of inward turns, and as Whalen twists inward, the phrases shorten. These inward turns or moments of self-recognition in fact generate the text and provide an example of how Whalen's detachment shapes the phrasing, since the inward turn is made possible by a cultivated inner space, by watchfulness.
Regard further that Whalen's interrogatives lack question marks. The use of periods instead of question marks indicates of course that he has no intention of answering those questions, that they're statements, rhetorical questions, one a marker of self-reflection ("Do I"). The overall effect is that, as statements, the interrogatives chart the progression of thoughts, "mind moving," in a kind of short hand. The lack of question marks and the innovative punctuation are part of the rhetorical dimension in Whalen's work, related to use of voice, in this case intonation. That use of voice emerges from the same kind of detachment.8 Consider, as an example, the way he manipulates voice in the following "Homage to WBY."
after you read all them books
all that history and philosophy and things
what do you know that you didn't know before?
Thin sheets of gold with bright enameling
(On Bear's Head 112)
Whalen's use of direct address can be misleading, but perhaps it's obvious here that the lack of capitalization and punctuation, misuse of "them" and the poorly paralleled direct objects in the first two lines convey a speaker belligerently dumb, and that this is in contrast to Yeats's supposed learning. If you imagine the poem as involving only that one voice and imagine that belligerent speaker as representing Whalen, you probably miss the point. The belligerent voice in effect "compliments" Yeats, for that voice is not only deliberately dumb, it's undermined by the shift in tone at the end. The third line mediates between the two "voices" and poses a legitimate question. The compliment isn't without ambiguity. But Whalen is a scholar also, as scholarly as Yeats, and the "homage" consists of the transition to that final line, with the positive image of enameled gold, the learned use of vowels, the capitalized "Thin" and rimed "enameling." These are in contrast to the undistinguished "things" in line two, the miming in the first three lines juxtaposed to the concluding trope. Use of voice is central to the construction of the poem.
This use of voice is also part of the emotional complexity of Whalen's poetry and, as mentioned, emerges from the same detachment from self. I want to talk of that emotional complexity, but my point requires elaboration, because I don't mean that Whalen is writing "about" an emotion, nor simply motivated by an emotion, and I don't mean to imply that emotional complexes and images are fully distinguishable from ideas. It's apparent however that emotional complexes and images are not used simply to reinforce themes in Whalen's poems; they aren't subordinate to ideas and are often used as registers significant in and of themselves, with the same force that a proposition has. In the simplest terms, what's of importance is the feeling produced by the poem, not the ideas elaborated on, for what motivates the poetry is largely experiential, sometimes a matter of sensibility. This focus on feeling and sensibility is related back to the notion of graphing the mind, as distinguished from developing "statements." To an extent, the same could be said of many poems, i. e. that they are importantly experiential rather than ideological. But in Whalen's case the watchfulness or detachment balances with the assertion, the listening with the speaking, so that detachment shapes both content and phrase. The main impulse is centrifugal, expansive, yet in Whalen's phrasing there is often a strange inward curve or reflexivity, evident, for example, in those renditions of fallibility.
One place to look at Whalen's watchfulness in tandem with the emotional underpinning of the poetry is in "Weather Odes," composed in 1972, though for brevity I'll concentrate on only the first two (of six) sections. Here is the opening:
Just before I fell asleep
In the middle of the afternoon
I told myself, "It is NOW
That I must work that change make
That move which will be the foundation
For that spectacular success which must illumine
All my later days"
(Heavy Breathing 114)
This first section is framed by a reportorial introductory clause and is obviously self-reflexive, so one could produce thematic readings, but surely the point is the dichotomy between what the speaker says he'll do and what he's about to do, i. e. fall asleep after making an inflated resolution to change. That is, the experience of reading this is importantly emotional, and we are guided thru that emotional experience--we feel it--in several ways. For instance, terms like "foundation," "spectacular," and "must illuminate" are conspicuously inflated, formal in register; and the phrasal extensions (produced by varied uses of "that" and "which") produce another kind of inflation; the rhythms deliberately push us forward. So this isn't simply reportage, even though it presents itself that way, and it's of critical importance to note that Whalen has constructed rather than simply captured the dichotomy between Self observing and Self speaking. That is, the insight emerges from a practice of watching Self, in distinction to a practice say of "engaging" Self. In terms of my argument, Whalen's ironic tone, part of the emotional basis of the poem, is created by that act of self-recognition, and that self-recognition also shapes the phrasing (e.g. the rushing effect). But that is also to say that the phrasing is shaped by mindfulness, by detachment from Self, and is the result of practice. In effect, the speaker situates himself within or between two positions, Self speaking and Self listening, assertion and reception, just as he does in "The Dharma Youth League," an oscillation which the poem "graphs."
This opening passage is terminated with three asterisks and followed by the second section. The link between the two passages is perhaps one of topical or chronological extension, but it is also importantly emotional (recall his resolution to change):
With a head full of sunlight
What's killing you now?
No patience to sit and watch the ivy grow
No patience with sleep
Exhausted by a band of mare's tails
Moving down from the north
Right across the sky from west to east
(West is the beginning of Ocean)
(Heavy Breathing 114)
The distinction made earlier between stating and producing emotions can be illustrated here, for although Whalen states emotions (e.g. no patience), the more important fact is that the poem produces emotions. The key emotion produced is exasperation--exasperation with Self. Again, rhetoric plays a role in that, this time with hyperbole, for Whalen's three responses to "What's killing you now?" function to produce exasperation through a sense of conflict and entrapment. We feel that exasperation largely because of the underlying expectations at play.9 One such expectation would be that, once your head is full of sunlight (good weather), you should be content. (That feeling of contentment relates back to his resolution to change.) But it obviously doesn't follow that one would then have the patience "to sit and watch the ivy grow," or that sleep would require one's patience. In fact, it's part of the complexity of the poem that Whalen hasn't produced a convincing response to his somewhat impatient question about what's upsetting him, and to expect such prolonged patience of himself--even humorously--is indicative of an underlying demand. One can tease out why he needs to change, e.g. a sense of failure or stasis. But the important point is that these responses are motivated by a conflict, and the tensions produced in the poem are actually felt rather than simply reported to us, even though Whalen also states his feelings. One could say then the emotional dynamic, feeling, has priority over the propositional content, the ideas, for that emotional dynamic is more properly the topic or focus. That dynamic emerges because of the priority put on feeling, but it is also part of a method or procedure, one informed by receptivity.
What's additionally important about emotion in a poem like "Weather Odes" is that the poem proceeds from section to section by unfolding that emotional dynamic. Here's why I think that's important. When Leslie Scalapino interviewed Whalen in the late 1980s, she apparently asked him whether one of his modes of composition was collage (Scalapino 1990, 108). Whalen explicitly said no, that his poems were not collage, a point that Scalapino reiterates in a second essay (1999, xvii). This is significant because one of Whalen's most obvious ways of composing poems is by juxtaposition, placing passage beside disparate passage, just as in collage (and probably why Scalapino raised the question). Yet Whalen insisted the poems were an "interweaving of different strands of ideas or notes, sounds that come around and about and all make a strange harmony. Somehow the overall object has its own proportions and its own working parts inside but it's hard to see 'em I think" (Scalapino 1989, 109). That is, the poems are not simply pieced together, nor arranged as collage; there's an underlying connection, even if dimly perceived. My point is fairly simple. The unity Whalen speaks of is often achieved by emotional connections, sometimes by an emotional paneling between parts and, further, the complexity of the poems often consists of emotional juxtapositions whose linkage is felt rather than thought out. This is important because the progression is not simply propositional and not always thematic. Whalen's poems move in several ways, in several directions, but often on the basis of feeling, and feeling has its own rationales. As suggested, this is a procedure which alters not only content but the dynamic of the poem.
I'd like to conclude by discussing the poem "Tassajara" briefly in terms of its dynamic, or rather how detachment has transformed Whalen's poetry from concerns with Self and identity to concerns with thought, in effect eclipsing Self. For just as his self-interrogation evolves into a self-reflexive "banter" (and the renditions of fallibility) through a kind of dialogic splitting, so that same splitting effect or detachment evolves into a interrogation of one's own thought processes, superseding considerations of Self. I choose "Tassajara" also because receptive processes here play an obvious role in resolving the subject/object dichotomy we began with, and now Whalen presents a different model of that relationship; subject and object are understood as one. "Tassajara" is Tassajara Springs, the site of Zanshinji, the Zen Mountain Center (in California) where Whalen practiced as head monk (shuso) in the late 70s. At one level, the poem is most obviously about his meditation practice, sitting in silence, as the first four lines indicate, and it enacts a moment of insight, kensho, although in this case Whalen may be having fun with us. The poem reads:
What I hear is not only water but stones
No, no, it is only compressed air flapping my eardrums
My brains gushing brown between green rocks all
That I hear is me and silence
The air transparent golden light (by Vermeer of Delft)
Sun shines on the mountain peak which pokes
The sun also ablaze &c.
Willard Gibbs, Hans Bethe, what's the answer
A lost mass (Paris gone)
Shine red in young swallow's mouth
The water suffers
Broken on rocks worn down by water
Wreck of THE DIVINE MIND on the reef called Norman's Woe
"Suddenly, ignorance," the Shastra says.
Moon arises in my big round head
Shines out of my small blue eyes
Tony Patchell hollers "Get it! Get it!"
All my treasure buried under Goodwin Sands
The poem unfolds as a series of associations, observations, and assertions, but the overall mode is one of self-observation, and it begins with an analysis of sensation. As with "The Dharma Youth League," we proceed initially by inward turns; the mistakes or misdirections are elements of a pattern and operate as part of the text. But mark that the speaker here is practicing an insight, that the world is not understood as "outside" the speaker, but rather indistinguishable from the speaker (e.g. "My brains gushing brown"). This recognition of nonduality, Self as World, induces silence. As the speaker settles into place, light becomes noticeable and triggers a comparison with Vermeer, then an observation of sunlight on the mountain. Other thoughts emerge. The sun is recognized as "ablaze" and that apparently invokes "energy," for we literally veer into a discussion about energy and mass. The two figures mentioned, Gibbs and Beth, are theoretical physicists, Bethe concerned with solar energy. Ideas cluster at this point. We shift from Gibbs and Bethe--presumably their attempts to solve the riddles of energy and matter--down through a several fragmentary images to end with the phrase "Takagamine Road," a road in Kyoto leading to Takagamine Mountain. (Whalen lived in Kyoto for three years.) The two mountains are paralleled, one inside, one outside. But while "lost mass" follows from Gibbs and Bethe (mass and energy), the parenthetical "Paris gone" and image of the swallow are difficult to decode. Perhaps they function in emotive and associative ways;10 the mass is "lost" and Paris is "gone"--both figuratively consumed?--in contrast to positive integers like "shine," "red," "young," and the open swallow's mouth, as if feeding. That is, we're drifting, maybe in a moment of self-absorption.
The stanza break after "Takagamine Road" is a procedural one, for we terminate the reflections and refocus on the stream, shift back to our point of concentration. And while the first stanza is largely descriptive, bounces from thought to thought, the second stanza is more structural, plotted. Water is said to "suffer" rocks, perhaps a projection, but this time invoking Buddha's first noble truth, that existence is characterized by suffering. The rocks likewise suffer the water. Once mind becomes clarified by this truth, thinking becomes "right thought," part of the Eightfold Noble Path. Yet the passage also invokes the Buddhist concept of pratitya-samutpada or "interdependent origination," that all things arise interdependently. That moment of clarity then (perhaps about the interdependence of phenomena) shipwrecks THE DIVINE MIND--the gist being that the transcendent subject or Self is also interdependent and goes down with the ship. Self is not an essence but an aggregate, a transitory phenomenon. But a second incident also occurs at this point, for Whalen appropriates from Olson's Maximus Poems. "Norman's Woe" is a reef in Gloucester and appears in "All My Life I've Heard About Many"; "divine mind" is cribbed from Melville's "Divine Inert" (Olson 177). Olson's poem was composed in 1959, the year Whalen visited Olson in Gloucester, so the citation probably has historical reference. But this is also where a sly sense of humor becomes conspicuous, and the tone shifts slightly, for the gesture is histrionic. Mark however that we don't lose focus. There follows citation from the Shastra, a classic Buddhist text, on our fundamental ignorance (emptiness), and with that citation the moon, a symbol of enlightened mind, rises inside the speaker. (Moonrise contrasts with sunset in the first stanza.) While I don't know who Tony Patchell is, he now functions as a Zen master, shouting "Get it! Get it!," reference to the Ungraspable perhaps, a famous Zen paradox (get it?). So kensho, insight into the fundamental identity of Self and World (as Ungraspable), is invoked. Whalen's final line about Goodwin Sands makes reference to a breakwater off Kent on the coast of England, a site of frequent shipwrecks, where he recognizes that his "treasure" is now buried. This recognition acts as the poem's resolve.
Several questions emerge from this which I have only provisional answers for, but it's clear that the poem is initiated by listening to Self ("What I hear') and proceeds by following sequences of thought. Second, the activity of the mind is prioritized over its content, for the propositions are much less important than the transitions are, the movement between lines, progressions sometimes logical, sometimes not. My third point would be that the poem is guided by intention. For "Tassajara" proceeds by establishing thought as its subject--to an extent by following thoughts--within a larger context which guides and eventually determines thought. That larger context is the practice of meditation, nondoing (even though it's not likely that Whalen was actually meditating when he wrote this). Said in a different way, the practice of nonself is not one which excludes agency; it is framed by an act of will, by intention. The intention is to disengage from thought. And in the second stanza, while thought remains the basis of both content and procedure, another factor emerges, for the poem is also informed by silence, by the cessation of thought (just as prior poems were informed by underlying conflict). In that way, "'Suddenly, ignorance,' the Shastra says" becomes a pivotal line, and that line apparently coincides with the sun setting. From ignorance or darkness, the moon emerges, importantly inside the speaker, rather than outside, which signals that Self has been eclipsed and that the speaker (or "nonspeaker") has arrived at the fundamental unity between inside and out, Self and World. That nonduality emerges as the poem's theme. I recognize that the juxtaposition of Patchell yelling "Get it!" with final comment on buried treasure suggests loss, suggests searching for that treasure, but these lines are noticeably ambiguous, and tone provides as much guidance as reference does. As I said, a sly sense of humor enters at the wreck of DIVINE MIND, and something else is at play here. Whalen's final line on Goodwin Sands implies distance and is subdued, not active. The line achieves finality by the panoramic "All" and beach scene. A plausible reading might be, "All that I took as treasure is now buried under sand," with sand having an association with time. But this is something of a story book ending, and one senses an underlying joke. While the stanza talks about loss and shipwreck, the comic effect of Patchell yelling "Get it!," invocation of the Ungraspable, and the fictional treasure buried under "Goodwin Sands" (along with common associations between ignorance, darkness and poverty), all work against taking that sense of loss too seriously. There's obviously nothing lost if the world is an illusion. There was nothing to have.11
When Whalen was ordained Abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in 1991, he said on assuming that position, "The seat is empty. There is no one sitting in it. Please take good care of yourselves" (Schelling and Waldman 224). The statement involves several ironies (for instance, the seat will always remain empty, because, as Whalen said in "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," the center is void; and if no one occupies that seat, responsibility shifts to the individual; as the Buddha said, work out your salvation diligently). Those ironies aside, it's clearly a statement about an anatman, nonself, and insight into the emptiness of Self, I've argued, is not only central to Whalen's meditation practice, it's also had a shaping effect on his verse. That effect occurs on several levels, most obviously in content, but importantly at the level of the phrase and voice, and finally it alters the dynamic of the poems. I think it also has several important consequences. The notion of "graphing" the mind, for instance, in contrast to a poetic construed as making statements "about" the world, has led Whalen to a poetry less reliant on thematic development, less philosophical, one more direct and inclusive, based more on perception and emotion, on the immediate. Another aspect of that redirection has been Whalen's ability to shift about, unconstrained by perspective, tone and logical bridgework. That is, rather than securing a philosophical perspective, Whalen continually shifts perspective, disrupts thought, and undermines a fixed sense of Self. What begins as a mode of self-exploration, I've argued, becomes a way to get beyond Self. The consequence is a poetry grounded in the activity of mind, rather than grounded in a theoretical stance, point of reference, or sense of identity. This is brought about by watchfulness, by detachment, listening to Self. That detachment or freedom results moreover in a poetry which comes to take thought itself as its object, the constructive processes of mind, rather than assertions of identity or value. Whalen has found a way beyond Self by disengaging from constructions of Self, letting Self drop away, as Do&hibar;gen has it.
The result is a poetry of sometimes bizarre, but always diverse emotional effects, of startling particularity, of enormous troubling appetites, wild variations in tone and coloration, and striking uses of rhetoric and slang. Whalen is, as Scalapino said, the most formally innovative of the Beats (1999, xv). The poems unfold in a variety of ways, in multiple directions, for mind and line can shift instantly, "a dirty bird in a square time." A poem begins from something as innocuous as the imperative to "Find twenty beautiful pages for Thomas Clark," then lists (twenty) precious personal objects, as in "October First": "5. Indian shrine, gift of J. Kyger / 6. Blue Mexican glass pitcher / 7. Three onyx eggs" (Overtime 236-8). But Whalen then extends the poem by obsessively listing bizarre replacements for each one--("5-a. Curious dream of thunder and lightning / 6-a. I am drinking buttermilk while I write this / 7-a. WHUMP!")--and as he does so, he calls into question not only the value of those original objects, but also the notion of value itself, for the new list refers largely to objects and events which divert or hold the attention. That is, what's considered precious is understood to fixate the attention, hold one in place. From that list, an "African daisy mantra" emerges, with the refrain: "UNGUM UNGUM UNGUM" which in turn resolves (by getting ungummed) into resolutions like "If the door knocks or the telephone rings / It's not my problem" (Overdrive 236-8). But the mind shifts again, takes us beyond whatever values we've been gummed to, and the conclusion reads like this (note the relation of Self and World):
Outside as if suddenly happily naked
Top of my head painlessly removed
Effortless: beyond glad or tears in space beyond security outside
H U M !
The world really being I there
Lots of air the oceans and mountains
Bodega Bay sand cup hook
Waves can be heard and felt the whistle buoy also
Weimaraner puppy glad to see me again
Up beyond hope or wish or high
Z O P !
Allen, Donald, ed. Off the Wall: Interviews with Philip Whalen. Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1978.
Dogen Zenji. Moon In A Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. Ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi. New York: North Point Press, 1985.
Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George Butterick. University of California Press, 1983, Berkeley.
Scalapino, Leslie. How Phenomenon Appear to Unfold. Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1990.
---.Introduction. In Philip Whalen, Overtime: Selected Poems. Ed. Michael Rothenberg. New York: Penguin, 1999. xv-xx.
Schelling, Andrew and Anne Waldman. "Philip Whalen: Zen Interview." In Disembodied Poetics, Annals of the Jack Kerouac School. Eds. Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1994. 224-237.
Whalen, Philip. Decompressions. Bolinas, CA: Grey Fox Press, 1978.
---.Heavy Breathing: Poems 1967-1980. San Francisco, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1983.
---.On Bear's Head. New York: Harcourt, Brace And World, Inc. and Coyote, 1969.
Overtime: Selected Poems. Ed. Michael Rothenberg. Intro. Leslie Scalapino. New York: Penguin, 1999.
1 Whalen began meditating in the mid-50s and began formal practice in Zen in 1972 (Allen 3, 71).
2As comments on his early reading make clear, Whalen moved in this direction independently. He speaks of reading Lin Yutang's The Wisdom of China and India (1942) just after high school and Gertrude Stein's Narration during World War II (Allen 7, 16, 58, 69). That is, my point about Rexroth is debatable, but read on.
3In another poem written at this time, "I Am King Giant Dragon Sun," Whalen speculates "We are known by the character of those things to which we visibly / REACT?" Later he responds "I don't belong to that and I don't belong to myself" (On Bear's Head 249).
4The subject/object dichotomy he used, as mentioned above, is part of a Modernist legacy, and that paradigm also provides an important context for his remark that his poetry is "a picture or graph of the mind moving." You'll notice, for instance, there is a sense of scientific objectivity at play there, i.e. in the very idea of "graphing" the mind. (This is more evident in the full text, where he talks about the Wilson Cloud-chamber.) The statement is troubled by that notion of objectivity, for it seems to lack a sense of agency--Whalen wasn't simply recording thoughts; he was producing thoughts and then constructing poems from them, a selective process. But the importance of the statement is obvious.
5Whalen himself makes this point in his preface to Decompressions (see for instance pp vii-viii).
6Whalen writes for instance at the conclusion of "Minor Moralia" of permitting all the repetitions, pauses, gropings to emerge, even those "which aren't actually necessary or real" (On Bear's Head 191). This kind of self-exploration was a deliberate project in the late 50s and early 60s.
7Whalen made a related comment to Ann Waldman in a 1971, when he talked of discovering that a poem "could be what I was going to be or what it was going to be itself, and it started making itself and I started having to go along behind it and write it the way it was . . ." (Allen 1972, 22-3).
8For anyone interested, I'm currently working on an essay on Whalen's use of voice.
9It's also produced by word choice and phrasing, of course, for example, the demanding way he asks "What's killing you now?"
10The obscurity is probably evidence that Whalen's focus is not on propositional impact but on emotional and imaginative registers, feelings. It's the movement which has our focus, not the content.
11Two other points deserve mention, for the conclusion may refer to Dogen's Treasury of the Dharma Eye and there are curious parallels between "Tassajara" (1972) and poems by Dogen which Whalen helped translate several years later. See for instance Dogen, 218-9 (e.g. "When breakers are high, what kind of moon do you see?").