Date of Degree
American Literature | Literature in English, North America
Beat Generation, Philip Whalen, San Francisco Renaissance, Six Gallery, Western American Literature, Zen Buddhism & Literature
Space & Distance As I Require: The Journals & Prose Fragments of Philip Whalen 1950 - 1966 presents the early journals, prose fragments, and a few unpublished poems and essays by San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation poet Philip Whalen (1923-2002). This work includes a scholarly apparatus with both general literary and textual introductions, a critical bibliography that reflects my literary-historical concerns, brief section introductions, annotations, and an informal concordance with Whalen's poetry utilizing The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (ed. Rothenberg, 2007) as a reference work.
Philip Whalen was an Irish-American writer with roots in small town Oregon, a poet who was, as Kenneth Rextroth once said, as intensely Northwestern in sensibility as the painters Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Whalen was a poet of complex sources and influences, extraordinarily well-read in Elizabethan and 18th century English literature, in particular the satiric gestures of Sterne, Pope, Johnson, and Swift. During his lifetime Whalen produced a remarkable oeuvre of close to twenty collections of verse, twenty broadsides, two novels, eight or nine works of experimental prose, plus several dozen critical essays, lectures, commentaries, introductions, prefaces, and interviews, an extensive literary correspondence, and forty years of carefully written literary journals, ranging from roughly 1952 to 1992.
Like two of his favorite 18th century novelists Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, Whalen lived the second half of his life as an ordained cleric within a formal religious setting, a "new" religion for the West, Zen Buddhism, a spiritual tradition founded in India at least a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Whalen began his study of buddhism at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, having served in the Army Air Force as a radio repairman during the final years of WWII. At Reed Whalen's interest in Asian culture was encouraged and augmented by his roommate Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who blazed a circuitous trail around Ezra Pound, bypassing Fascism and Confucianism to forge a link between Zen Buddhism, Northwestern Wobblie unionism, and Marxist economic theory. He and Whalen remained close friends throughout Whalen's life. It was Snyder who probably first taught Whalen how to sit still in the Zen meditation posture, a fundamentally ungraspable, trans-rational, non-discursive, and deconstructive form of introspection that influenced Whalen's writing and played a decisive role in his poetics.
Shortly after the landmark Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco in October, 1955 Snyder moved to Japan to study Zen, leaving Whalen to fend for himself in an apartment he shared in Berkeley with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The journals show that Whalen was clear but shy about his bisexuality. For a period of time he was deeply involved in a love triangle, or rather a pentangle, with two married people, one of them a man, the other Gary Snyder's wife, the poet Joanne Kyger. He remained in the U.S. during the late fifties and early to mid-1960s, a tumultuous six or seven years during which he was unable to support himself financially, alternatively couch-surfing with friends, habitating a shack in the woods on Mt. Tamalpais, bumming free rooms from friends in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Marin County. He also attempted a `straight' job and career in Newport, Oregon, and lived in San Francisco for over two years with his companion and lover Leslie Thompson.
Finally, in February, 1966 - at Snyder's behest - Whalen moved to Japan. He taught English for a regular weekly salary in the ancient capital city of Kyoto, spending his spare time reading, writing, and studying Japanese culture, religion, art, theater, and literature. I am presenting here the poet's `pre-Kyoto' journals and fragments.
Unger, Brian, "Space & Distance As I Require: The Journals and Prose Fragments of Philip Whalen 1950-1966" (2014). CUNY Academic Works.