Philip Whalen and the Beats

Tags: , ,

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

In July 1976, Gordon Ball took a photograph of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen sitting in a sauna or sweat lodge. It has become an iconic image for me. Even more so after having just read Whalen’s Collected Poems edited by Michael Rothenberg and published in late 2007 by Wesleyan University. This is the Beats in old age. The enfant terrible Allen Ginsberg who once confronted audiences with his nakedness is there old and wrinkled sitting in swimming trunks. Burroughs wears trunks and is covered with a towel. His once obscene novel, Naked Lunch, has been packaged and processed and safely explained into the canon. And Whalen, often described as a large physical presence, here looks a bit shrunken sitting between Ginsberg and Burroughs. He centers the photo but I have for too long considered Whalen a third wheel. Here was a writer who, even more than Burroughs, flourished in the small pond of the small press. What do you do with him, this poet’s poet who never reached, and never aspired to reach, a wider audience like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg?

If you are like me, you attempt to place him in context with that with which you are most familiar. I have always linked Whalen to Kerouac. The two were frequent correspondents, and it has been pointed out that Whalen felt a kinship with Kerouac’s theory of spontaneous prose, transporting those techniques into his poetry. This really hit home when I walked through the Kerouac exhibit at the New York Public Library in 2007. The Berg had a manuscript copy of Whalen’s Goofbook under glass. Written in 1961 and dedicated to Kerouac, the book clearly displays the influence of Kerouac’s theories. Kerouac encouraged Whalen in the writing of Goofbook and thought it was some of Whalen’s best work. Letters from 1961 discuss Goofbook in some depth. In describing the book, Whalen wrote, “A book for Jack, saying whatever I want to say, whatever I feel like saying.” Such a statement links Goofbook to less-known works of Kerouac like Old Angel Midnight and his volumes of poetry. For many years considered a lost masterpiece, Goofbook was published by Big Bridge Press in 2001. I have only experienced the briefest of snippets (Kerouac quoted the book in his letters). The book is now available for $11. It is one of many small press Whalen titles on my list after reading Whalen’s collected poetry.

Kerouac has a reputation of being able to capture the essence of someone or something with a phrase or telling description. Take his naming of Naked Lunch or Big Table. Likewise, Kerouac’s characterization of Whalen (as Warren Coughlin) as “one hundred and eighty of poetmeat” in Dharma Bums has stayed with me for years. After reading Whalen’s Collected Poems, I have a better idea why. On a simple level, Kerouac seized on Whalen’s weight. As the poems reveal, Whalen always fretted about his physical appearance. As he grew older, descriptions of himself as fat grow even more frequent. (“People can forgive all my faults / They despise me for being fat.”) This might seem a minor point but it gets to the heart of the Beats’ — and particularly Whalen’s — ambivalence about bodily pleasures and bodily existence. As with Kerouac and Burroughs, there is a strong desire to leave the body behind and ascend into a higher plane, but as Whalen demonstrates there is also a strong appreciation of food and sex. Yet the dissatisfaction with these pleasures (and their lack of abundance) is always close at hand. Take the “food opera,” “My Songs Induce Prophetic Dreams.” The pains induced by the belly weigh heavily on the mind. Whalen’s last poem in the Collected (and this after an almost ten-year silence in the Collected beginning in 1988) was inspired by the act of eating. The concern with the body remained front and center as Whalen prepared to leave that body behind.

Going back to Gordon Ball’s photograph, I also see the presence of Allen Ginsberg hovering over Whalen’s poetics much more clearly after reading the collection. Whalen addressed a few poems to Ginsberg including the late poems: “Lines for a Celebrated Poet” (which I take to be about Ginsberg) and “For Allen On his 60th Birthday.” These poems show the relationship of two aging men who grew up together as poets from the Six Gallery to Naropa. They are the literary equivalent of Ball’s photograph.

More interesting to me is Whalen’s “Scenes from Life in the Capital” written in late 1969 / early 1970 and dedicated to Ginsberg. To me, this poem was the highlight of the entire collection, an example of Whalen at the height of his powers. After reading the poem and considering the dedication, Ginsberg’s mantra “If the mind is shapely, the art is shapely” kept coming back to me. This phrase takes us back to the influence of Kerouac mentioned earlier. Much of Ginsberg’s poetics (like First Thought, Best Thought) were inspired by Kerouac. Whalen’s idea of the poem as a “picture or graph of the mind moving” fits in nicely with the axioms of Ginsberg and Kerouac. In “Scenes from Life in the Capital,” the quickness, depth, and range of Whalen’s mind is put on display.

As I thought more about “Scenes of Life,” the poem that echoed most in my mind was Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” written in 1966. More than “Howl” or “Kaddish,” I find myself returning to this original “long poem of these States” in the new millennium. It seems to me that Ginsberg’s poem captured Whalen’s attention as well. In Whalen’s long poem, the capital is Kyoto, but like Ginsberg in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Whalen is much concerned with state of the union in America. While Ginsberg travels across the Big Table of the United States, Whalen observes his homeland while maintaining a more stationary position abroad. These opposing stances can be considered as a major difference in the poetics of Ginsberg and Whalen. Yet both poems graph the United States of the 1960s: the Vietnam War, rock music, drugs, the counterculture. All facets of the Age of Aquarius are incorporated into the poems.

Yet for me, the central concern linking both poems is that of the manipulation of language. At the end of “Scenes of Life in the Capital,” Whalen quotes Attorney William Kunstler in the Chicago Seven Trial: “The whole issue in this case is language, what is meant by…” Similarly Ginsberg writes, “[W]ar is language, / language abused / for Advertisement / language used / like magic for power on the planet…” Ginsberg through his prophetic voice as mantra lifts and purifies language and declares an end to all war. Whalen looks for a solution by turning toward the natural world and natural speech. At the end of the poem, Whalen finds solace in “revisit[ing] Kitano plum blossoms.” The plum tree provides a sign of hope and renewal as it grows out of the “shattered trunk” of the “big tree in front of central sanctuary.” Direct observation of the natural world helps to cleanse a language and perception that have been dulled by consumerism and militarism.

Such observations also cleanse language by revitalizing American poetry, which Whalen describes as a “steam piano.” Throughout the poem Whalen references William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1798, these poets were agents of change. Their Preface to the Lyrical Ballads ushered in the Romantic Era and swept away the verse and culture of the 18th century. It did this in part by introducing to British poetry the language and life of the rural common man. Yet the lives of these poets also serve as a cautionary tale. Wordsworth started as a poet of revolution and change. For example his Prelude as published in 1805 and earlier somewhat embraced the revolutions of France and America, yet as he aged he grew more conservative and cut ties with the ideals of his youth. Wordsworth became a part of the British Poetry establishment demonstrated by his becoming Poet Laureate in 1843. Coleridge provides an example of the destructive nature of drugs. Like Jimi Hendrix who is mentioned in “Scenes of Life,” Coleridge was a drug casualty. Due to an addiction to opium, Coleridge ceased to be a force for innovation in British poetry scarcely a decade after Lyrical Ballads.

Whalen juxtaposes Wordsworth to the Modernist Stephen Spender, who wrote poems of protest and class struggle but eventually revealed himself to be a member of and agent for the Establishment. During Spender’s tenure as editor of Encounter from 1953 to 1966, the journal was revealed to be covertly funded by the CIA. Spender resigned and claimed he had no knowledge of CIA influence. In 1965 Spender became Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. For Whalen, Spender’s acceptance of the post reveals his essentially conservative poetics. That the Library of Congress looked to such a poet (and a British poet at that) to serve as the figurehead for poetry reinforced the submissive, secondary position of poetry and poets in the United States. Despite the example of Pound, Stein and Williams — for Whalen, the Modernists who matter — official American Poetry looked to England for validation and inspiration.

Yet Whalen was not willing to toss aside the poetics of the Romantics and Modernists as useless. For Whalen, there was much still to be recovered from and said in the language of the Common Man. In 1963, Whalen wrote two poems entitled “Native Speech.” In a 1965 poem entitled “The Second Day of May 1965,” he tied “NATIVE FOLK SPEECH” to the “possibilities for song.” The poetics of Romanticism, particularly the return to common speech, is one aspect of the “shattered trunk” at the end of Scenes of Life in the Capital.

The Modernism of Stein, Pound, and, particularly, Williams (think of the poem “This Is Just to Say”) is the plum tree. Whalen had an ambivalent attitude towards Williams but he was much influenced by Williams’ yoking of native American speech to a poetics of direct perception (No ideas but in things). Despite his disagreements with Williams, Whalen acknowledges that the blossoms of the plum tree give off a wonderful scent and even occasionally bloom with undeniable beauty. It would be up to the poets of Whalen’s generation and beyond to spout alongside the shattered trunk and the plum tree. If successful, American poetry, and thus the language of the “these States,” would be revitalized and in full flower.

Given Ginsberg’s influence on Whalen, Burroughs would actually seem to be the third wheel in Ball’s photograph. In 1965, at the height of Burroughs reputation in the post-WWII avant-garde, Whalen wrote “Homage to William Burroughs.” The poem opens: “The best way to wreck something is to take it seriously.” More parody than homage, Whalen takes Burroughs and the critical hype surrounding the cut-up technique down a peg. Reading through the Collected Poems it becomes clear to me that Whalen incorporated the cut-up technique to some degree In his work. One of the last poems in the collection, “The Expensive Life,” refers to Burroughs and the cut-up technique (“‘Cut the word lines,’ Burroughs recommends”). Whalen’s poetics dovetailed with Burroughs’ theories of composition. In his essay for Donald Allen’s 1973 anthology The Poetics of the New American Poets, Whalen makes the comment: “I also enjoy cutting and revising what I’ve written, for in the midst of those processes I often discover images and visions and ideas which I hadn’t been conscious of before, and these add thickness and depth and solidity to the final draft, not simply polish alone.” Much of Whalen’s work utilizes the techniques of collage and assemblage. His poems have a cut-and-paste quality like Burroughs’ representative work of the period.

Yet it is in the manuscripts of Whalen’s poetry that I see the closest parallel to the cut-up work of Burroughs. Scattered throughout the Collected Poetry are reproductions of Whalen’s poems in manuscript. For years these poems have been hard to read in their original state. They found publication in little magazines and the small press if at all. In 1966, a collection of them was issued by Coyote’s Journal entitled Highgrade. Coyote’s Journal issued a pamphlet of Wichita Vortex Sutra that same year. Several of Whalen’s peers, like Michael McClure, expressed dismay that Whalen’s work could not be experienced and appreciated by a larger audience in its ideal state. Burroughs’ work of the same period, like The Third Mind, suffered a similar fate.

In an article on the Whalen Collected, a reviewer remarked that “Scenes of Life from the Capital” would make a remarkable pamphlet. It would and sort of did. In 1970 Maya Press (David Meltzer and Jack Shoemaker, I believe) issued the poem in a seventy-four page edition of 300 copies (50 signed by Whalen). This edition serves as a history lesson of sorts today as the book was designed and printed by Clifford Burke of Cranium Press and the initial letters were drawn by Michael Myers of Zephyrus Image. The cream of the San Francisco small press scene was involved. This is the case with many of Whalen’s books throughout his career. In 1971, Grey Fox Press (Donald Allen was CEO) reissued the poem as in an expanded edition. These publications are now considered collector’s items by some but are easy enough to get a hold of for around $40-50. There are several copies of the Grey Fox edition on Abebooks (On the other hand, there are only three copies of Highgrade available. All again around $50). The audience for these editions is limited, but even in 1970 / 1971 given the book’s small print run; Scenes of Life had a restricted distribution. I have never held or read these editions but I imagine the reviewer is right and that Whalen’s long poem makes a quite a handsome solo piece. It would certainly be a different experience than reading it in an 800+ page Collected Poems. I have read Burroughs’ cut-ups in The Burroughs File, in little magazines, and in solo publications. Each experience is very different. There is something special about reading The Dead Star as a broadside pamphlet as opposed to reading it in My Own Mag. I can only imagine what reading Time in a collected works would be like, but I suspect it would pale in comparison to reading it as C Press published it.

Yet the Collected Poems‘ format serves an important function. Before I read the Collected Poems, I barely considered Whalen poetry at all. Now I am eager to comb the bookstores and libraries for his small-press output. Like Charles Olson and like William Burroughs, collecting the work of Philip Whalen gives one a terrific means to build a solid collection of the Mimeo Revolution, particularly in San Francisco, at the same time. In the case of all three writers, the little magazine and the small press are central to their development as writers and pivotal in their theories of composition and distribution. They cannot be fully appreciated through Collected, Selecteds, and reprints. A Collected may get you acquainted with them, but considering and even reading (as much as I hesitate to do so); the earlier editions really build and solidify the relationship.

Homage to William Seward Burroughs

by Philip Whalen

The best way to wreck something is to take it seriously.  (Vast

Horrible plaster equipment) When I eat liver the back of my neck

feels funny.  (I was at home in the Army.  They liked me, they

paid to look at my dong once a month.)  Grotesque random cock-

suck: radio jamming on all frequencies.  Russian bastards blunk

out Ma Perkins

o classical plaster fruit?

All that smooth heavy equipment,

An arrangement of grapes and oranges &


Random absurdity on all reality levels

Ball-pene hammer for metal work

Random energy particles jam horrid cocksuck

Smooth heavy trigger

Smooth my forehead (Random Camus)

Fruity plaster grotesque and cupid.

Long cock was.  Suck.  Declare.

Falling.  Clerk-Maxwell.


(We are discovered, our joints “mis a nus

I’m always in the Army.  I still don’t know how it works

I told you to bring it around by the road by the Firing 


Soldier denies everything: “I was.”  Random was cupid factor

“gigantic upsurge,”


Ball-pene forehead Army equipment praised

Classical metal fruit denies everything

Energy particles declare heavy jam punishment

Horrid grapes & oranges & melons refuse to work trigger

Level?  Really is level?  “I was.”

Russian cock liver hammer simply absurd

Ma Perkins mis a nu,” “don’t know how it works”

Metal brain for wounded soldiers.  Look at seriously grotesque

Equipment behind neck (“C”)

When I eat marble particles the back of my

wreck everything       MAYDAY       MAYDAY


gigantic liver cupid smooth heavy neck

and falling arrangement.   Was?  Pushed?

Absurdity denies the best.  Take it.

Watch out for the pee-hole bandit.  Declare

Long dastard horrible.  Ma Perkins denies.

Local man honored by Army, awarded

Military Order of Purple Shaft.   That’s what our generation talked

about 20 years ago.  Horrid.  Grotesque.  Falling.  All reality levels

wounded.  We couldn’t talk for years afterwards.  Beautiful was

equipment shoved or pushed heavy smooth punishment.  Vast

ball-pene trigger arrangement.  I was at home in Blunk City.

Watch out.  Random jamming of Russian cocksuck upsurge of

marble heavy dong particles at incredible speed.  All armies once

a month deny shafting local fruit.  Metal soldiers in vast horrible

home.  Liver wax?  Level melons?  Work my dong once, brain refuse

metal upsurge random particles grotesque denial of honored shaft





Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 30 March 2009. Photograph of Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and William Burroughs by Gordon Ball. Photograph of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Philip Whalen by Rachel Homer.

One thought on “Philip Whalen and the Beats

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *