This Heaven Where We Live As Music

Rounding out Philip Whalen Month is a previously published succinct and insightful review of The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen by Keith Kumasen Abbott who has authored numerous essay and lectures on the American poet and Zen monk appearing in this blog: Nothing Is Forever. Rhythm-A-NingLittle Mag Art. A Diamond Wired For Sound.

This Heaven Where We Live As Music

by Keith Kumasen Abbott

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen. Edited by Michael Rothenberg, Foreword by Gary Snyder, Introduction by Leslie Scalapino, Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

Zen Priest Philip Zenshin Ryufu Whalen lived so intensely that he often needed to share these experiences. He characterized his urge thusly: “My concern is to arrange immediate BREAKTHROUGH/into this heaven where we live/ as music.”  Toward his goal he wrote enough for his large Collected Poems to display the startling breadth of his interests and talents.

            Typically, chronological collected poems are for scholars, and editor Michael Rothenberg has performed those duties splendidly, especially by the inclusion of Whalen’s revealing Prefaces and Essays about his poetic and contemplative practices. In Whalen’s works the scholarship possibilities prove rich—encompassing artists of the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation, the history of West Coast Zen Buddhism and Whalen’s uses of the American Song Book, jazz and avant-garde music.

            Essentially a poet of celebration, Whalen sought out those contemporary artists who gave him their permission to illumine moments “for yr. own joy” as his friend Kerouac advised. This volume also illuminates Whalen’s constant engagements with past poetic and philosophical masters. As Gary Snyder notes in his Foreword, at Reed College Whalen went beyond “our official modernist mentors Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Williams and Stevens” to use “Pali Buddhist texts” to fashion “poetry out of the territory of those readings.” 

            His stylistic roots were also nourished by 18th Century English writers, Swift, Gibbon and Johnson; then extended through Austen, Blake and Whitman. From 1949 forward, his early poems emulated Eliot and W. C. Williams’ poetics.

From “Advent”:

To make the necessary simplification
Of all the orthodox confusions
So elaborately wrought
In our bereaved seclusion 

Dry wit, abstract feminine rhymes, and the assonance of “or-tho-dox with the unrhymed line’s last word “wrought” are reminiscent of Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”.

From “November First”:

At the bus stop
I saw two crisp spiders
Each clamped onto his own slowly warming stones
Black stars in the unexpected sunlight. 

The precision of the spiders’ placement in an urban landscape first, then the spiders morphing into a cosmological metaphor, also resembles a Williams’ trope.

            From the mid-1950s on, the Zen tradition of living in each moment fully (and often humorously) remained his main resource for his breakthroughs. Whalen continuously monitored and revealed his ecstatic and darkest contemplations. Stylistically, his motto seemed to become “Why not?”  In his guise of an acerbic yet delighted hermit, Whalen composed his idiosyncratic comedies of Zen arrows and errors meeting in the mid-flight. From his Kyoto book-length poem Scenes of Life at The Capital:

At home, the vegetable supply
A Dutch still-life set on reversed lid of nabe
Half a red carrot half a giant radish half a head of hokusai

A completely monumental potato
China will sail across big Zen soup to me

THE BAD NEWS INCUBUS SERVICE

            They peer down through my ceiling
            “Poor old man he’s too fat to live much longer.”  

            In “Friday Already Half-” a 1963 meditation on sunyata, aka the void, Whalen invents patterns very close to Zen philosopher Dogen’s remarkable paradoxical concatenations of negative logic, years before his essays became widely available in English. (In the early 1980s Whalen became a co-translator of Dogen with Kaz Tanahashi.)  

The unthinkable is not a blank, not a non-entity
Not to be dismissed as imaginary, not death, not sleep  

            During his habitual deep doubts Whalen can be as bleak as Hakuin during that master’s most blunt and scathing self-assessments, pointing directly at our tangles of desire and impermanence.

From: “For C”:

 .  . . I can’t say that being born is a chance
To learn, to love and to save each other from ourselves:
Live ignorance rots us worse than any grave. 

And, from “Unfinished, 3:xii: 55”:

A single waking moment destroys us
And we cannot live without
Ourselves

You come to me for an answer? I
Invented it all. I
Am your tormentor, there no
Escape, no redress

You are powerless against me; You
Must suffer agonies until you know
You are suffering.

Work on that. 

This embodies Whalen’s dramatic version of the essential Buddhist truth that all our thoughts have no self but thoughts maintain that illusion, thereby creating the roots of our suffering.

            Technically, Whalen’s work sometimes resembles a funhouse mirror version of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics. Some commentators call his freewheeling poems either mobiles or collages; in either case, the most diverting verse techniques commingle. A giddy cartoon bubble caption may link with very complex poetry, as in “I Return To San Francisco”:

RIGHT NOW

If I had a pet rabbit right now
I’d pinch it & make it squeak
NOBODY pays any attention to me & I really need LOTS
                                       of loving

*

Since you won’t come to me
I’ll think about mountain cypress trees
Something has taken the bark away the wood weathers orange & twisty 

Such juxtapositions create a comic portrait of our forlorn narrator, one simpatico with Ginsberg’s desperate yet slapstick narrator in “America” and with Kerouac’s hapless yet eager amateur mountaineer in The Dharma Bums. All three authors shared an appreciation of Krazy Kat comics and their buoyant visual and verbal farces.

            In the last stanza Whalen’s classical musical training, love of jazz and meticulous poetic ear produces improvisations on tetrameter rhythms with an evolving pattern of displaced accents, shifting meters and masculine and feminine rhymes. He expands from a condensed four-beat first line to an irregular iambic pentameter second line. In the third octameter line a caesura divides it into two four-beat lines—the first slightly variable iambic tetrameter, the last compressed and beautifully irregular.

Something has taken the bark away / the wood weathers orange & twisty

Of the Beat Generation writers, Kerouac, Amiri Baraka and Whalen display the most sustained skillful uses of jazz rhythms—i.e. condensed and expansive motifs and resolutions. All celebrated the heavenly bliss and energy that jazz aroused.

            Truly spontaneous art arises from long hard practice, and for Whalen Western calligraphy was a daily routine. His works were first written in his Italic hand. Such disciplined exercises created his best concise lyrics but also fueled his most wayward and minor productions. Rothenberg’s inclusion of calligraphy may spark a revelation, i.e. in “March 1964” where the extravagant swash serif capital letters enhance the presentation of “What’s your platform? / Ressurexion / Renaissance / Total Paradise.”  Or these extravagances may irritate readers and verify for them Whalen’s indulgent self-absorption.

            Whalen dated most poems. But this is no poetic diary, like The Pillow Book, due to his intentions and compositional methods. Whalen’s longer poems arrange main themes and conclusions without benefit of Shonagon’s dramatic characters, domestic settings and societal structures. However, their finales are assiduously imagistic and/or anecdotal, as in his longest poem, Scenes of Life at the Capital, the decayed temple trees.

Another propped up with poles and timbers
Part of it fixed with straw rope
Exploding white blossoms not only from twigs
And branches but from shattered trunk itself,
Old and ruined, all rotted and broken up
These plum trees function gorgeously
A few days every year
In a way nobody else does.  

His mid-size lyrics are organized around innovative rhetorical improvisations; usually rhythmic pictorial resolutions end those, too. From “Birthday Poem”:

 Awake or asleep I live by the light of a hollow pearl 

            In a late poem Whalen himself denied his status as “a great POET!” and characterized that notion as “Misunderstanding brought on by overpayment.”  He’d surely be as modest about these 799 pages. Still, in its scope, The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen is uniquely Zen, American and Whitmanesque; it does contain multitudes and masterpieces.


End Notes
For an overview of the Buddhist structures in Whalen’s long poem ‘Sourdough Mountain Lookout” and his poetry in general, see Bruce Holsapple’s “A Dirty Bird in Square Time: Whalen’s Poetry” in Continuous Flame, A Tribute to Philip Whalen (Fish Drum, Inc. Vol. 18/19).
For an analysis of Whalen’s poetic use of a Zen koan see Abbott’s comments in  “Satori Kitty Roshi Style (Or, Enlightenment Practices For Stones)” as a pdf here
For an account of Whalen’s relationship to jazz structures, specifically Thelonious Monk, see Abbott’s essay “Rhythm-A-Ning”  here.


Keith Kumasen Abbott (1944-2019), poet, novelist, scholar, ordained Zen monk, and calligrapher, authored numerous poetry books, novels and short story collections as well as the memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing In America (Astrophil Press, 2009).


NEW TO THE SOCIETY’S SHELVES

Kent Johnson, Because Of Poetry I Have A Big House, Shearsman Books, 2020
Barbara Henning, Digigrams, United Artist Books, 2020
Ekl Parts, This, Farflungland Editions (letterpress, limited), 2020
Iklipz Dopplur, Tapered Pitch, Farflungland Editions (limited, letterpress), 2020
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, Beacon Press, 1969
Samuel Beckett, Mercier And Camier, Grove Press, 1974
Joseph Stroud, My Diamond Sutra, Bancroft Library Press, 2016
Sandy Berrigan, The Tall Man, private edition, ND
Sandy Berrigan, Crow Poems, private edition, ND
John Johnson, Idiomatic, private letterpress edition, 2013
Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless, Grove Press, 1988
Joel Dailey, Futures, The Moron Channel, 2020
Sotere Torregian, Hardware, Fell Swoop, 2020
Gherasim Luca, Invention of Love and Other Writings, (trans. Julian and Laura Semilian, intro, Andrei Codrescu), Black Widow Press, 2009

 

 

 

  

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In Close Proximity—Part Two

In Close Proximity—Part Two

Excerpts from Side Effect
A Journal of Zen Life with Philip Whalen
by Tensho David Schneider

Tensho David Schneider’s journal, Side Effect, came about from the idea that the sayings and doings of Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufu would be of interest to others. It takes place during a golden decade (early 70s to early 80s) of the San Francisco Zen Center in what Whalen called his “life of elegant retirement,” and covers a period of 18 months. This is Part Two of excerpts from the unpublished manuscript.


—10 May 81—

Philip and Joanne Kyger gave a poetry reading together at the New College last Friday night. Years ago Philip had been enamoured of Joanne, but she’d left him for another, younger man. Philip had then written some stunning heartbroken poems. So the evening had a kind of edge to it. Philip and Joanne seem friends now—a kind of rough and tumble affection. It does sometimes get rough. Carol said it right when she compared them to Ralph and Alice of The Honeymooners.

"Joanne Kyger" reduction print from the Smoking Poets series

“Joanne Kyger” reduction print from the Smoking Poets series

They came in together about 8:15, Philip holding a bowl full of nasturtiums, and they began to complain immediately. Philip started up about the lack of air in the room, and Joanne too about that, and the light. Couldn’t they rearrange the room she wanted to know.

Philip said, “It’s alright, there’s nobody here anyway.” Which wasn’t true. In addition to the Bolinas crowd and the Zen contingents, there were writers and listeners of many kinds—about 80 people. Joanne wore a clingy black dress, slit no small distance up each thigh. She looked great. Philip wore blue jeans, his blue China jacket, and a cap. Carol said he looked sexy.

While we were waiting, Carol asked me if Philip got nervous before giving a reading. I said to look. He was sitting slumped in plastic chair, watching Joanne fuss. From time to time he issued loud, leonine yawns. The fact that he wanted to go home early and get to bed was a point of contention in his repartee with Joanne.

Joanne announced that she would read first, though only for a short while; then before the break Philip would read, “So he can go home and go to bed.” After the break she would read again. “Did that take long?” she asked Philip in front of everyone.

He slowly and elegantly raised his arm, turned his wrist, inspected his watch. Joanne asked several times, after finally beginning to read, how long she’d been going. Sometimes Philip just laughed at her and waved her on; sometimes he told her. Once he gave minutes and seconds. Joanne began to warm up to her work and forgot to ask about time. She read very well, and once going, seemed reluctant to stop.

“Do I have time for one more?”

Philip frowned a giant theatrical frown, raised his watch to eye level, squinted at it, her, it, the audience, and finally smiled. Joanne, of course, had already begun the poem. She read zippy Bolinas life stuff—kind of funny and delightful.

When Philip rose to read, he hitched up his pants, held On Bear’s Head aloft and said, “Now I’m going to read all this really heavy, beautiful poetry, and bring you all way, way, DOWN!”

It turned out to be the opposite of that. He electrified people, and his many little asides and jokes were loudly appreciated.

“I don’t understand,” he said, at one point. “This is all really, really SERIOUS, and HEAVY! It’s all about REAL LIFE and SUFFERING and like that.”

He read from On Bear’s Head, Severance Pay, and then a long take from The Diamond Noodle, which commanded enthusiastic applause. He continued with material from The Kindness of Strangers, Enough Said, and finally from loose sheets in a folder, which were handwritten.

Early in his reading, which ran 40 solid minutes, Joanne interrupted him and said, “Do you realize Philip that you haven’t ONCE looked at your audience? Not once. You just keep looking down that book. You’ve GOT to look up at people…,” she trailed off, laughing hard. As soon as she had started this little speech, Philip had taken a bookmark from On Bear’s Head and walked toward her, holding it with his arm extended in front of him, as if he were approaching Dracula with a silver cross.

“I want them to read the book,” he said, and went on. Joanne saucily asked permission to move to the back so she could smoke.

When he began to read from Enough Said, he called out, “Where is that girl? Where is she? Oh! Yeah, OK, this is the one you said you didn’t understand. Now listen carefully—it’s really quite simple.”

When he finished, Joanne said, “Well it is kind of HARD, don’t you think?”

“No, not at all—it’s perfectly simple. Oh well.”

At the conclusion of his reading, Philip received a fine ovation, and made ready to leave. Joanne rushed to the front to clutch him. “You’re not leaving now are you? Please, please stay. You remember, we made a deal. You can’t leave now, just stay for a while. It won’t be long.”

Everyone hushed to see what held do. He turned slowly from packing his books, and said loudly and distinctly, in the voice of an ancient prophet, “The tongue of a strange woman is sweet as honey, but her latter end is bitter…as…GALL!” The last words were an emotional growl. The room sort of exploded. Philip calmly packed his books and sat back down. Joanne called for a SHORT break.

After it, she read poems from a folder. Philip sat very attentively in the front row, guffawing at every joke, raising his eyebrows at little outrages, but completely stonewalling any Buddhist references. She mentioned one of the members of the Tibetan pantheon in a questioning tone of voice, stepped a step closer to Philip, and paused a little for some help. He just looked up at her with interest, and blinked. Joanne went on with the poem, but shook a loosely formed fist at him, in kind of a sexy way. That didn’t seem to faze him either.

I certainly never heard him read better, and Joanne was obviously a big factor. Carol said she loved seeing Philip like that, “Just so obviously in love…I mean, he sat there like a little kid with his mouth practically hanging open.”

Besides all the nudging from Joanne, I think the bad room actually worked to the poets’ advantage. The readers had indeed been cramped into a sort of a cul-de-sac, while the audience had had a lot of space, because the room opened out in that half. Being literally up against the wall seemed to focus their energy. The crowd, a little drunk, a little high, was just right to push against. It wasn’t a stupid crowd, and it was fundamentally sympathetic, so it seemed that the poets could push pretty hard. Everyone agreed that a very fine performance had been called forth.

Talking about it earlier in the day, Philip had said this would probably be the last reading he’d give for a long time. “It’s hard and it’s boring, and I don’t have anything new to read. I’m only doing it because Leslie (Scalapino) asked me.”

“Oh. Well, did you see that McClure and Corso are reading day after tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” he slurred. “I wanna go!”

—15 May 81—

“Oh Gregory’s always like that. Right away he comes on like he’s trying to get me to hit him—you know, to see how far he can push. He always comes around and talks to me later, though.”

We were leaving the McClure-Corso reading at the intermission, because it was so crowded and because we’d had enough real magic to hold us for that night. It had also been a long hard day, and we both had to get up about 4 the next morning. It certainly felt better walking up Columbus St. in the cool evening than it had sitting in the hot room.

We’d left Zen Center early, about 5:15 pm, to avoid the ruckus of setting up for the “Music Night.” Philip also wanted to try out a new restaurant—U Lee—where the Lemon-Chicken dish had been recommended to him by Al Wong. It had been difficult to park, so by the time we were seated my already lousy stomach could stand only soup. We ate, talked, and explained in pidgin English to one of the Chinese women who ran the restaurant that yes, we were indeed Buddhist priests, but no, we didn’t say mantras on our beads.

We told her, “Chan! Chan!” which us Chinese for “Zen! Zen!” We said other things like “Sitting! Sitting! Sit monk.” She did a very funny caricature of a monk practicing zazen, to indicate that she knew who we were and what we did.

After dinner we headed over to the Ecology Center in North Beach, Philip aiding my driving by screaming things: “Oh oh! …LOOK OUT! …Oh GOD! …Oh my nerves! My poor nerves are totally shot to hell.”

It had actually been a beautiful U-turn on Columbus St. and a Chinese guy had just barely beat me to the parking space. Eventually we found another space and started back toward where the reading would be held—an impossibly small room on lower Columbus. Philip began discoursing on what the buildings we passed had once been. He explained first about the Barbary Coast in general, then told me that the pale green building that Francis Ford Coppola now owns had once been home to a newspaper outfit.

“And this Chinese restaurant used to be really high-class. They served smoked duck in here. Now let’s see…” He wandered over, squinting at the menu taped in the window. I came and stood beside him, and found smoked duck. Suddenly a grating voice with a New York accent said, from practically over our shoulders, “It’s a good thing that you’re looking at prices, ‘cause I’ll tell you something. Tonight you’re going to PAY.”

I looked around and saw first tousled gray hair, so messy and massive it seemed to dominate the short thick man beneath it. Then I saw intense, slightly crossed eyes—I looked down into them—and then incredibly crooked teeth. This man was so fired up about how Philip was going to have to pay that I remember him as having smoke coming out of his nose. “I want you to PAY! You hear? Really!”

Philip finished reading the menu, turned around slowly with a smile and said “Hi, Gregory.”

“Listen, I want you to PAY! I paid for your shot with McClure last fall, and I want you to pay tonight, you hear?”

“McClure said he left my name at the door.”

“NO NAMES AT THE DOOR, GODDAMN IT!!” Gregory was jumping up and down. “I DON’T CARE WHAT McCLURE SAID! You pay 4 dollars to go see Star Wars, don’t you?”

“No, man.” Philip said, very cool, very hipster. “I rarely go to the movies.”

“Well, don’t you think you ought to pay for Poetry?”

“No way, baby. I never go to poetry readings.”

Gregory smiled and hugged Philip and said, “How the hell are you anyway?…. Listen, you know the best part of you ran down your mother’s leg?”

Philip laughed and got red. They started down the sidewalk together, Gregory with his arm up around Philip, talking at his ear. “What do I need you for, I already got one asshole.” Philip laughed again, but I couldn’t understand what was going on.

“You know, you’re looking good. How does it feel down there?” Gregory reached down towards Philip’s ass crotch, and groped there for a while, the both of them still walking along.

“Feels good. Feels real good.”

Philip nodded in assent.

“But you know what,” Gregory said, as they arrived at the Ecology Center. “I want you to PAY!”

“Fuck that shit,” Philip said calmly. “I’m going home.”

Gregory went inside and told everybody not to let ANYBODY in, unless they PAID! Philip and I stood around on the sidewalk in beautiful North Beach, and I suddenly felt I needed a doughnut and coffee. I walked back up to Winchells, got one and came back. I paid and went in. Philip was inside, sitting by the door.

“Did you pay?”

“Of course not.”

The Ecology Center was crammed to the rafters. Both Micheal and Gregory read their newest poems very well, and the crowd cheered and clapped and shouted and stamped after each poem. It was very hot and electric. Philip sat near the door “so I can get out first.” He held his hands cupped around both ears, and kept asking me, “What did he say?” He thought, somehow, that both poets had done well.

At intermission we stepped out, and Gregory came out on the sidewalk and stood with us. “Great, Gregory. Really great.”

“You like the new poems, then?”

“Oh yes.”

“You know,” Gregory said, pulling down his reading glasses, dead-pan expression and Yiddish accent, “I don’t think I live this poetry life too good, you know? I mean, like you—you stay in one place, you’re patient, like that. But me? I’m always crashing through, you know what I mean?”

Philip threw his head back and bellowed with laughter. Then he put his arms around Gregory and said, “No, Gregory, it’s OK, ‘cause you got the real genius.”

“Take my picture!” Gregory shouted to an angel-faced guy with a camera. “Take my picture with the MAN!” While the guy was shooting, Gregory noticed me. “Where’d you find him? Zen Center, I bet. Huh?”  Then, “You got my picture with the man?”

Philip tried to introduce Gregory to the photographer. “Do you know Chris….”

“Yeah I know him,” Gregory said, and made a down-waving gesture with his hand. He suddenly seemed dejected—almost as if Philip’s attempt at civility had been a bring-down. He walked away. I heard later he’d been pretty wild in the second half of the reading.

Philip and I started up Columbus. “Gregory’s always like that….”

—30 June 81—

The great poet and teacher Ted Berrigan was in town for 5 days last week, with his two eldest children, David and Kate. He came to give two readings and two talks, which constituted a “Residency” at 80 Langton St. Philip and Ted have been friends for several years; moreover they are sincere admirers of one another’s work. Ted said this time, in a talk on the genesis of his own poetry, that in 1963, when Donald Allen came out with his anthology, New American Poetry, the book contained very little, if anything, in the way of a formal ‘breakthrough.’ There were breakthroughs, he conceded, in terms of stance. He then singled out Philip’s poems and said that they had indeed seemed different, but that he, Ted, couldn’t think of them as breakthroughs simply because, “Philip was already through. He was just doing it…. But it turns out,” Ted went on, “Philip Whalen is just this big hick from the Northwest who has everything going for him.”

“That Ted Berrigan,” Philip said one day in the small kitchen. “He knows a thing or two. He’s a real toughie.” These are Philip’s highest praises, practically for anyone.

“Is he the priest?” somebody asked.

“NO!” Philip said in exasperation. “Ted Berrigan lives with Alice Notley. You know old Alice. Well, she’s a genius, and Ted has kept up all these years at a very, very high level, and they have these little babies, and they all live in dire poverty, which is located in New York City.”

“They have no money?”

“Well, Ted you know, I mean he’s just incredibly fat and he lies around in bed all day eating Oreos and drinking Pepsi, reading junk novels and writing gorgeous poetry. Oh—and taking pills. He must be in terrible shape by now.”

 

“Ted” linoleum print from the Smoking Poets series

Ted did seem in physical pain this trip, but also conveyed a big sturdiness. He is not as fat as Philip is, but he’s much taller. “A monster.” Philip called him when Ellie asked who the Ted we were talking about was.

“Is he Allen Ginsberg’s boyfriend?” She’d heard Allen’s name in conjunction with Ted’s acupuncture treatments.

“No. He’s Alice Notley’s boyfriend.”

“I’m not really as in awe of Philip as I’ve been sounding,” Ted said to me, after his first reading. We’d just been introduced, and several of us were standing on Valencia St., listening. He hadn’t sounded particularly in awe of Philip to me, but I’m not objective. “I would like to have a short visit with him, because Alice will strangle me, if I don’t at least go talk to him and seduce him into saying something nice about her.”

Carol, John, and I all assured Ted that we’d make the arrangements.

Ted said, “I’ll get back to New York, and Alice will ask me ‘Did Philip say anything about me?’ and I’ll tell her, ‘No…. Philip didn’t seem to remember you at all….’”

Ted had a long week of readings. First, one at the New College, then 4 successive nights at 80 Langton St. I went to all of it, and Philip asked each day how it had been. “How was Uncle Ted last night?” We couldn’t get Philip out of the house though. On one of the nights, Norman, Carol and I almost managed it, but then Philip said he had dishes to do, and a headache, and that “anything at night was too hard….”

We all three leaned pretty hard on Philip to get him to come, but he made it clear finally that he wasn’t up to it. We ran off without him.

Norman did manage to arrange a visit for Ted to see Philip at home the next day. Ted reported later that he’d gotten a good anecdote for Alice, and then told how Philip had set out cups, and brought tea, and then run into the kitchen. “He came shuffling out,” Ted said, “holding a little can of Pepsi, and grinning an idiot grin. It really touched me. Then he went and got another one!” Ted said it had been a problem to keep Philip from bringing him a third Pepsi.

Ted’s last reading was Saturday night, and Philip finally attended. We’d sort of caravanned down there after a big dinner at Carol’s. After pleasantries at the door with Ted, Philip went in. Ted said he was “still admirer enough and fan enough to be totally flattered when Philip Whalen comes to a reading of mine.”

Ted only read for 30 – 40 minutes. Carol and I sat a row in front of Philip and we could hear him laughing with delight the whole time. It was very wonderful to be listening to Ted Berrigan in front, and Philip Whalen behind. Ted unveiled what he called his “new Anne Waldman style of reading.” When he finished the reading, and with it the Residency, he walked over near us, and squatted next to Philip, remarking that his new style was very exhausting—almost apologizing for the brevity of the reading. Philip wouldn’t hear of it. He had only praise for the work, and told Ted the reading had been “very solid.”

—20 Feb. 82—

The phone rang. I could tell from what Philip said that it was someone from 80 Langton St., inviting him to be the Writer-in-Residence there. Barry Watten and Bob Perelman had approached me earlier, asking if I thought Philip would be interested. I’d told them I’d sound him out. Philip had said yes, he was interested in the $800, but that also right now he was busy three nights a week with classes, and with running a zendo in the days… maybe later, late spring, early summer. He said he wasn’t sure he could come up with anything anyway, but he told me I could tell them he was “interested.”

I passed all this along to Barry, and Philip said it all again on the phone. But whoever it was must have said something to push one of Philip’s buttons, not that it would have taken much in his frazzled condition.

“No, No! It’s all too tight down there. It’s getting very much like Clayton Eschelman-land or something….”

Then there was a long pause.

“No. You guys remind me of the NFR of 30 years ago – you know, trying to run the universe and what not. Who needs it?”

Another pause, then, “Well then, I guess we have to make it ‘No,’ OK?”

“That was your friend Barrett Watten calling about the 80 Langton thing.”

“And you told him no?”

“I’m just too busy is all. I’m afraid he may give you the what for next time he sees you.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I just told him that I wasn’t interested in what he and those kids are doing down there. He apparently thinks 80 Langton St. is this very big deal, and I compared him to the NFR. Then he said I had to tell him yes or no. He said he wasn’t going to hold the door open so I could walk in, so I told him no.”

Philip’s description of the conversation, and actually the conversation itself from his side, the side I’d heard, had been mostly civil. It was interesting that someone should try to tell Barrett Watten anything.

When I got back to Zen Center there were messages to call Barry. A message at Carol’s house too. I got hold of him mid-afternoon, and the first thing he said was that I could give Philip the finger for him, next time I saw him. Then he complained about how he’d been mistreated, and put down, and so on, venting for quite a while. He misquoted and more, to make his case sound convincing. Of course he didn’t know that I’d overheard Philip’s side of the conversation. I didn’t really want to tell him either, but even if I had want to, it would have been hard, because Barry was being pretty put-out and vocal.

I said I was sorry he’d had to go through an unpleasant scene, and I tried to tell him my observation of how busy P. really was, and how sick. I added that Philip was a well-known crank.

“I don’t buy that ‘crank’ business,” Barry said. “I think it’s a specific marketing strategy. It’s like painters who only show their work in certain galleries, so it’s more exclusive and more expensive.”

I tried to tell him that Philip was very far from that sort of thinking, but Barry said he intended to write him a letter…on and on. I mentioned that Philip had turned down his good friend Allen Ginsberg, who’d wanted him to come to Boulder for the Kerouac Conference celebration, and that a year or two ago, he’d also turned down an invitation to some big Lew Welch commemoration.

“I can understand both those decisions,” Barry said. “In fact, I can even understand this one. I just don’t like the way he did it. It was really, really awful.”

Later I related all this to Philip over the telephone. He didn’t seem at all surprised, even at the misquoting.

“People do it all the time. All the time.”

“Oh yeah, Barry did say that I was supposed to give you the finger next time I saw you.”

“Oh! OK. Thank you very much.”


David Schneider is the author of two biographies—Street Zen (Issan Tommy Dorsey, Shambhala Publications 1993 & 2020) and Crowded by Beauty, The Zen and Life of Poet Philip Whalen, (UC Press, 2015). He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977, and he served as an acharya in Shambhala from 1996-2019. His forthcoming book of short stories (Cuke Press) is called Goods.

 

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In Close Proximity—Part One

In Close Proximity—Part One

excerpts from Side Effect
A Journal of Zen Life with Philip Whalen
by Tensho David Schneider

Tensho David Schneider’s journal, Side Effect came about from the idea that the sayings and doings of Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufu would be of interest to others. The journal takes place over a period of 18 months, towards the end of Whalen’s 12 years living in Zen Center housing, a period he called his “life of elegant retirement.” These months, directly before the scandal of 1983 tore it apart, was a sort of golden age for the San Francisco Zen Center. David Schneider was 29 years old and had been living at Zen Center for nearly a decade when he began this journal. He arrived in 1972, about a month after Philip Whalen took up residence there. The Zen Center was held in high regard in the spiritual imagination, if not the actual spiritual life, of many so inclined Northern California residents as a place where one could practice intensively, study, live in the city or the monastery, and find work in Zen Center associated enterprises, or on the farm. Many interesting and creative and intelligent people passed through its doors, including the great teachers from every Buddhist lineage. It was a real scene, and Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufuwas central to it all.


—6 March 81—

A very lovely day. To prolong the conversation I was having with Philip in the sun and light wind, I said, “I think this must be one of the greatest American novels,” pulling A Farewell to Arms out of my book-bag and holding it up for him.

“Wha..what do you have there dear boy ? Oh. Oh, well, you have to read all the really SERIOUS American arthers before you can say that.”

“Like who?”

“Oh, you know, really SERIOUS types like Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James….”

photo by Barbara Wenger

Philip rarely gives a clear opinion of any author, short of total admiration for him—or her, more usually: Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Murasaki Shikibu, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson. Even if he makes a pronouncement about someone’s work, or some part of it, it’s very likely that next time you talk to him about it, he’ll widen the context of that work or that author so as to throw an entirely different light on it/him/her.

Now he seemed to be putting Hemingway down, but I remember the time he typed up a descriptive passage about a lake in a valley, and didn’t credit the writing on the typed sheet. He posted it an the bulletin board outside the small kitchen. A bunch of us were standing around drinking coffee, getting ready for the day, gazing in our usual vacant way at the bulletin board. Philip appeared behind us and asked, “Do you know who wrote that ?”

We all looked carefully at the passage, stalling. I wanted to say “Hemingway,” but I wasn’t sure and didn’t think I could afford the embarrassment.

Philip said, “It’s from The Green Hills of Africa—isn’t it lovely ?”

“I knew it was Hemingway!”

He chuckled, as we all, including him, read it again. It was a lovely passage, but it was even more lovely to see Philip so thoroughly enraptured by the writing as to risk educating us.

During the course of my re-reading Hemingway this time, Philip has spent hours listening to my questions and opinions, and discussing them with me. One day he came into an office where I was trying to type a long dull list, and delivered a two hour lecture on Hemingway: the superiority of the short stories to the novels (“The novels get a little thin sometimes—you can poke your finger through them,”), the history of the writing of The Snows of Kilamanjaro, and Hemingway’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He read aloud from a stack of biographies, and supplemented the stories with his own insights. It was a great lecture, but not at all an uncommon thing for him to do.

Everyone knows of Philip’s devotion to literature, but not everyone can imagine his effort to transmit it. Complicating this is the fact that Philip does not shine as a classroom teacher, or rarely. (A set of lectures on how to read, delivered at Tassajara, was a notable exception.) Mostly, he just doesn’t think classrooms are where you learn. Philip has read, and continues to read all the time everything and is glad to encourage anyone willing to join him for even any part of that. He honestly feels that people have got to find out things for themselves, and this includes developing “chops” as a writer. Here again, though, he is incredibly generous about reading works his acquaintances show him. He can devastate people with his criticism, but he aims to help.

—12 April 81—

Philip asked, “Her name isn’t Somer…Sumer…something is it ?”

Blanche said, “Yes, it is.”

“Oh FUCK , if you’ll excuse the expression. That’s the same lady who’s been writing to me for months, even though I’ve written back and told her I am absolutely not going to tell her anything more than I already have about haiku poetry.”

“She’s this Phd. student from Germany and now she’s arrived here and wants us to go pick her up at the Airporter Terminal. I guess we shouldn’t go too far out of our way. I mean I’ve told her already we couldn’t do it, and even so I’ve been debating with myself about did we have cars and people enough to go get her.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said Philip

“I’ve told her she can take a bus or taxi,” Blanche went on,  “but she says she is travelling on scholarship and must be very careful about expenses. And so we should spend the money to go get her, right? I mean she doesn’t say that but….”

“It doesn’t matter, I tell you, because she’s got this IDEE FIXE about haiku. See, she belongs to this vast European society of haiku-writers, and they’ve all got this THEORY, you know, this really heavy German THEORY about haiku, to show how they’re all absolutely RIGHT…. And it’s all INSUFFERABLE TWADDLE ! But the point is, she’ll be here.”

“We could tell her we haven’t heard about Philip Whalen, recently…‘Oh, him, well he used to practice here, but….’”

“It won’t work. People like that are maniacal. She’ll find me.”

“Couldn’t you contrive to have a sore throat or something, and be indisposed to talk?”

“She’d wait. These people will track you down no matter what. They’d follow you into the bathroom for Christ sakes and ask you questions while you’re shitting. I can tell you from past experience.”

“And also, she’s got it all confused about where she’s staying. She says when she was in Los Angeles, the Zen Center there just came right out and picked her up.”

“Blanche! Just face it, she’ll be here in no time, operating 500 miles a minute, and she’s probably just wonderful and so we should just cover her in flowers and incense and Buddhas.”

“But we don’t have to go pick her up.”

“Well, if she says you do, you do.”

Hysteria all around. I said, “Philip, what about if when she arrives at your apartment there happens to be this other young Zen monk on hand….”

“That might be useful….”

“ …who, immediately upon seeing her young, German Phd. body, begins….”

“Gently. Gently, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Oh aw, hell!” said  Philip. “I guess I’ll just go over to the store and buy some garlic.”

“What? To wear around your neck?”

“Right.”

—17 April 1981—

I’ve been reading finally I Remain, The Letters of Lew Welch, and talking to Philip about them, though only a little, because I think his feelings about Lew Welch and talking about Lew Welch are complicated. They were “best friends” and Lew’s disappearance or suicide was strange in the extreme.

photo by Barbara Wenger

Philip is usually willing to discuss almost anything, but the stance he’ll take is very unpredictable. He might come on short & irritated, or be very long and rambling; or like today, he might be sympathetic to your interest in finding out about, for example, Lew Welch.

In the section of the book where Welch started getting things published, he wrote many letters about the fine work printer Dave Haselwood did on Wobbly Rock and on pieces by other poets, notably Memoirs From an Inter-Glacial Age, by Philip. I love a beautifully printed book, and I know Philip does too, almost as much as he dislikes an inferior, badly designed, or sloppily executed one. I asked if perhaps he had a copy of the first edition Wobbly Rock and he said he did, nodding his head, anticipating my next request. I therefore went on and asked if sometime I might see this and other specimens of Dave Haselwood’s work.

Before Philip could answer Dan Welch walked in the front door of Zen Center and came over to say hi. Philip and I teased him a bit about Welch’s several letters mentioning Dan—or more accurately, letters in which Dan figures as a kind of hero.

“Aw, it was just one incident…” said Dan, in own defense, but the fact is that Welch had written at least three ecstatic letters about Dan and his older sister. Dan eventually owned up to the fact that well, maybe there was another reference somewhere to some event or another…. Even though Dan was clearly embarrassed by our teasing, he was also not without a pride on the subject.

“I’ll run go get the books,” said Philip, launching himself. “Where are you going to be?”

“Hiding in the Third Office.”

Soon Philip was back with his copies of Wobbly Rock and On Out both old, both lovingly inscribed to him, and both beautifully printed with letter press. I admired them and returned them to Philip, and I remarked that Welch had distinctive, rhythmic handwriting.

“Oh yeah, Lewie made that up himself.”

I went back to work amid the continuous opening & closing of doors, ringing of phones, calling back and forth of all sorts of people. Philip usually watches this with amused detachment, clucking and shaking his head at the amount of complication an outfit like Zen Center, dedicated to silent meditation can manufacture. Today though, he just disappeared. When I got back to my room later, a copy of Welch’s Hermit Poems—an exquisite little book entirely reproduced from Welch’s own handwriting—was sitting in the middle of my desk.

Later that afternoon I formed a plan to get P. to help me on a book design. I was going to have to work in North Beach & wanted him to come along. I fell into step with him as he walked slowly down the Zen Center front hall.

“So what are you doing tomorrow?”

“Lec-tur-ring.” he said as he stopped short and turned to face me.

“Oh yeah? Yeah, great,” I started walking again. “And after that what?”

“Oh, I dunno—nothing I guess.”

“Well I was wondering, if, um….”

“Try to breathe dear boy. Stand up straight.”

“Oh, yeah, anyway. I was wondering if maybe you wanted to have the China lunch, and then maybe walk on up to Peter Bailey’s place and look at those type samples I was telling you about.”

“Yeah, O.K. That sounds O.K.”

“Great. I’ll call Peter.”

“Al-right.”

I went away to call Peter, still thinking about Lew Welch actually, and Philip lecturing, and specifically about the time Philip lectured on Lew Welch. It was a couple or three years ago.

Philip came in, did the bows, seated himself, and began to talk about the Four Unlimited States of Mind, a theme, incidentally, he has taken up again. In this first lecture though, he ran through them all rather rapidly, giving standard definitions, and pointing out that really what counted was if you could put them into practice or not. Everyday. This much of the lecture took about fifteen minutes. Lectures usually run forty minutes to an hour.

Suddenly he said “Now I’m going to tell you what I really want to talk about: Lewie. Lewis Barrett Welch. He was my friend.…”

Philip then gave a close account of Lew’s background, and of their friendship. He discussed Lew’s disappearance in 1971,

“I told him, ‘Lewie, it’s a mistake. You shouldn’t have done that.’” He speculated that perhaps Lew was off in Florida somewhere selling insurance or something and would turn up, but that more probably he was dead. He told a few Lew Welch stories and then very carefully read Welch’s Song of the Turkey Buzzard. Philip read this more beautifully than I’d ever heard him read. The times I had heard him read before, he’d just thrown away lots of it, rushing through his poems in machine-gun style. But this time—in fact every time since this time—he’s read the material very clearly as it’s written, whether it was his own work, or someone else’s. (I especially recall him visibly shaken, reading aloud the last pages of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.)

The Song of the Turkey Buzzard can be seen as Welch’s suicide note, and Philip read it with incredible feeling. We were all riveted to our zafus, and many, like me, were in tears. When he finished, Philips said, “I thought I could read this here, in this Buddha Hall, because it is one man’s truth, his Dharma, and so I felt justified in presenting it to you.”

—29 April 81—

I came in from a particularly exhausting produce-shopping trip, and found breakfast at the Zen Center to be (by now) cold cornmeal cereal, yogurt, some nasty-looking peanuts and raisins. I’d been thinking about a Spanish omelette, hash browns, toast & coffee. I’d eat, sit and write in this journal, away from Zen Center and telephones. As I was standing in the front hall, dreaming of this plan, Philip came shuffling by.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I was thinking about breakfast, I’m hungry.”

“Well, where are you going to eat it?”

“Nick’s maybe. How are you feeling this morning?”

“Oh, like I’ve been hit by a truck.”

“You ought to go back to bed then, don’t you think?”

“To tell you the truth, I think it’d do me more good to walk around.”

“Well, if you want to come out with me….”

I trailed off. I was tired, this was going to take a long time, and of course, I could hardly write about Philip if I were sitting having breakfast with him.

“If you just wait here, I’ll go get out of this coat, and get a hat.”

“You do want to go then?”

“Yes. I need to walk. And I need a bodyguard.”

We set out. It was a smoggy, hot morning. As we passed the fence where the morning-glories grew, I told him the story about Hammett and Hemingway that Carol had told me. (Carol’s been reading Lillian Hellman) The story was about Hemingway’s bending a spoon in the crook of his arm, then offering Hammett a spoon so he could match the feat. Hammett’s reply, about how when he used to do such things, it was for Pinkerton money and wouldn’t Hemingway like to go roll a hoop in the park?, slew Philip. He stopped, hit his thigh, and howled with delight.

“What’d Hemingway do then? Hit him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well probably if he was sober enough to hear what Hammett said, he’d have hit him.”

“I understand that Hammett was mad at Hemingway for being patronizing toward Fitzgerald, whom Hammett considered to be the better writer.”

“Kid, you know, I hear that EVERYWHERE. Everybody loves that guy—everyone from Gertrude Stein to…Dashiell Hammett now—thinks that Fitzgerald was just the greatest thing that ever was, and it’s NONSENSE I tell you.”

We stepped off the curb by Larry’s Liquors, and started under the freeway.

“He was a magazine writer for God’s sake, or at least that’s what it sounds like. Gertrude Stein says he wrote naturally in sentences.”

I gazed at the lengths of cement block overhead, idly wandering how they’d come apart in an earthquake. “What does that mean—that his thoughts came out the same length as sentences or something?”

“No—he wrote naturally in sentences. It means she thought it was all wonderful and interesting.”

“Well, they made us read The Great Gatsby in high school. Seems like the end of that wasn’t bad.”

“I know,” he said, “Everybody says so, it just sounds like a magazine to me. I mean, he gets some characters set up, sort of, and then in the middle of that book he gets totally lost. He just lost sight of what he was doing, and flounders around, and by the time you get to the big O’Henry ending—who needs it? And besides, Hemingway already told the whole story in The Sun Also Rises, about how if you’re rich and don’t have enough to do, you end up all…you know….”

“Destructive? Not worth it?”

“Not worth it, yeah. And then that other book, his first one, This Side of Paradise was just incredibly popular. Scribners took it and made it really big, and it somehow caught on. Everybody was reading it and talking about it—but, you know, as writing it was just DRECK. The poor guy was a feeb. Everybody loved him though, so that by the time he actually got to Paris, he was already famous. He and Zelda had already jumped in the fountain, and done all sorts of marvelous and expensive things.”

Philip went on to tell several more stories about Fitzgerald. He seemed to know an awful lot about someone whose writing he didn’t like. We turned off a very hot flat Page St. and onto a heavily trafficked Gough St. I put on my sunglasses and said, “You know, I’ve got this idea about Hemingway. I’ve been reading the short stories and I’ve got this theory. It seems to me he was, well, kind of dumb—kind of stupid, but he had all these stories to tell.”

“That’s what he wanted you to think anyway. That’s what he was trying to sell you.”

“You mean he wasn’t dumb.”

“Yes. I know what you mean, though. To read it you’d think there wasn’t any learning or sensibility at all there, when actually there was all kinds of learning and sensibility. But he wanted you to think he was just this big cock and muscles who told stories about going fishing. Because actually, he thought that the upper classes and intellectuals had ruined the world. And they had, to a certain extent—at least they seemed to have brought on the First World War. So he was coming from this place of being just a good old boy who liked to hunt and fight and lay as many women as possible, because that’s what real people did, and everybody knew that.”

We emerged from some shade we’d found on Gough, and crossed Market.

“But see, he read all the time. That’s what he did. He’d either be drinking or reading, to cool out from the writing. But he could never be like Bill Williams, though. He couldn’t just be a guy who did a job and also wrote. Hemingway had worked in newspapers so long that he had to create this big…big….”

“Story?”

“Big persona about who he was. And eventually it killed him. Ran right up his ass and ate him.”

We turned into Nick’s—a large lunch-counter place, with only a sign saying Broiled Burgers to identify it. We found a table, and my waitress friend came over.

“Good morning David,” she said, looking straight at Philip.

“Hi Sylvia, Going OK?”

“OK, can I get you something?” she said, still looking at Philip.

“Honey,” Philip said, “I’m not feeling too well this morning. Maybe you’d just better bring me some juice.”

“Alright. What kind would you like?”

“Pepsi, a large one.”

I ordered an omelette. While she brought the silverware and Philip’s Pepsi, I tried again.

“What I mean about Hemingway is that he’s kind of straight ahead: very much sort of point-A-to-point-B. You know? And if he does use a literary device of some sort, it’s telegraphed, like a punch. It’s like he says, ‘OK, here comes this device, here it is, there it went.’”

Philip smiled. “Yes, but those stories are GOOD. It’s very hard to do that, you know. Lots of people tried to imitate him and failed. They couldn’t make it go, and he could, and it’s very interesting how he does it.”

Sylvia brought a large omelette, with lots of trimmings, and set it on the table between us.

“There,” Philip said, “that ought to keep you happy, for a little while.”


David Schneider is the author of two biographies—Street Zen (Issan Tommy Dorsey, Shambhala Publications 1993 & 2020) and Crowded by Beauty, The Zen and Life of Poet Philip Whalen, (University of California Press, 2015). He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977, and he served as an acharya in Shambhala from 1996-2019. His forthcoming book of short stories (Cuke Press) is called Goods.

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Hello, I Must Be Going [Part II]

Hello, I Must Be Going
[Part II] 

Excerpts from
Thanks For Asking: The Whalen Journal
by Steve Silberman       

In May of 1993, Michael Wenger at the San Francisco Zen Center contacted  Steve and asked him if he would be interested in helping Philip Whalen, whose macular degeneration was quite advanced,  perform daily tasks, answer mail, take him shopping, and act essentially as in-home support and companion. During a brief period, from May to Sept of that year, Silberman kept a journal of his interactions with a significant American poet and Roshi at the Hartford Street Zen Center. On July 23rd, Steve interviewed Philip at Allen Ginsberg’s request for liner notes to Allen’s spoken word project, Recording History. The interview begun in Part I is continued here. 

Steve Silberman:  When did you connect with Rexroth?

Philip Whalen:   I met him for the first time at the Six Gallery reading I think, and then later on, he would have these Friday evenings at his house where you could, if you called him up ahead of time and asked him could you come over, he would say yes or not, depending if he was having a Friday evening or not.  That was always every interesting, ‘cause there were young poets there, and older ones, and visiting luminaries from different professions, “orts” and what not, so it was very interesting to be there. People said it was boring to go there, because Kenneth always talked all the time, but I thought Kenneth was a marvelous talker and I enjoyed listening to him, so I didn’t mind whether anybody else famous was there or not, ‘cause he was very entertaining I thought.  Everybody thought he was a big bore, except me. I liked his style, a sort of Major Hoople style—great.

*

SS:  Were you familiar with Gary and Allen’s poetry before the Six Gallery reading?

PW:  Of course I knew Gary’s poetry from college, but I didn’t know anything of Allen’s. The only thing of Allen’s I knew–but I didn’t know what it was—was the letters that appear in Paterson. I asked Williams, just generally, “Did you write all those letters that appear in Paterson?”  and he says, “Oh no, those are real letters.”  And here I was ready to kill myself and become his slave and all sorts of things if indeed he had composed all that stuff. So he missed having a slave.

In any case, I didn’t know who Allen was at that time, and I think that he was still in the lunatic asylum, and Williams tried to explain that this was so, without naming any names or anything. ‘Cause he didn’t want him to be embarrassed.

*

SS:  I once heard Gary remark that one of the striking things about the Six Gallery reading was that, before that night he’d felt that he had friends who were interested in poetry, or friends who were living a certain way, but he walked into the room and all of a sudden there were a hundred people there.

PW:  I was surprised that people would laugh in the funny parts and seem to be listening. And seemed to be having a good time. The audience was extremely receptive and pleasant. So it was a surprise, ‘cause I didn’t expect anybody to pick up much in the kind of stuff I was doing.

*

SS:  Did you have a sense, that night, that it was historical?

PW:  No. It was just a lot of fun. It was quite interesting that so many people were there, and everybody was all excited—we all felt happy about it. But it didn’t seem to be special at all—it just happened. There it all was, something had happened. And that was nice.

*

SS:  Was that the first time you’d heard “Howl”?

PW:  Yeah.

SS:  What was your first impression of that poem?

PW:  That it seesawed back and forth between terrific invention and what I thought of as sentimentality at that time—that’s the word that I had wrapped around it. And that there was something of the same thing about Jack’s work, also. As much of it as I saw in those days.

I think it was actually the mutual interest that they had in Dostoevsky, and in the tender characters like Alyosha, or Prince Myshkin, which they dug. And also their interest in Melville’s Pierre, the great loser. A great feeling of pity, isn’t it too bad that these terrible things happen to such nice people, and so forth. To me, Myshkin was just there, and did whatever he did, and so what. I didn’t think of it as sad or too bad or whatnot, and the same about Pierre—Pierre was a spoiled brat, for the most part, who had a terrible comeuppance in the end, and it was quite an interesting peripeteia, as Aristotle would say.

*

SS:  Do you remember a sense of the poem’s energy as an oral performance? Did it seem special in that way?

PW:  Oh, yeah.

SS:  Could you talk about that?

PW:  I don’t remember. Oh, it was very exciting—and Allen getting excited while doing it, it was, in a way, sort of scary—you wondered was he wigging out, or what. And he was! I guess. But within certain parameters, like they say.

SS:  Did it seem like a personal breakthrough for him?

PW:  Oh, yeah, absolutely. And it was a breakthrough for everybody, actually, I think, because nobody had come out and said all the kinds of things that he was saying:  the mixture of terrifically inventive and wild language, and what had hitherto been forbidden subject matter. And just general power, was quite impressive.

A friend of mine composed a rather savage epigram on the occasion, however. “Words of treacle, words of might, fin de siècle joys tonight.”

*

SS:  Did Kenneth seem very moved by the occasion?

PW:  Oh yes. In the first place, there was this little wooden fruit crate standing in the front of the stage, and he came up and he said, “What is this, a reading stand for a midget? Somebody’s gonna come up and read a haiku version of the Iliad—”

He said he’d been doing so many square jobs recently, that it was a pleasure to get away and do something about poetry, and be the Master of Ceremonies, and introduce everybody. And so he did.

SS:  How did Jack seem to be feeling that night?

PW:  Well, he seemed to be feeling no pain—he was busy being drunk, or at least exhibiting symptoms of an overindulgence in alcohol. At the same time crying for more, of course.

* 

SS:  Did you have any input into Allen’s revisions?

PW:  Yes, but it reflects great dishonor upon me, I’m sorry to say. I asked him what was a “bupki?”  And he says, “A garbanzo bean.”  I said, “Oh.”  He says, “Oh I’ll change it!”  I said, “No, no, don’t change it–I like the word ‘bupki.’“  And he says, “No, I don’t want to use it—if people don’t know what it means, I’ll change it to ‘garbanzo.’“

‘Cause somewhere in the poem, it says that he was going to hear this—

SS:  Israel Amter.

PW:  The pamphlets cost a nickel, and the speeches were free, and something about garbanzo beans—

SS:  “They sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel—”  (the poem is actually “America.”)

PW:  Anyway, he originally called them “bupkis,” which I thought was great, but he said, “No, if you don’t understand it, it’s probably no good.”  And so I feel terrible about that because I liked that word so much.

*

PW:  It was interesting to be with Jack and Allen in the railroad yard when Allen discovered this desiccated sunflower, and wanted to know what it was—I told him it was a sunflower. So he says, “Blake said this wonderful thing about ‘O Sunflower, weary of time, why art thou,’“ etc.  He was going on about Blake and so forth. And then—I forget whether he began writing it down on the spot, but he certainly did write it down shortly thereafter. I think he says in a note on the poem in the collected edition that I was there. Or not. It doesn’t matter.

*

SS:  Please forgive the terms in which I’m asking you this question, it’s the way I think of things. To write a poem called a sutra, is to–especially when it concerns an experience that one has had in a railroad yard–is to make ordinary spiritual experience the subject of poetry, in a way that might not have been prevalent in the academic verse of the time. It strikes me that one of the most powerful things about the writing that you and your friends were doing at that time is that you made insights into the nature of reality acceptable subjects for poetry, without exalting them, but expressing them in terms of ordinary experience—am I making any sense?

PW:  What are you driving at?

SS:  Did you have a sense that you were making it OK to talk about such experience in poems?

PW:  No. Because it seemed that that’s what poets had done for a great many centuries. If you read the early Greek lyrics, or if you read old Chinese poetry, or if you read almost anything, poets usually do that. The thing is that some of them go overboard, and ecclesiastical, like Wordsworth did, and write 500 ecclesiastical sonnets, or however many there are. Or various other sort of orthodox religious routines, that go on to some length. But certainly the vibe that Blake puts out is somewhere in there quite heavily. There are moments in Whitman, as in “Song of Myself,” and even more certainly in Emily Dickinson, there are trips that are just absolutely terrific, done in four lines, in ordinary language, without saying “thee” and “thou” and “whither” and “thither” and “thou art,” etc., what people—when I was young—took to be the language of poetry, King James’ English or something.  Chaucer was certainly very straightforward and very beautiful, where he talks about, “the fresshe beautee sleeth me sodeynly”—to get slain suddenly is pretty tough stuff. “He made the bothe of them naute sustaine.”  And certainly Coleridge could do it, look into all these sea creatures skipping and bouncing in their phosphorescent light—the Ancient Mariner is looking over the side of the ship, gets totally turned on by that vision, and felt that he could bless them, and be blessed.

SS:  Now that group of you and your friends can be gathered together in a single book, like Ann Charters’ —

PW:  That makes me very nervous. I have always resisted the idea of being a group, for some reason or other. That wasn’t the point—poetry wasn’t the point of us being together. We just liked each other. And liked what we were doing. And we were all trying to do the same thing, do something that wasn’t going to come out like Archibald MacLeish or something (laughing), or something that wasn’t going to be—oh what was that boy’s name, he was the White Hope in the ‘30s— “on a naked bed in Plato’s cave, the headlights sliding down the walls,” etc. etc.—what’s his name— he’s still got a heavy following among academics.  I can’t think of his name, that’s too bad. [Delmore Schwartz]

SS:  I wonder if that’s enough talking. Does that seem like enough?

PW:  It seems exquisitely boring, to me. ‘Cause as I say, I don’t remember anything, and at the time that all this excitement was being exciting, it was just what was happening, and I didn’t pay much attention to it as excitement, with the exception of watching Allen revise his things, and watching Jack typewrite out of his notebook, and laugh and add stuff and make mistakes, and add other things and cut some things and not copy some pages and things like that—there was this very strong drive to make something.

One day, we were all sitting around in that cottage, yakking about something or other, and Gregory says, “Why don’t you people do something beautiful, like Shelley? Why don’t you people write poems instead of sitting here yakking away—what’s the matter with you?”

SS:  Did you?

PW:  I don’t remember what happened at that point.

*

SS:  So, I’m a younger writer, and have been reading Allen’s work, and yours, since I was in junior high school—

PW:  I can’t imagine such a thing, I’m sorry. 

July 27

Phil comes out of the bathroom saying, “Soon I shall be the Zenshin Flatline, and not worth the stealing.” 

August 24

I call Phil from a phone booth in Provincetown and ask him how the guy I found to replace me for the month is working out.

“Fucked.”

Why?

“Well, he got here, and he was wonderful, but then Zen Center scared him somehow, so he had to move to a hotel—and then he said, ‘My plane ticket is only good on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I’ve run out of money, so I have to go.’“

“When did he leave?”

“Last week.”

I ask Phil if he’s been all right without a helper. “Yes. I have people around here to read to me.”

I tell him I’ll see him in a week.

“All right. Goo-bye.” 

August 30

For the first time in a month I walk into Phil’s room, thick with smells of ginger and garlic and cooking oil. He’s eating with chopsticks at his small fold-up table–rice, wok-fried greens, and a dish of gray fermented tofu, the Chinese equivalent of Roquefort. “Hello—how you?” he says, without looking up from the bowl held in front of his chest.

“Fine. I had a great trip.”

“That’s all wonderful. I’m going to have to have you stop working for me.”

“Why?”

“Because you are too amusing. You come over here and we shout and roll around and I forget that I need to go to the supermarket and buy tomato soup.”

I wonder if he’s kidding. He still hasn’t looked up.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“Well—I could try to be better about reminding you.”

I wonder if he’s angry about being left alone; or if he’s figured out via ESP that I’ve been having second thoughts about the job since learning that Doubleday is picking up my book;  or if he wants to save the Zen Center money; or if he learned that he can get along without me.

“Is it the money, Phil?”

“Oh no. Willie never complains.”  (The treasurer.)

We change the subject, and it doesn’t come up again. 

September 3

At the end of our day together, Phil hands me a check, though it’s not the end of the month.

“Is this my severance pay, Phil?”

“Yes.”

I sit for a minute.

“Phil—I didn’t think you really meant it.”

He laughs, an unnervingly long time. “Don’t worry about it. You’re very nice, and I like you, and it’s not anything you did.”

“Then why.”

“I told you:  you’re too amusing.”

“No, Phil, I’m going to push this. Why really?”

“You’re very amusing, and we get along just fine, and you don’t want to read me the Faure book, which is probably just your education, and you can’t help it, and we just can’t work together anymore, and it’s all fine.”

*

At the door, Phil tells me not to get “trapped by anything” and thanks me for putting up with his “crotchety character.”  We gassho.


Steve Silberman is an award-winning science writer whose NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery 2015), which Oliver Sacks called a “sweeping and penetrating history…presented with a rare sympathy and sensitivity.” became a much acclaimed bestseller in the United States and the United Kingdom, As a young man, with an avid interest in Buddhism and Beat literature, Silberman was Allen Ginsberg’s teaching assistant at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He lives with his husband Keith in San Francisco.

Many thanks and appreciations to Steve Silberman for allowing The New Black Bart Poetry Society to publish excerpts from Thanks For Asking, The Whalen Journal, a 41 page unpublished manuscript.

 

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Hello, I Must Be Going [Part I]

Hello, I Must Be Going
[Part I]

Excerpts from
Thanks For Asking: The Whalen Journal
            by Steve Silberman      .

In May of 1993, Michael Wenger at the San Francisco Zen Center contacted  Steve and asked him if he would be interested in helping Philip Whalen, whose macular degeneration was quite advanced,  perform daily tasks, answer mail, take him shopping, and act essentially as in-home support and companion. During a brief period, from May to Sept of that year, Silberman kept a journal of his interactions with a significant American poet and Roshi at the Hartford Street Zen Center. As Steve states in his introduction to the journal, “I will try to remember here vivid things that Whalen says in the coming weeks of historical and personal interest, anything that strikes me.  I will not attempt to make a complete record, but a graph of two minds moving, and rescue quanta of literary history that might otherwise slip away.”  

“Notice what you notice”
—A.G

 May 14, 1993

There are signs on the front door of the Hartford Street Zen Center, asking visitors to be patient after ringing, and the handwriting is slightly familiar:  I wonder if Philip has inscribed them and the feeling of familiarity is due to the grace of his calligraphy showing through the utilitarian messages.

You get to Philip’s rooms by going down a narrow staircase into the basement.  There are bookshelves in a suite of outer rooms–although “suite” doesn’t communicate the feeling of damp underground office like matter-of-factness about the rooms—loaded with Philip’s books, and Philip’s room is behind a curtain.  I notice a copy of the SF Oracle reprint, some Olson books and many Buddhist texts.

The TV is on loudly when I come in.  Philip looks thinner than the last time I saw him, but my first impression is of whiteness—he appears like an undifferentiated lump of white on the bed, which sits up, peering at me with oddly bright small eyes through plastic-rimmed glasses,  a belt fastening his pants around his “mountaine” belly.  He asks me to turn off the TV with the remote control, pick up an envelope, a letter from his doctor, and read:  instructions for some kind of heart test.  Another letter is from an old friend up North, who asks Philip to excuse his “oldfartedness.”  (Philip uses the word later in conversation.)

Philip tells me a story about Jack Spicer: “Spicer used to sit around in Gino and Carlo’s—one of those old bars in North Beach with two names—drinking some godforsaken thing, brandy with an Italian liqueur in it as a float, playing pinball.  He was surrounded by young men who would’ve practically kissed his hand, who wanted him to be their guru of Poetry.  And you know what he’d tell ‘em about?  Baseball.”

When I tell Philip that I travel a lot and might need frequent days off, Philip whines “Oh I can’t stand it!” in a high feminine cranky voice.  At first I think he’s kidding, but then he hesitates to offer me the job and I realize he’s serious.  We talk further, and both of us realize that I am the most suitable person for the job who is sitting in the room at this moment.

When our conversation is over I press my palms together to make a ragged gassho, and he says:

“You put your hands together in front of you and say, ‘O Boobus, what is the meaning of Prajnaparamita (Highest Perfect Wisdom)?’ and Boobus says, ‘Nicely said—thanks for asking’—and that’s all.”

May 21

I read Philip a letter from Albert Saijo.  Saijo’s letter contains a long rant about the Iraq War, and also says twice, in reference to growing older, “It is our duty to die.”  (I am disturbed by this, but Philip dismisses it as Saijo’s “clownishness.”)  Philip dictates an answer that contains the following:

           I am still engaged in some manifestation of the Zen trip. Don’t ask. Technically, I am the abbot of this temple, called Issanji, alias the Hartford Street Zen Center, which is legally a non-profit religious organization incorporated under the laws of the state of California. Except for a few hours a day, the outfit is invisible, very much like me. Nevertheless we must believe that it is all taking place in the Dharmakaya twenty-four hours a day.

Philip—who tells Saijo he is “shy of writing down anything but a grocery list”—ends the letter with “I bow nine times” when I run out of paper in the stack he has given me.  I promise myself to always have more than enough paper at hand.

Philip tells me Saijo’s mother used to write haiku all the time.  I ask Philip what his favorite haiku is:

O Snail
Climb Mt. Fuji
but slowly, slowly

—Issa

 May 24

As he has a very acute nose, I entertain Philip with smells.  One day I bring a sprig of rose geranium, another day I hold a plump freshly-picked green marijuana flower up to his nostrils.

“The best marijuana I ever smoked was from Laos or somewhere in the Vietnam ambit.  Three of us shared one joint.  It put you into the straight psychedelic swamp, overloaded your synapses.  Quite wonderful.”

*

“Philip—Arshile magazine wants you to send them something.”

“All I got is a limp dick.”

 June 19

With Philip in Sweet Inspiration, a sterile ’80s-ish bakery-cafe (though you can be sure there is no baking there) on Market Street. We walk in on one of the hottest days of the year, because Philip wants iced tea, and there are tables so Philip can sit down.  The staff is all good-looking and young—they will ice any tea you want from various bags of Twining’s (Philip bets the China Black tea is “really whoo-lung“) giving us each a pot and a tumbler of ice, which promptly melts in the hot water.

“My life is drawing to its close, and not a moment too soon,.” says Philip, and I see why he could care less about following the macrobiotic diet that Allen has laid out for him:  Philip is a scholar who can’t read, a poet who is unable to write, a delector of exquisite and simple savors who is supposed to be on a restricted diet in order to lengthen his stay in this realm of round pills, square pills, curbs that trip up and bruise, as the world in front of his eyes blurs.

“Philip, I can’t say that it’s worth it for you, but I’m really glad we’ve had our time together.”

Lately I’ve been thinking of my Grandpa Bob, who died 15 years ago.  He sipped liquor while he wasn’t supposed to because of his heart, winking at me as he took a quick snort from the liquor cabinet, all the while making inane conversation with my grandmother in the next room;  he taught me to play gin;  he tied my tie (which I hated wearing, but the act of him tying it—his fingers touching my ears, his breath in my face as he sang little tunes under his breath—I loved);  he seemed hidden in the same way Philip is hidden.  Having Philip in my life has released memories of him, like an old scent wherein is comfort smelled, of men & boys, together in that “hiddenness.”  Of—no time for anything but—what is real. 

June 26

“I don’t know, Philip, it was like I fell off the path, or I’m still on the path, after all, if Buddhism is about the deep truths of life, life will teach me its deep truths—I’m not saying practice is the same as not practicing, I know it isn’t—but all that stuff about impermanence, how what sees is changing as much as what is seen, I know is true now in a way I didn’t when I was a young Zen student, because I’ve seen it.”

Phil laughing:  “What makes you think Buddhism is about something other than disillusionment?” 

July  6 

We come in from shopping, Phil bellowing “Wood-worth” to a country & western tune:

“Oh I’d a-rather be a pagan
suckled in a creed outworn
Wah!  Wah!  Wah!  Wah!

And hear ol’ Triton
blow his wreathèd horn
Honk!  Honk!  Honk!

Schving!

July 7

“In Japan it isn’t unfashionable & disgraceful to be an old man or an old woman.  ‘Old Lady Ma’m’—’oba-san’ is a conventional term of respect. I expect Japan would fall to pieces if it weren’t for the hours of hard labor expended by old Japanese ladies.”

from “Apologies, Glossary &c.”
probably written XII : 66
deleted from On Bear’s Head

*

“Philip—do you feel famous?”

“I feel vaguely historical, but not famous.  As Don Carpenter once explained to me, ‘Phil—you’re a name, but not a face.’

“Or as Aaron Copeland told Paul Bowles, who started out wanting to be a composer, ‘You must be very busy when you’re 20, so that people will love you when you’re 40.’“

*

I read to Phil Yeats’ “Long-Legged Fly.” I tell Phil I think he should dictate poems to me, a means of enabling him to resume writing poetry that I have brought up before.  I feel his tension when I mention it.  He avoids the subject.  I press further.

“No,” he says.  “I don’t want to talk about that.  I want to be entertained.”

“But you’re a poet too (as Yeats was a poet.)”

“It’s like that Johnny Mathis song, horrible—’It’s not for me to saaayyy…’“

I also read more of Neuromancer.  When we come across a mention of Linda Lee—lover of Case, the central character—who is murdered offstage before the book begins, I say, “She’s Case’s lost anima.”

“What’s that?”

“You know—the great love of one’s life, the woman you had and lost and can’t get over.  Did you have one?”

Phil laughs.  “My mother.”

I ask him if intimate relationships have been very important to him.

“Oh, most of the time I was doing other things:  reading and writing.  Sometimes I’d notice that something or someone was becoming addictive, and I didn’t want to be addicted, so I’d go back to reading and writing.”

July 15

On Drugs
 “I like that psilocybe—it makes me happy when skies are gray.  And that hash stuff is good for my nerves.”

Phil stops in front of a lighted billboard advertising Tanqueray gin with a lime splashing in a digitized whirlpool of gin.

“Oh!  my favorite fruit. I always keep an ample supply on hand—for snakebite.” 

July 23

I eat terrible noodles at “the Chinaman’s” with Phil.  Over plates of scorched cabbage and garlic syrup and hacked chicken we talk about Williams’ Paterson.

“I don’t think he did what he thought he was going to do,” Phil says, “but at least he got out of the way and let it happen.”

Phil delivers a cranky history of American literature starting with Whitman and Dickinson, then Hart Crane and Jeffers, both of whom “had something going,” but very different somethings, continuing with Dylan Thomas, Stevens, Pound “grindling along with his Cantos” (Philip hardly talks about the Cantos with any of the respect Duncan had of the book, whom I saw cry once considering Pound’s sense of failure at the poem’s close)–up to but not including himself and his friends.  The mention of each poet is accompanied by some devastating precis or dismissal, as when he quotes Rexroth’s appraisal of Thomas as “writing poems for college professors to decipher,” though he credits Thomas with “authentic and serious poetic bent.”

Yesterday, I interviewed Phil for liner notes for Allen’s boxed CD set of readings to be titled Recording History.  A form letter from Allen’s office solicited “elegant or idiomatic literary notes by poets and scholars regarding the texts as literature, historical artifacts, or especially specimens of vocalization of poetry depending on what one might flash on first… any illumined matter that’ll educate and encourage present and future youths & intelligentsia.”

Phil was recalcitrant during the interview, and didn’t remember much about the Berkeley reading following the Six Gallery premiere of “Howl,” that Allen was especially interested to have Phil talk about.

Philip Whalen:  Hello, I must be going.

Steve Silberman:  Not yet—pretty soon.  The story is, Allen wants to—

PW:  Yes, he told me on the telephone.  He wants me to remember about something that happened in 1956.   About the reading at the Berkeley Little Theater, what I remember about it was a big banner, very long, not terribly wide banner that Bob LaVigne painted of a naked lady throwing her arms about, announcing the poetry reading at the Berkeley Little Theater, and listing all the people who were going to be there.  There was an enormous audience, and there were a great many poets to read on that occasion.  I can’t remember who-all was there, besides Allen and Gary and Mike McClure and me;  I don’t know whether Philip (Lamantia) was there or not. The other thing I remember is Michael reading his one-word poem “Light.”  And afterwards, meeting various people in the audience who I didn’t expect to see, I thought it was quite interesting that they had come.  That Alan Watts, for example, and various other people from the City had showed up in Berkeley for this occasion…

I had been up on the lookout that summer and Gary had written to me, saying there was going to be this poetry reading, and they wanted me to come and be in it, and that he had met Allen, and that it all looked like it was going to be quite wonderful, so hurry on down.  So I came down to Berkeley, and stayed with Gary, if I remember right, and stayed at his place temporarily, until Will Petersen cleared out of the place where he was living, and I took it over.

That was the year before, come to think of it—it was ‘55 that I came down out of the Forest Service.  I was living in town, I was living in Berkeley, by that time, in ‘56. I forget whether Allen had given me that cottage or not yet.  I’m not sure.  Maybe I was living in the place where Gary used to live–but he hadn’t gone off yet, no.  So, where was I living?  I was in Berkeley someplace, I guess, in 19 and 56.

SS:  So when you came down the first time you had not yet met Allen?

PW:  In 1955, I had, yeah.

SS:   And you met Allen through Gary?

PW:  Yeah. They had set up a dinner engagement.  Jack was in town, and Jack and Allen were going to meet us at the Key Station at First and Mission Street where the trains would come in from Berkeley, and we came in and met ‘em down on the corner of First and Mission.  And then we all went off to North Beach and had dinner.  I forget whether we ate dinner in North Beach or Chinatown.  Anyway, it was a very pleasant occasion.

SS:  Was that the first time you had met Jack?

PW:  Yeah.

SS:  So you met Jack and Allen the same night?

PW:  Yeah.

SS:  What was your impression of them?

PW:  That they were nervous and funny.

*

SS:  Did you consider yourself a poet at that point?

PW:  Yeah, I think so. I had started working on a long poem that summer, “The Sourdough Mountain Lookout.”  It was that summer—55—that I was staying with some friends in Seattle, and they had some friends who had got on to a whole box full of peyote buttons, actually fresh peyote plants that you could plant in your garden, that came from El Paso or some such place, in a big cardboard box.  They paid a dollar or five dollars and they all came by mail or UPS.  They had heard that it would make you hallucinate.  And they had heard that you were supposed to pull the fuzz out of all the little pockets of fuzz in them, and sort of slice it up and eat it, and ideally eating it with soda crackers took away some of the evil taste, but it’s not really true.  It tastes quite like eating mouthfuls of earth with soap in it.

At some point—either while I was still in Seattle or when I had just gotten up to the lookout—I wrote some poem that was different from stuff I had done before, and then I started writing pieces of what was going to be “The Sourdough Mountain Lookout.”

to be continued. . . .


Steve Silberman (left), Allen Ginsberg (middle) and Marc Olmsted (right). Photo by Marc Geller.

Steve Silberman is an award-winning science writer whose NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery 2015), which Oliver Sacks called a “sweeping and penetrating history…presented with a rare sympathy and sensitivity.” became a much acclaimed bestseller in the United States and the United Kingdom. As a young man, with an avid interest in Buddhism and Beat literature, Silberman was Allen Ginsberg’s teaching assistant at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He lives with his husband Keith in San Francisco.


Many thanks and appreciations to Steve Silberman for allowing The New Black Bart Poetry Society to post excerpts from Thanks For Asking, The Whalen Journal, a 41 page unpublished manuscript.

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The Education of Pat Nolan

The Education Of Pat Nolan

An Anniversary Memorial for Keith Kumasen Abbott, 1944-2019
By Pat Nolan

Paintings by Ivan Suvanjieff

In pursuit of the writer’s life with absolutely no clue of what I was doing, I left the Midwest (c.1965) after my discharge from the US Navy and ended up in Monterey, California, on Cannery Row to be exact, bartending at a bohemian hangout called The Palace Bar & Grill. One of the regulars was a young woman (but we were all young back then) by the name of Lani Hansen. And through the usual schmoozing with customers, I learned that her boyfriend was a poet and that he would soon be coming to live with her. That’s how I met Keith Abbott.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, in retrospect, seems like the most appropriate title for a book of poems in the late fifties, a portent of what was to come. I can think back to my perplexity at what was presented as poetry in his selection compared to what I remembered of high school English textbooks and their columns of tiny print poetry with thumbnail depictions of dour Victorian matrons and men whose beards looked like they’d just smoked an exploding cigar. The only poet of interest was Dylan Thomas simply because he was pictured, hair uncombed, with a cigarette jutting from his lips. I picked up a copy of Coney Island in a bookstore in Old Town San Diego while still a sailor, the first of hundreds of poetry books I would buy, steal, beg, and review. The indented arrangement of stanzas on the page, luminous single word lines, stair-stepping cascades of thought as a progression through time no matter what the words said or meant made perfect sense to me. A passing familiarity with the writing of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti led me to purchase my first poetry anthology, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, and which served as an introduction to a vibrant, distinctly independent, postwar development in American literature. It was a moment of destiny as I intuited the concerns of my future although I didn’t realize it then. Following the thread in that volume and in subsequent related reading, it became my ambition to learn everything that had a bearing on my understanding of the art of poetry, and although it is largely self-education (the dreaded autodidacticism), I could not have done it alone.

I was older than Keith by six months. His birthday, Groundhog Day in the US, was also James Joyce’s birthday, something he liked to remind friends as a confirmation of his associated astrological genius. Keith was the youngest of a large working class family from Washington State. Always very certain of himself, he was outgoing, brash, with the exaggerated down to earth humor of wide open Western spaces. Almost the polar opposite, I was the oldest of two of upwardly mobile immigrant colonials making a go of it in the Motor City. The cautious émigré uncertainty of my sheltered French Canadian crypto Jansenist culturally confused foreignness cloaked a delight in the absurd and penchant for sarcasm. My eagerness to learn and Keith’s willingness to share resulted in a association that was the basis for my education in the arts and ensuing scholarly pursuits. In a years-later moment of cosmic insight I came to appreciate that the bond between Keith and I had a similarity to Kerouac’s neo-Romantic attraction to the Western authenticity of Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder. Keith had a similar unaffected genuineness.

Most people attend college to get an education. I did eventually obtain a degree, but my attendance at university was solely to cash in on the GI Bill (it paid the rent) and free access to the library. My real education continued at a different pace and by different means. By the time I graduated with a nominal degree in “English”, I was editing a mimeograph poetry magazine, had poems published in Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, and The World as well as a handful of little literary publications, and I could claim a few poetry chapbooks and numerous public poetry appearances. I doubt that many of these undertakings would have come about had it not been for my friendship with Keith.

My schooling in the art of poetry was a collaboration with one of the smartest and most intuitive writers I’ve known. With the exception of a brief period on the Monterey Peninsula, Keith Kumasen (his ordained Buddhist name) Abbott and I always lived at quite a distance from each other, from hundreds of miles to thousands of miles. Our mostly typewritten missives were the primary mode of communication, often two or three letters a month, pages long, filled with lies (gossip, real or imagined) and loves (the latest book, music, film, trend, discovery, recommendation). That this intense dialogue took place over a period of fifty plus years is still incredible and astonishing to realize. Keith and I exchanged hardcopy mail, available only in the original, for at least thirty of those years. And perhaps for the later twenty some years, our correspondence was a mix of hardcopy and cyber mail which eventually devolved into “memo-randoms” often lacking the cohesion of collected thoughts that letter writing seemed to foster. I have a file cabinet drawer full of Keith’s end of that correspondence. The electronic mail is lost to the ether unless I bothered to make a hardcopy. For me those epistolary documents were Keith’s lesson plans for the further study of literature, specifically poetry, and they were where I got my reading cues.

Keith’s autodidactism had a rigor, a thoroughness that I largely benefited from, and being a serial reader I was inclined to take up that modus operandi. I came to share three of Keith’s interests in a poetry/world lit scholarship determined by his informal syllabus. They were contemporary West Coast aka “Pacific Rim” poetry and poets who were somewhat aligned or affiliated with the early 20th Century William Carlos Williams/Objectivist persuasion and included Snyder, Welch, Whalen, and that éminence grise, Kenneth Rexroth, as well as their arch opposites, Duncan, Spicer, and to a certain extent, Olson; also Asian literature, primarily Chinese and Japanese, from Han Shan and Su Shih to Basho and Shiki; and French poetry of the early 20th Century with the usual suspects: Apollinaire, Reverdy, Jacob, Cendrars.  Although I had been directed to Baudelaire and Rimbaud in the course of reading Kerouac, Keith brought me up to speed with the early 20th Century French poets by directing me to Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Pierre Reverdy.

I can go to my bookshelves even now and find books I was gifted by Keith over the years as nudges in directions of common interest and dialogue. I still have my battered, well-read copy of Philip Whalen’s On Bear’s Head with the inscription, a quote from a Whalen poem, “connect me with the Button-Molder right away” dated spring of 1970. The Anthology of New York Poets, an accompanying note read “some of our people”. Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems From the Chinese, the basis for my enduring scholarship in Asian poetry and art. Frank O’Hara’s Second Avenue, a first edition with cover by Larry Rivers as well as a well-worn copy of John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath, both of which, as Keith predicted, would rotate my poetry wheels. Kobayashi Issa’s A Year Of My Life dated 1975 from “Mr. Ray Dio.” The game changing eye-opener of Earl Miner’s Japanese Linked Verse and The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat from the early eighties, gateway to thirty years of poetry collaboration into the mysteries of  mastering haikai no renga. The doorstop tome of Edwin Cranston’s A Waka Anthology, Vol. I, with accompanying suggestion that I might be in need of some “light” reading. Jon Halper’s book on Gary Snyder, Dimensions Of A Life, inscribed “More gossip about the poets” in 1995. As well, John Suiter’s Poets of the Peaks, with “To Pat & Gail in Monte Rio, 5/20/05.”  And as the open ended enso of my continuing education, Ron Padgett’s translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Zone from 2015, in his characteristic calligraphy, “from an old friend.”  Of course these titles are merely the tip of the literary iceberg. Practically all the poetry books stuffed and piled in a room full of bookshelves can be traced back or attributed to decades of intellectual exchange between Keith and me.

Undoubtedly the greatest gift I received was heuristic in nature where every author recommendation from Keith was a node in a vast web of related reading that continues to unfold kaleidoscopically to this day. Keith had been steered (as only a country boy could) to the classics, Dostoyevsky in particular, by an uncle. When I met him he had widened his scope to embrace the French modernists as well as the American tradition up to and including contemporary poetry with which he was well acquainted. In that way I became familiar with the revolutionary poets of early 20th Century France and the US as well as those among our elders and contemporaries who were tuned to that particular affinity. They served as passports to the world of modern literature and informed the poetry being written as well. For someone whose undereducated aspiration to be a poet involved climbing a steep learning curve in the dark, what I learned from Keith was key to an understanding that what it takes resides in the mind’s eye. Poet wasn’t a goal-oriented physical, social or psychic attainment as much as a process of creating and appreciating that creation through language. Everything else depends on how tight you think your pants should fit. As well, that poetry was that same stream that Heraclitus said you couldn’t step into twice. It was from Keith, who had studied philosophy at the University of Washington that I learned to appreciate Heraclitus and the pre-Socratic philosophers which then led down the rabbit hole of Ancient Greek/Mediterranean cultures guided by the likes of Davenport, Graves, Harrison, and Frazer, not to mention the Golden Age playwrights.  Once again Kenneth Rexroth’s wide erudition (whose example we strove to emulate) with his Poems from the Greek Anthology and The Classics Revisited served as the motivation for a deep dive into the roots of Western literature. Kenneth Rexroth stood as the iconoclast authority of a radical populist view of literature that Keith and I adhered to in the understanding that institutes of higher education were the tar pits of creativity.

In 1966, I attached myself to an adept, a natural born master, and former College football prospect. Early on, from my association with Keith I was made well aware of a larger literary society, one that included live actors not just the dead white guys of literary history. Most memorable among those writers whose acquaintance I made through Keith when I first met him were Richard Brautigan, Clifford Burke, Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, Pamela Milward, Bill Bathurst, Michael Sowl, Lew Welch, and Mary Norbert Korte.

Over the years, through various marginal literary enterprises, especially during the mimeo revolution of the late sixties and seventies, Keith published selections of my poetry in his poetry magazine, Blue Suede Shoes, as well as side-stapled mimeo chapbook selections. I reciprocated by publishing his work in my own mimeo magazine, The End (& variations thereof), and chapbook selections of his from my poetry press, Doris Green Editions. We were engaged in the American samizdat, sidestepping the entrenched literary establishment into a future literature. I consider my involvement in the mimeo rebellion, at Keith’s encouragement, as my initiation into guerrilla publishing, something I’ve kept at since then.

Keith and I both received a Poets Foundation Award in 1973, the only two West Coast poets to snag the honorarium that year. By the mid-seventies we also had books published by Kenward Elmslie’s Z Press. Blue Wind Press published Keith’s selected poems, Erase Words, in 1977. A year later we were invited to read at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. In the late eighties our poetry was included in Andrei Codrescu’s anthology, Up Late; American Poets Since 1970, as well as in Codrescu’s cosmopolitan literary magazine, Exquisite Corpse. We were the Gold Dust Twins of poetry.

In the eighties, as well, a mutual interest in Japanese literature was reignited by the discovery of Earl Miner’s two volume treatment of haikai no renga, Japanese linked verse. For over thirty years Keith and I tried our hand at a verse form whose dynamic is the relationship between stanzas written in collaboration by a group (two or more) of similarly inclined poets adept at the complex rules and stringent constraints of haikai aka “dog” renga. Keith was the one who initiated our first fledgling attempts at linking. However, rather than in-person moon viewing sessions as was traditionally done, our linking had to be conducted through the mail and often took months to complete. From his insightful reading of Miner’s exposition, Keith came up with a few innovations to give a modern spin to the method of our mad renga. Among them, a batting order in which each poet was assigned a turn in the rotation and as well as special stanzas (moon, flower), all very useful when linking through the mail. Keith understood that even though haikai no renga had achieved its peak in 17th and 18th Century Japan, there was something quite contemporary about this collaborative form that had aspects of improvisation similar to those of a jazz combo as well as capturing a kinetic non-narrative imagistic flow akin to film.

Over time we enlisted other poets in a literary collaboration that contradicts the whole idea of Western poetry’s individualism and authorial exclusivity. Mike Sowl, Maureen Owen, John Veglia, Sandy Berrigan, Steven Lavoie, and Gloria Frym were among those initiated into the ranks under the rubric of “The Miner School of Haikai Poets.”  In 2015 a sampling of the haikai no renga passed around through the mail since the mid-eighties was published under the title Poetry For Sale (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2015).

Keith was as adroit at fiction as he was at poetry and he had a storyteller’s talent and love of the tall tale. He published Gush, his first novel, in the early seventies with Blue Wind Press. Unlike his poems (well, most of them), his fiction was insidious. There were always trapdoors or back doors or sudden reversals. Shiny word/syntax baubles and narrative leaps followed slapstick routines. His second novel, Rhino Ritz, was one such literary maze. He excelled in portraying the laconic irony of Americana. His third novel, Mordecai of Monterey, as well as Harum Scarum and The Next Thing Coming, semi-autobiographical stories of coming of age in the Pacific Northwest published by Coffee House Press were closely perceived vignettes, rich with a lived authenticity. The anomalous Racer, published in Germany in 1987, was never issued in English. Downstream from Trout Fishing In America, A Memoir, published by two different presses, (Capra, 1989; Astrophil. 2009) was his contribution as a personal literary history of an era on the West Coast and of a unique American author. Richard Brautigan and Keith shared a Northwest homeboy sensibility, and it is that regional culture of exiled Yankee pioneer stock still viable in the gene pool that they recognized in each other and made them compadres. Then circumstances change and circles shrink. Fame, celebrity can be self-destructive.

Keith was definitely overqualified by the time he came to teach fiction in Boulder. He was a genius editor as well, with an intuitive grasp of a narrative’s architecture and how it could be strengthened or improved. Despite the Rexrothean admonition that no matter how good the library, a snake pit is still a snake pit, he stuck it out for about a dozen years, lecturing on the Northwest writers, teaching contemplative brush as an extension of his own calligraphic meditations. He and his colleague Bobbie Louise Hawkins received high marks for their inspired curriculum during their tenure as faculty at the Kerouac School. Some of Keith’s reworked lectures on the poetry of Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder have been a regular feature of The New Black Bart Poetry Society blog since its inception.

A half dozen years ago, I received an email from Keith. “Hey Pat!” was his usual salutation, as if he were calling to me from across a field. He’d been going through his archives, he said, sorting letters and literary ephemera to sell to some library collection. He wanted me to know that he’d unearth a few of my limited edition poetry books, and that he’d even reread some of them. “You know what,” he announced, “You’re a great poet!”  No further accolades necessary, those words conferred my greatest honor, esteem from the guy who showed me the ropes.

Keith Kumasen Abbott achieved equilibrium August 26th, 2019 at his home in Longmont, Colorado. The difference between autodidacts and the hothouse hybrids of academe is one of zeal unrestrained by financial or career considerations. Keith’s example served as my grounding, and my education, in part, is his legacy. To this day, with respect, regret and affection, I bow, address my inklings to his memory.


An Off-Key Prayer
I met Keith Abbott at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in the late 80s or early 90s. The school has a summer writing program that draws some of the finest poets and writers in the world, such as Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, etc. A stunning “etc” if there ever was one.
Keith was teaching at the summer writing program.
“Are you a writer?” I asked him.
“Yeah.”
“A poet?”
“No,” he said, “a professional liar.”
True. Fiction writer.
Fast friends. Stayed at my loft in Denver. Ran around with all the artists in the neighborhood. Uhhh, interesting cooking skills. Great sense of humor. And a great partner Lani, who had to put up with him, har. I love you Lani!
Read his works again. Somebody should really make a flick out of Mordecai of Monterey. Read it, pass it along.
Sing an off-key prayer for Keith. He’d like that.

Ivan Suvanjieff, artist. “Jeff ‘The Dude’ Dowd, the guy Lebowski is based on, told me not to tell my story because no one would believe it.”


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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Whalen & Wieners: Eavesdropping on the Greats

[Eavesdropping on the greats is bound to garner an earful.  A brief unauthorized peek at  correspondence between Philip Whalen and John Wieners from the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. Many thanks and appreciations to Messer’s Berkson and Abbott (now jogging funny bones in the hereafter) from whom this little slice of lit-ephemera was got.]

[1957]

Mr John Wieners
33 South Russel Street
Boston 14, Mass&c.

Dear Mr Wieners:
Here are poems by me & Snyder.  All of Snyder’s best stuff is in the gritty grasp of Don Allen… a whole book of poems called Myths & Texts… and Don Allen has gone away to Yaddo & I don’t know if he has that book with him. Anyhow the stuff of Snyder here came to me in letters from Japan & I am sending them on to you as is, & as it is it is good stuff.  My own stuff, well, these are things I would like to have printed, I hope you can use it ALL, ALL. If not, I shall suicide again &c, the usual routine. Listen I gave your address to a real nutty girl, I can’t remember her name & I don’t know how she writes, I’ve only seen her, not her poems anyhow she is supposed to have written for a long time, all I know is she is beautiful and her name is Virginia.

Jack Kerouac says he wants to send you this 3-line poem:

Pulling off the human drawers
of girls:
Leaving whole pussy-willows
unblown!
Because I’m a breathless tree!

(JK & I are sitting here drinking port wine & lemon-juice because it’s cold & windy outside but the birds are making it anyway.)

Also enclosing a dim carbon of Gregory Corso poems (typed out, Jack says, on RANDELL JARRELL’s typewriter in Washington DC) because Gregory is in Europe now & got no agent otherwise & is defenseless &c.  The poem of Corso, The Last Warmth of Arnold, JK is a great Miles Davis Moscow unobtainable poem.  He ought to be writing this, I hate to type & I aint got any more to tell you anyhow except I hope MEASURE is an enormous success.

KEROUAC again (lying flat on his back now, composing haigai:

Birds chirp,
Fog
Bugs the Gate.

Listen, this is absolutely the latest & best news you’re going to get right now. Voluminous love & goodbye.

Whalen

1624 Milvia St.   Berkeley 9, Calif.


[June 18, 1957]

Dear Mr. Wieners:

I have a letter (belatedly) from Gary Snyder praying me to ask you for the return of his poem “Tokyo-1956” as he is having it published elsewhere. In short, I goofed on that particular piece of business.  If you don’t return the thing to me at least withhold its publication in MEASURE.

I trust that the magazine is rushing forward with vast élan & éclat. Mr & Mrs Joe Dunn are in high spirits. Creeley writes sad mystical but hopeful notes from his desert. Have you heard from Olson? His vibrations seem not to reach this Elysian region, for which I am most regretful. To coin an ancient phrase, I dig O. the most. He’s a great sweating bodhisattva.
Most cordially,
                                                        Philip Whalen
                                                                        Philip Whalen

On the Feast of S. Marina

18:VI:57
1624 Milvia St.
Berkeley 9, California


June 29 [1957]

Dear Phillip Whalen:

I’m sitting here, saying: Lets get this show on the road.  Three weeks I’ve been away from Measure, for no reason I can find but it got too big for me, too many of you.  So there has been a flight into Egypt, or the Rialto Theatre, somewhere, a lot of places, I wont remember.

You are the first/ on my return. And the hardest.  The book opened that way. I very much would like to use a great deal of what you do in Measure. A going thing. From issue to issue, as you do it. However it comes to you. Not only the poem. But say reviews, bitches, COMMENT.  Put the man in.    I’ll leave the comeback on this to you. But there is space for you & the others, as I tell them.  We will last.  A necessity here.

I have just re-read the poems, for I wd say, the fifth time. Over the weeks, much on my mind.  But nonetheless, I cant bring myself to say: yes, they go. It’s me you gotta make happy.  And I aint. Not with yours, or the four Allen sent me, or most of Mr Snyder. Now what right have I got to say that. Me, I never, at least for months, wrote a poem that makes it as well, as ANY of these.  That has the wealth these poems, esp. yours have.  I’m not a critic.  And they’re not anywhere so near so I can even say what I dont like. If they were bad, yes, it wd. be easy, I cd. fill this space up what where you shd. go, what’s not there, etc. but I cant. Because the poems don’t allow it.  The intrusion of my 2cts.

I know the process & I’ll call it, the agony. How this, the poem, is the reason for all of us. I wish Measure I was in, & I cd send it, and it wd. say those things that please me in the poem, or at least expose myself. I intend to print a lot, that dont please me personally, & even if I never dig your work, which isnt so, as I do: SMALL TANTRIC SERMON & THE ROAD*RUNNER/ and a great many parts of both Sour-dough Mt. and esp. The SlopBarrell.

So take this, as an effort on my part, I am not entirely equipped for, or equipped for, at all, at least this kind of letter. Being of no help at all/ only stating the wish that you will send for the two or three years left Measure, your poems as you do them. And I will print those ones I see fit, for Measure. And use you as much as you give yourself into my hands.   Right now, I aint making it, with any of you. I hope you can see me thru this, that I am only asking more of you. Since I believe it’s been demonstrated, there is. Right up to that fucking limit.  I gotta end this, or Ill call you up on the telephone.  Will you come back with your new stuff, no matter what?

My best to you,
                                                                                    John Wieners 

                                                                        I wd. use.
And yours to me. (sure). And the 1st half of “Invocation & Dark Saying


[July 14, 1957]

Dear Mr Wieners,

I think what you are trying to say is this:  “I am running a specific kind of magazine.  These poems have nothing to do with the aims & purposes of MEASURE.” Or perhaps more pointedly, “You are writing for THE AMERICAN WEEKLY & this is, after all, THE DAILY WORKER.” Anyway, I appreciate your “agonized re-appraisal” and your invitation to send more stuff.  I have lots of different things to say in whatever way I can… “reviews, bitches, Comment” … the hitch is this:  I avoid writing anything, even a letter, unless it is absolutely necessary, I mean unless it is keeping me awake at night, keeping me away from the kitchen, the bar, the music scene &c. but yes, I’ll send you whatever comes out.  Only one other publisher has invited me & I don’t like him (Jay Laughlin.) So look out, I’m coming &c.

Yours,
Philip Whalen

Berkeley
Bastille Day, 1957


[August 14, 1957]

Dear John,

Please don’t do anything about the Magic War piece until I write you; I haven’t seen Robert about it yet, I’ve been in the Sierras for a week & 1/2 . Will see him soonest & let you know.

As for your objections:

The thing is a letter to Robert, not what I know but a message in terms of his own paideuma [Circled in red with line leading to text in the margin, italicized here.] or what I dug was his, from reading his poems, plays, notebooks &c. I didnt copy any of Faust Foutu into it, only the smell of it, the world of it. It is an anti-magical tirade, pur sang, sans blague, not about faggots, 37th St, starving toads &c.  A demon is a demon, a homosexual is a guy with a hangup, I know the difference.

On second thought, send the whole works back to me. I don’t want it printed, any of it.

Damn, damn, damn.

LIST FOR JNO. WIENERS

  1. I am not Coleridge.
  2. You aren’t Jno. Livingston Lowes.
  3. Road to Xanadu closed for resurfacing.
  4. Why cant you decide what it is you’re doing or who it is you’re being? An editor makes a magazine to be read by other people. A critic is an unprintable fuckhead.  Take your choice.
  5. No charity; compassion:  a self-disinterested, detached love

(MILA REPA (the Tibetan one): “The notion of emptiness (of the Self) engenders/ Compassion/ Compassion does away with the distinction between “self” and “other”/ Tho distinction of self and others, the service of others effective.” The indistinction of self and other renders the service of others effective.” )

  1. Back to 4 again: Editor prints what he thinks is live material, don’t smash up the printing press with a hammer & die on receipt of letter from Cleanth Brooks Jr. saying, “It has come to my attention that the poem on page 27 had one too many feet in line 11; you are a booby for printing it.” Or he prints what he’s paid to, fucked into, bullied, whatever.  What’s your choice.
  2. I have no quarrel with Olson or his poems. His theories are fine but I can’t use them. He & I understand each other just fine when we’re together, or did when I saw him last.
  3. Rexroth has done many nice things for me and I appreciate them. This isn’t a blanket approval of all he does & says. We get along all right.
  4. No quarrel with Robert, I don’t know him that well. This was only an abstract, an ideological scramble & a plea for calling the whole thing off, not a Celebrated Literary Attack, chastisement, snotty saying, rant, &c.
  5. This isn’t an attack on you but on your indecision.

I have a new mess bubbling in the boiler & half of it spilled on the floor already.  I’ll send you some later if you aren’t tired by now of this transcontinental hot-dry job.

And for the love of Jayzus, lay off the Matthew Arnold bit.  Leave that for your elders and so-called betters, viz. some fuckhead like Yvor Winters who gets his living by doing it in Stanford University for the befuddlement of the young rich.  I wont curl up & wither away if you simply write a note saying, “No, I cant use your poem, I DONT LIKE IT.” You don’t have to give me a reason, I don’t care about your reasons, except insofar as they elicited 4 & ¾ pp. of your own sometimes delightful LONG BITCH TO PW.   Try to stop being scared. What if I did show up in Boston with a meataxe? The police would stop me before I got to Russell St.  (This is intended jocularly, & not as a veiled threat.)

You keep talking like I was a constant reader of Measure & other literary magazines. I’ve never seen a copy of M. and as for magazines in general, I prefer Galaxy to Astounding. I read the classics if I feel like reading, or history or biog. I’d rather play or listen to music than read, et cetera on an ascending scale towards sleep.

Observed sign of old age in myself:  I care less now what kind of idiot other people think they see when they are looking at me, either in print or in propria persona.  You are apparently younger.

Dear Baby,
This is a drag. I am out of cigarets, and now I’ve started juicing for the evening, all by myself, pinching pennies, playing with my balls, my new beard, wondering if you are hearing me at all, if I am      no, I’m not, after all, getting through, your last letter proves that     or are you by nature an inarticulate analphabet which shall it be?  I suppose it is my own fault, I turned loose the jeu d’esprit of a moment into a classroom full of undergraduates – I mean I put it to you that you have no funny bone, it was removed at H…..d. I am not communicating in spite of your protests to the contrary otherwise it wouldn’t have taken 4 & ¾ pp to contain your reply, happy as the last page is, the last page & ½, I mean Baby, if the police ever happen to come in while we’re doing this it’ll mean 99 years to life for both of us and all our friends beside. What it is:  After a reading in San Francisco, several students from a Catholic university surrounded Allen Ginsberg and asked pointedly, but what do you believe in? A.G. said, “I believe in my cock.” They asked for explanation of this quaint term, and Mr. G. removed his trousers & shorts & showed them what he was talking about. (This, while several hundreds of people were milling about but not watching very carefully.) You aren’t watching either and it is just as well that you should be sheltered from the coarser aspects of life (“tumescence & detumescence”) which are all too frequently, alas, to be observed anywhere.  I am not getting through except to a few old farts which I have heard it already from Sheila Graham or Scott Fitzgerald or Michael Arlen, too bad. Without you singing beside me in the wilderness I must go to that expensive & sordid (old copies of Gentry magazine & a sound system that cheerily plays movie scores, Montevani, & occasionally the Liebestod) steambath in rowdy old Samfrancisco. You should never live so long as to see the corny-dust layed on so thick.

Now it is better, I rushed over to the drugstore & brought a package of Camels back.

Now listen, I know that the hair & the soup are all the same thing, I just didn’t think Duncan did, that was the point of the whole fromage :that he thinks he sees a difference & the hair is more important to him. Do you see now. Oh well. I’ll figure another way to tell you all, as many lives as necessary, & all the patience in the world.

THE BENEFICENT (happy, jocund or some other adjective) BLACKSMITH [“BLACKSMITH” circled in red pencil.], a sonata or what not for young pianists, by F.J. Haydn.

Did you never hear of a sirvente ? [This line is in a jagged red circle]

Damn it. I said & meant gasolene. Devils, demons & such like needing fuel, being that they are from a fiery environment, HELL. Real Hieronymous Bosch demons… you thought he was painting pretty imaginary figures?  Read your own Cotton Mather, & the Malleus Malefica (in the translation of the Reverend Montague Summers) not to mention various Hebrew sources. There are six general worlds, those of men, angry deities, paradisal ones, hungry ghosts (the universe of Tantalus), hell, and the animal kingdom… this is Tibetan. There are actually a great many other times and worlds & conditions, but these are the closest & the general run, the one in which we spin.

What minute are you in.  Find out.

The police in San Francisco are suppressing HOWL. The trial comes up Friday, The People vs. Ferlinghetti (the publisher & bookseller & poet who printed it & sold it)… lewd, obscene salacious literature &c. which will warp the minds of the young &c. being on public sale. I’ll let you know what happens there; I plan to attend the trial.

Oh, yes… at the center of that Tibetan world picture are a pig, a rooster & a snake… Ignorance, Desire & Attachment.

And I said in a poem I showed you, “And the mind, though changed by it ……… can change:/ A dirty bird in a square time”   and you complain,

“I know nothing about you, I don’t know you, &c.”

I AM NOT GETTING THROUGH. [This sentence is in a red square.] Even if I came back to Boston it would make no difference except my new beard would be older & longer & I wd be distracted by the alien landscape (known to me only via N. Hawthorne, H.D. Thoreau, currier & ives & ee cummings.). &(MAXIMUS)    You would go on hearing your Bird records like nothing else was getting through.

(Jno. Williams, to yrs truly, in conversation: “I have to hear at least three or four hours of Miles every day, or…” referring to a celebrated trumpet virtuoso of our day.)

Shall I take up the study of the barytone horn in order to reach those who are 5 years younger, 10 years younger?

I havent heard from Kerouac. He had left for Mexico before the big earthquake & hasn’t been heard of since. I have a frantic letter from his mother inquiring after him; I suppose I must wire all his friends in Mexcity to find out how he is or not.

I am leaving Berkeley soon, either for San Francisco or Oregon or somplace, but direct your remarks, if any, to this same address; they will be forwarded & I’ll write you from wherever anyway.

Baby, I am beat.  It isn’t a question of vocabulary.  The answer is not in the flyblown, libelous pages of Wellek & Warren. The flannel poets, R…..d W….., R…t L….l, & Co. aren’t telling the truth, all they really know. I only know for sure that writing isn’t really controlled completely by these creeps & their backers in the University… or by your own weird advisors. Or any one of us. There is too much to be done, and I’m still looking for a way to do a little of it.

Nevertheless, it is a pleasure, trying to write to you, whether I get through to you or not at all or only part of the time; you are the audience I want, the lost, the scared, the conscious one… NOT a Message of Salvation, that’s an all-day sucker, but to BE there, to make it, to know the difference between making it & not making it.

(from the latest “new mess bubbling &c.”…

MC**** came around &
We went over all the latest bonze jazz
& he has a new wife & V*** has gone off
to live the primitive life with some
Eureka cat
MC— says, “I finally dig
That I’m making it
Right now
                        Or I’m not making it”)

needless to say he wasn’t referring to the lady.  (“more to a man than the contents of his jock-strap”… yr. obdt. svt.)  And not forgetting that sexual intercourse between whatever two persons is an exchange of knowledge as well.

This is getting more & more sententious & absurd as the evening runs on, & there is no excuse for it, I have a great deal else to do, but you would write a long letter so I must reply at length. I will stop now.
Love & nothing,
Phil

Berkeley
14:VIII:57


[August 23, 1957]

Dear John,

I have got word from Snyder… he says to tell you, go ahead & print Toji & Kyoto Sketch.

What was I going to say. Oh, I have a big fat thing in the fire & will send it, steam, char & all quick as it is done. Meanwhiles, the idea of Measure, what Olson calls “the breath”, what Williams keeps chirping about “the line, the measure” : : : I suspect that is what you’re interested in for your book, & I, I want orchestration of ideas, sounds, whole masses of stuff (organs) that compose into a Monster that seeks whom to devour. I am Dr Frankenstein, not Oliver Goldsmith. I believe in breathings or measures, I hear them & they are there too, but they are a subliminal concern, cytological, embryological; what I want is the whole animal rushing around, complete.

This ain’t a theory, only a momentary apercu, a small boot in the ass to find out if you are inside those baggy pants. Interoffice communication, in Rexroth’s phrase. The sun is hot & I am on, temporarily, so I will argue no further here but continue boiling & frying up this new soufflée. Watch & pray.

Oh, Kerouac is gone to Mexico, so communication with him is temporarily in abeyance, viz. hung up, but I will forward your mail to him when he writes me.

All happiness,
Whalen

Berkeley
23:VII:57


[September 23, 1957]

Dear John,       These are absolutely the latest words – one from today & 1 from last month & none of it about CITY, but I don’t have anything old or new on that subject, many apologies. well anyhow, hope you are digging the most in S.F. Give my love to Mike & everyone; tell them to write.
Love,
Whalen

Newport
23:IX:57


Oct 3, 1957

Dear Phillip:  YES.  (You dont have to go further.)

Arrived 4 hours ago – and yours/here. Like a city. Entire unto itself.  Know that first off that Take #4 on 12: VIII: 57 goes into #5 THE DOMESTIC (scene). OK OK – but the poem demands we wait. You are carried here in all yr. flesh. // And now in all honesty, the humility you open in me from Harangue: (two “r”’s?): its alright w/me if there’s 3. That one what can anyone say in the face of that poem. I wish Measure could come out tomorrow so that those words, strain, the man breaking thru might be “issued abroad” – the hilltops etc. And this not because it is to JW but that. Across the kitchen table: Tom Field says “God they’re both beautiful. I’m gonna write Whalen too” and Ebbe B. says: “I cant say anything, it’s that there for me.”  Not that [The letter ends here; no second page is in the Whalen archive.]


2.17.60

Dear Philip Whalen:
I’ve had word that Measure is starting again. & cd. you send me a short lyric on the “ordinary” around you. Not carbuncle, nor “magick” but that use of the ordinary object we [illeg] rather you practice so well. No spatial jumps now. Even the Indian myth wd. do. Yr. treatment of “fetish” if you believe in same. As I do. Roses, etc. 10,000. petals.)

Any legend left? Yr. other mss. I left in Freude’s cellar 1960 21st Avenue, if you care to pick up same. I am sorry I forgot to bring same East, but I had no hope then.

Note new predicament. Dilemma. Please exert force with Western forces to free poor Pip imprisoned behind China’s walls. The mainland here gone dry.

All love to you

John

The institution of course is no answer. Nor the , or any use of the mad, as Pound knew so well. What are yr. dreams telling you? Expect to hear from !


June 25th, 1962

Dear Philip:
I have tried so hard before to answer your letter and let you know the great joy it brought when receiving it. But I haven’t been able to simply because there were no poems to include with it.

Enclosed find a copy of Measure to show you I have been busy some way.

Not that I don’t write; I do daily but nothing pleases me enough to submit. Perhaps, upon seeing each other, we might find one to include.

Thank you for the offer. And hope it can be made again sometime. To edit is a fine job and I wish you all good luck in it, knowing that you will have same.

With all best wishes and Love,
Jawn Wieners

185 Eliot Street
Milton 87, Massachusetts


[8th Street Bookshop, NYC
to Mr. Philip Whalen, Mill Valley, CA
c/o Albert Saijo]
Friday December 7, ‘62

Dear Phil:

Ted is busy with Christmas season, and wants me to tell you he called Paetel and gave him your address and your message. He says that even if he can’t write it with your fine calligraphic style, he still wishes you the best of Christmas and the happiest of New Years. As I do too.

Faithfully, with love,
                                                            John Wieners 

Also would you please send 10 FOOT  [PO’s Note: poetry mag edited by Richard Duerden–#2 featured PW]or have your representative send 10 for the bookshop to sell?


Submitted to the membership
by the Parole Officer

 

 

 

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Fogged In Frisco

FOGGED IN FRISCO

Carl Wendt, hardboiled poet and flaneur, aka the Bay Area’s Baudelaire,
now homeless and down on his luck, muses on another aspect of his life where
luck has failed him: women—they can be delightful, and they can be dangerous.

Excerpt from Ode To Sunset
A Year In The Life Of American Genius
A fiction by Pat Nolan

All women are crazy some of the time. Some women are crazy all of the time, but not all women are crazy all of the time. The old Orphic trick to avoid being ripped to shreds is to know how to identify some of those women and stay well away from them. It’s not always that easy. I tell myself that I’m done with cheap meaningless sex, but when it comes right down to it, I can never bring myself to pass up a bargain. Women by being penetrable are impenetrable. You can have your cake and eat it too but it’s very expensive. Culture does not so easily overcome biology’s overriding purpose.

Angie had dragged me to an art gallery opening on Market, of all places. This was around the time she was shopping for suitable seed with which to become impregnated. Maybe I was showing off. I’d said it before, and it mostly got a laugh. “Forget the sperm bank, I’m a walking ATM.” Third time was not a charm. I’ll never forget what I saw in her eyes at that moment: rage, disgust, disappointment, betrayal. Don’t shoot the messenger I wanted to say but I’d been on a roll and the transformation from ham to ass was almost inevitable. Besides who else is there to shoot or decapitate besides the sperm delivering messenger? The purpose of the Orphic is to stir up female frenzy before the mass fuck fest where the sacrificial victim, some old goat, always a male, is torn limb from limb.

That had come up in the discussion of The English Letter by M. Portmanteau in which the Brits were accused of ruining American literature. I’d been chatting with Lily Mao and her partner, Ann Toenin, the Russian author of Art Ode, a long poem consisting of exclamatory expressions such as Oh! Wow! Eeew!! Ugh! Hunh? Wha? Yuk! Bing! Bang! Boom! Arrgh! and Awk!

I was holding forth as usual and unwisely described the nature of women as concentric. Linda “Whore” Eisen gave me a narrow look. I was being serious. By concentric I meant round, full, centered in consensus. My first mistake was not following the golden rule of mixed company conversation. Such generalities are often viewed as mansplaining in the delicate negotiations of cross-gender communications and can leave you out on the proverbial limb.

“Cuntcentric? Did I hear you say women were cunt-centric?!” Linda wasn’t going to hide her disdain.

That wasn’t what I said, but since the opportunity had arisen I thought I would see how much more of my foot I could fit into my mouth by espousing the minority opinion on the etymological origins of the word. Cunt comes from the ancient Akkadian khnt which denoted priestess in the temple of the Goddess Inanna and was once a positive term to describe women. With the denigration of ancient cults by usurper religions, the word had accrued negative connotation. I don’t know why I thought that would cut me some slack.

She didn’t mince words. “None of what you say changes the fact that you are a condescending dickhead, Dickhead.”

Nothing can prepare you for the irrational self-righteous bitch or the crazed homicidal maniac, each tainted by their own hormonal destiny and hijacked by the ruthless almond shaped pea-brain.

Men may be idiots, but women are lunatic. 

It was Halloween and the following morning of dia de los muertos should have found me dead. That was when I came to hate her. It was then I understood Mac to be the most perfect example of feminine impermeability in all existence.

We’d spent the long day together in the Castro as the colorful and often risqué carnivalesque swirl erupted from bars with drunken hoots and shrieks, parading down the streets in high, very high, fashion. And with hardly any chance to talk, to catch up, jollying and jostling with old friends and new acquaintances, my own celebrity but mostly her credit card keeping us well watered. It was an evening destined for excess.

“Listen grapenuts, I’d be gay, but I can’t do the snappy finger thing.” And like a broken record, much to her chagrin I’m sure, “Some of my best friends are cocksuckers.” Someone in the group jammed a powder blue wig on my head and shouted in my face, “You’re just an old queen!”

Eventually we found ourselves on the terrace at Enrico’s, a table overlooking Broadway, costumed freaks and partiers parading by, the default costume being do-it-yourself zombie, smeared catsup on face and clothing and moving like imagined reanimated corpses might walk. A few chollos in their best orange and black walking their pit bulls followed by a bevy of transvestites dressed like they had just come from partying with the Sun King or returning from Cinderella’s Ball. Feathered nymphs and bare breasted goddesses exhibited themselves followed by a pack of male supplicants and slaves in leather. Teen couples drinking jello shots or sucking on alcohol laced sno-cones ventured into the orange neon haze and the shadow black of night dressed as adults, indistinguishable from adults, all history and all mythology exhibiting the seven deadly sins.

On the street directly in front of our table, a man of about fifty, drawn cheeks no makeup could affect, grey stubble swathing his jaw, had stopped to stare at us, holding by the hand a small boy dressed in outsized clothes, and carrying on his arm another small child held to his shoulder. He was a transient, maybe even homeless. The children’s rags were not costumes. Maybe he had taken them out to relieve the horrible monotony of their uncertainty and poverty. It wasn’t on my powder blue wig he had fixed his gaze, perhaps even wonderment, but at Mac’s purplish glowing light-reflecting red satin low cut dress that left nothing to the imagination. That and the pair of little red horns topping the liquid curls of her carrot tresses. The wicked smile was not part of the costume, but it fit the occasion.

Song writers say that pleasure ennobles the soul and softens the heart. The song was wrong that evening as far as I was concerned. Even as I was touched by the haunting eyes of such desperation, I felt ashamed for the drinks we hoisted, too big for our britches. I turned to her, to catch her attention and convey a shared empathy. I looked into those green eyes, home of caprice and governed by the moon, as she said, “Those people give me the creeps.”  And summoning the waiter, “Can’t someone do something about them?”  So maybe hate is too specific a word for what I felt. Certainly disappointment.

For an instant I entertained the notion that I was looking at myself but in the past, and that those children were ours and I had finally found her after she had abandoned our marriage and left me penniless and caring for the kids. And it chilled me, that her disdain came so casually, so callously, that she didn’t realize that I was just a step away from them.

When I came back from the can, there were strangers at the table. I snagged a waiter and he remembered Mac leaving with a couple of guys, headed up in the direction of Columbus. The sidewalks were packed with revelers and I had to weave my way through them. I thought I caught a glimpse of her heading up Columbus toward Green St. but I couldn’t be sure. There was more than one devil afoot that night. Then I lost them.

I heard my name called. I didn’t recognize Wendy at first in her ladybug outfit: black leotards, a black turtleneck, and a vest that supported the black polka dot red carapace on her back. She was wearing a white sequined mask around her eyes. On her head two ping pong balls at the tip of wires bobbed independently when she talked.

Every time I ran into Wendy it was the same thing. She had become a stalker, at first moonstruck and then completely bat shit obsessed. And each time I had to explain that I wasn’t avoiding her even though I was, and that I didn’t get back to the old neighborhood much anymore since Angie sold the house, that I spent most of my time making sure I had a place to sleep and enough to eat so I was pretty much occupied with my day to day survival. I had tried not to hurt her feelings, cowardly avoiding the inevitable confrontation. But that night, fed up with Mac and probably myself, I told her, cruelly perhaps, that she had to stopping thinking we were in a relationship. Her face contorted in confusion. “You mean I’m not your girlfriend?”  Likely it was impolitic of me to point out “We had sex, exchanged bodily fluids. Don’t make it any more than it is” but at the time it seemed a necessity.

I walked away up Green St. leaving behind a ladybug weeping on a corner crowded with superheroes, witches, fairy princes, and hockey masks. I thought I caught sight of the devil going into Giancarlo’s.

If a bar is a hole in the wall with bad lighting then Giancarlo’s is a bar. I had been 86’d from there a number of times, probably the only one ever banned for non-criminal behavior. I could be just that obnoxious. It was a hangout for the Aether crowd, adherents of the questionable poetics of Jack Spicer. And drinking among them was like feeding time at a zoo, every little crumb of a comment was taken with defensive exception. The more outrageous the observation, the more it roiled the self-righteous indignation. So many buttons to push, it was often too irresistible.

That night the big attraction was Rex Coprophilius, King Shit, crowned with a large white spotted red Aminita Muscaria-like Phrygian cap. He was a traditional figure in North Beach at Halloween, dressed entirely in various layers and rolls of newsprint, phonebooks, and streamers, led through the throng so that people might tear at his attire to propitiate the gods and monsters abroad that night, the torn scraps known as “pieces of shit”. He’d started off with twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest. By the time I followed him into Giancarlo’s he was down to his yellow pages.

And there was Mac at the bar talking to this little fireplug of a guy in a suit that was definitely not a costume. He was with two other guys in suits and neatly barbered hair. I immediately thought “cops” but couldn’t understand what the law would want with her. Not that it mattered. I walked right up. I said something. Derisive disappointment. Fascinated disgust at her selfish callow evil. She threw her drink in my face.

What words had I used? They hide from me in memory, skipped over like a needle in a groove to the part where the angry red pissed off face of some guy is insisting that I couldn’t say such things to a lady. I didn’t deign to even look at him. “Get this clown out of my face.” One of my talents is to be a complete arrogant ass.

The bartender, busy as he was, threw a thumb toward the entrance. “Ok, Wendt, you’re out!”

“But I just got reinstated.”

The bartender made a face. “Do you want me to have Jo-jo explain it to you?” Jo-jo was the bouncer, an Albanian giant who didn’t have the reputation for being gentle. I caught the drift and sauntered out to the sidewalk terrace of my own volition. I lit up a cigarette. I should have known it would come to this.

“Snort it.” she’d said. We were in a room at the Hotel Rexroth. She was naked and shiny. I was showing my age. She’d ground up the blue pill in the ashtray. I looked at the blue powder, “snort it?”  “Yes, snort it!”  Then her phone rang and she answered it. “When?” She stared at me. “Thanks, Nicole, I owe you one.” And then to me, “My husband is in the lobby with a couple of his Fremont cop buddies. They’re on their way up.”  And as if she had to say, “You better leave.”

Clutching my suit coat and holding up my pants in the hallway, I heard the elevator ding arriving at the floor. I did an about face and headed for the door with the red exit sign above it. I heard the voices and the knocking as the door closed behind me. My unwieldy lumber jutted out from my briefs constantly in peril of snagging the iron pipe railing of the stairwell in my frantic descent. That had been a close call. It was apparent that Mac’s marriage was not as open as she claimed.

I was leaning on the wrought iron barrier to the terrace out in front of Giancarlo’s mulling the replay when I spotted Wendy coming toward me with a look of agonized determination. I stepped on my cigarette and turned to leave. The fireplug who had been talking to Mac was blocking my exit.

“You can’t talk to her like that.”

“Why, was it your turn?”

She’s my wife,” arrived at about the same time as his fist to my jaw. Then the rain of blows coming from all directions sank me to my knees. I tried to squirm away on the sidewalk, absorbing the kicks to the gut, shielding my head with my arms, curling up to make myself smaller, more compact, and then the intense bolt of pain as a shoe crushed my shin against the edge of the curb, hearing as well as feeling the snap of bone with my entire body.  I screamed, gasping for breath, an anguished naked roar. The gunshots, now that I realize that’s what they were, not the sounds of my rendering, accomplished a pause in the attack. I tried to crawl away, desperately seeking to leave the scene as well as find an equilibrium that might make sense of the searing heat in my mangled leg. What I finally managed was vomiting and lapsing into unconsciousness.

I don’t know if “lousy poet” was actually part of the beating. Maybe I just imagined it. Come to find out it was Mac’s hubby and his cop pals, practiced in the take down. Nothing ever came of it or I never heard that it did. Cops stick together, a fraternity, unlike poets, unaffiliated, cults of one. I’d heard that someone described the incident as “They were beating the hell out of a guy wearing a powder blue wig.”


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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Never Apologize, Never Explain, Part II

Never Apologize Never Explain, Part II
Further Notes on Understanding the Poetry of Philip Whalen

By Pat Nolan 

“Philip was always writing, always reading, and whenever possible playing music.”
                        —Gary Snyder, Preface to The Collected
                                    Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan, 2006) 

[To resume, using Gary Snyder’s quote as the guiding principle for a discussion/rumination on the poet’s work, and his assertion that Whalen’s pastime, besides reading (addressed in the first installment of these notation), was writing and playing music.]

Philip Whalen’s work can be approached as the physical act of writing by hand and the importance of the art of calligraphy as a determinant as well as the progression that calls upon his constant and wide erudition to guide a course of inquiry or speculation that is personal and at the same time universal and establishes, ultimately, how he arrives at the end result, the composition of the poem much like that of a short film or musical étude.

The Pen Moving Is The Mind Moving

Aram Saroyan interviewed Philip Whalen at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1972 and asked, “Do you write in longhand?”  Whalen replied, “Yeah. . .”
Saroyan: And then you type it. You never use the typewriter first?
Whalen: Very, very seldom. I haven’t for years and years now.
Saroyan: Any particular reason? Or just convenience?
Whalen: Oh, I like the feel of doing it myself. I like the feeling of writing on paper, making the pen go, or pencil, or whatever. It’s fun.

Par la main, by the hand or by hand, the image, the meaning, five fingers, an opposable thumb and also the impression of that hand signifying more than one hand, the universal hand, the one that claps by itself, doing something, making something and subsequently, with care and hopefully craft, this alone, in the age of automation, is enough to elicit wonder when once it was a matter of fact.  The simplicity of attention to detail conceived under a timeless latitude makes a personal statement that the mass product cannot. Writing by hand adds a somatic component, a kind of carbon based authenticity. And writing consciously as a calligraphic skill requires a focused precision, a structured presence of necessary clarity, while dividing the attention between the physical act and cerebral progress.

Philip Whalen was taught Italic script by the classicist and master calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds when he was a student at Reed College. He then perfected his calligraphic practice into a wonderful eccentricity, abundantly evident in his notebooks and published works. In the preface to Highgrade (Coyote’s Journal, 1966), Whalen states “I write everything with a fountain pen.”  The publication of this collection of “doodles and poems” emphasized the importance Whalen and those who admired his work placed on the original pages of calligraphy accompanied by illustrations and sketches as integral to understanding his work.

The notebook as a repository for observations, opinions, ideas, lyric asides, and commentary is often overlooked as a tool in the composition of poetry, possibly the result of digital technology in the utilization of an alphabetical keyboard and typed/printed onto separate sheets of paper or stored as electronic data. The notebook, a pre-bound blank book, serves its function as an object and once laden with written material reifies its function as a unique product. The poet recognizes in the reified product of his notebook something of intrinsic value and re-appropriates it, transforming it into the transparent medium of his self-expression. The notebook also acts as a frame for formal exercises, sketches, schematics, cartoons, and doodles all emanating from the psyche of the poet through the medium of a pen.

In his essay, Little Mag Art, Keith Kumasen Abbott, a practiced calligrapher and artist himself, makes the point that Whalen’s “sudden, perplexing and yet inspired jumps into visionary rants, quiet epiphanies, personal conundrums, social truculence and . . . criticism” mirrored, in his art and journal pages, a multi-level approach, and dispensed with most of the rules of formal Western calligraphy.  Whalen, according to Abbott, “did not line the page so the words were in neat rows. He did not try for perfectly shaped letters in exquisitely spaced units. He did not choose an alphabet, like Italic, for the titles and then another alphabet, like Humanist Bookhand, for the text. If he ever felt the need for perfectly formed letters, it never seemed to last long. He felt free to enlarge or change letters as it suited his mood, the texts sometimes shifting in mid-line to different letterforms. Marginalia, scribbles, small caps, cross outs, pictures, exhortations, warnings, signs, loops, and dingbats were sprinkled throughout the pages. Because he was grounded in the historical backgrounds for Western letterforms, he felt free to mess around with the letters as he saw fit.”  

Abbott also draws on his own experience in the art of calligraphy on how penmanship might affect the content, and vice versa. “The influence of the actual act of calligraphy on the subject matter of his poems can be conjectured. Some poems seemed to have started or evolved out of letterform practice. When one practices Western calligraphy, stylistic aspects of the letterforms capture the attention of the writer. In the process of rehearsing some troublesome or challenging letter combinations, the calligrapher remembers words with the same combos: ammonia, monomania, etc. However, for [Whalen’s] calligraphic productions, the notion of attention is implicit, the shapeliness of the Mind, the shapeliness of the instant, that imbues Zen brush paintings with such an immediacy.”  Whalen’s calligraphy lines up with the Chinese practice of calligraphy, painting, and poetry known as “The Three Gentlemen.” In a  precise and perceptive unpacking of Whalen’s well known poem, Hymnus Ad Paternam Sinensis (Rhythm-a-ning, 2016), Abbott makes clear that “Whalen adapts and/or assimilates Chinese, Japanese and Buddhist artistic principles, such as brush practice, its aesthetics and epistemology. ‘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.’  This artistic credo mirrors Shodo, the way of the brush, where changing relationships of man, heaven and earth are experienced live in painting and calligraphy.”

Bruce Holsapple’s On Philip Whalen  (2003) follows up on this dynamic aspect of Whalen’s method. “Whalen’s focus on the mind in motion rather than the mind positioned or represented (by statements) is obviously of key importance, if only because the mind now develops as the poem develops; prior states of mind are not recreated but rather left behind, for the shift also requires disengagement.” The act of calligraphy concentrates on making language notations on the page, and how sense can be extended or compressed, much like a piece played on a piano, the pen being analogous to the piano in that an object becomes the agent of expression.

Anne Waldman speculated in an interview with Whalen from 1971, “. . .if you were directly writing in calligraphy. .it would also look great, like illuminated manuscripts. . . .”  To which Whalen answered “Well, you certainly pay attention to each word, but then I scribble a great deal, but sometimes a word. . .suggests a picture, or sometimes I just make a word with a capital letter ‘cause I feel like a capital letter. . . .”  It should be noted that Whalen scribbles are in a precise, highly legible hand.

The importance Whalen placed on calligraphy as the raw materials of his poetry is highlighted by examples of his work included in both On Bear’s Head and The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen. Writing with a calligraphic flare provides grounding as well as a point of entry and attenuates the dominant hemisphere. Notebook entries encourage brainstorming and random thoughts on a particular theme are noted or turned over, given their head, with no expectations as an improvisation that explores the nooks and crannies of possibility.

The image of Philip Whalen in the NET television segment showing him practicing calligraphy is that of a monk in a scriptorium.

“& wild with energy & power I am curled up in the grey reclining chair
Carefully writing one letter at a time”

(Delights of Winter at the Shore)

Whalen’s notebooks, held captive in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, might not rival those of DaVinci nor are they exactly the Book of Kells, but they are most certainly repositories of calligraphic gems, noodles, doodles, and nonsense revealing the depth of his playfulness. Not many have viewed them, but those who have come away full of their lightness. In these notebooks, the totality of the present is complete in its incompleteness and that totality is sustained by the very features that appear as distractions or lapses. What is eventually set in type on the page as a selection of Whalen’s poetry is a mere approximation of the original process.

The Wisdom Of Perception

Philip Whalen constructs his poetic narrative on the basis of his presence, not solely the camera eye but as an erudite CO2 emitting carbon based life form caught up in the ceaselessness of consciousness and what to make of it. What are the parameters of consciousness, if any, as it stutters against the fricative surface of self-reflection?

Paul Christensen in his excellent essay, To hunt for words under the stones, sees the function of Whalen’s notebooks in the method he uses to cull his poems. “Whalen’s objects are his own words, his phrasings, where the object is clarified in a human dimension, passed through the head. They are his equivalent of the dally rushes a director must scan with his editor; the task to ‘go on from there’ is the matter of pasting up, splicing, juxtaposing, in other words find the ideal path through which form glides and connects the momentary high pitches of Whalen’s concentration. Film and poetry are no better linked than in Whalen’s method—where some principle of maximal clarity of sight is then placed within a continuum of form—in film, the light piercing through the flickering shadows, and in Whalen, a Buddhist hedonism in love with the world as it is.”

Certainly Whalen knew what he was about in framing his sentience as a poem. He had absorbed the techniques of cinema as a way of pacing the speed of the poem, the lyric landscape, the turmoil of desire, the wry observation, all of which contribute to the personal narrative of space and time. Whalen himself reveals the secret in the Waldman interview: “. . . the only secret that I know about poetry that I tell all the students is that you have to have all these ideas or words written down on paper and then go on from there.”

Talking with Lee Bartlett in 1975, Whalen explained the use of his notebooks. “Many dreams come or many obsessive noises and trips come, and so I write them in a notebook. Later on, I look through the notebook and lift them out. Other times I hear people talking and simply record what they are saying for later use. Other times, I come immediately to some understanding, some statement. I start writing, and maybe it takes two or three pages; in any case the whole business is over within half a minute, and there it is. I don’t know if it’s inspiration or what—it’s just the function of the imagination and the poetical sensibility. It doesn’t have anything to do with skill.”

Deconstructing the poem into its original elements means returning to moments which do not have the form of the given poem when found but is the immediate property of the self. And that the poem itself, cut loose from its containing circumstance, should obtain an existence all its own, gain freedom and independence on its own account as the portentous power of the negative, the energy of thought, of pure self. “As for meaning,” Whalen says in All About Art & Life, “let it alone to mean itself.”

In the 1971 interview, Anne Waldman also inquired about how he put his poems together. I look through the notebooks I’ve been doing and sometimes. . . it seems like it’s all completed but then other times there are just stray lines and if I look through it and see that some stray line connects it reminds me of some other lines that are in another notebook and I look at that and it may all go together or it may not and the very longest poems that are in the Memoirs of an Interglacial Age or the real long poems that are in On Bear’s Head were done that way. It took years to do and to get the material all there to work from and then it was a matter of extensive cutting and so on.

The idea that cinematic technique is a useful tool for modern poets is also supported in Holsapple’s essay. “The poet has become a filmmaker as he is the documentarian, cinematographer, director, screen writer, and editor splicing a free form narrative of associations in which the poem may make the use of a number of themes woven throughout the composition. Whalen could now allow many textual features—shifts in perspective, contingencies (inside and outside the text), unorthodox sequencing and other spatial effects (images juxtaposed, snippets of speech, rhetorical gestures)—to operate as part of the overall development of the poem.” Holsapple also addresses Whalen’s use of takes in delimiting sections of the poems as “a sense of recognition of change or acceptance of it happening in the physical world and in the ego running concurrently. This use of “takes” (and the mind in movement) is I think directly related to voice.”

A “take” is also a cinematic term and is used in recording studios as well. Whalen does what film editors do, he finds relationships between the takes (moments of insight, perceptual epiphanies, expressions of indignation and delight, impressions quotidian and cosmic, complaints and critiques, real or imagined monologues and dialogues) he has collected (recorded) and splices them together into a “nerve movie.” A poem no longer has to be a single continuous pan shot over the cliff (the state of modern poetry). William Carlos Williams once commented on movie trailers, stating that they were often more compelling than the feature itself, and that the fast cut method could be adapted to the composition of the poem. Whalen got from Williams and Pound an understanding that the poem wasn’t a syllogism, that it was a process of development, as far as you wanted to take it. Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian director, talked about the importance of finding a film editor who understood the rhythm of the cutting as if it were a musical composition which includes periods of high drama, subtle emotion, mundane detail, etc. Whalen intuitively knew this, and it is evident in the orchestral structure of his longer works, especially Minor Moralia, Scenes From Life At The Capital, and Birthday Poem.

Whalen steps in and out of a Heraclitean stream in recording/filming his mental states. By sampling the flow, he recapitulates the original moments and orders them in a deftly cut sequence. The transition that happens at the end (quote-unquote) of the poem is called “inhabiting the poem,” the realization that a spiritual birth is occurring. The mistake of la poésie moderne is the notion that the poem is an object. As Whalen amply illustrates, a poem can be an organic construct that will breathe a life of its own.

Cosmic Background Radiation

Philip Whalen’s generation was probably the first to be totally affected by popular radio, the 20’s and 30’s Golden Age which straddled the piano parlor age. And perhaps his generation was the last to completely embrace self-entertainment in the form of after-dinner piano plinking, sing-alongs, coffee concertos. A special knowledge is necessary to play a musical instrument. Whole neuronal arrays are enlisted to facilitate the eye-hand coordination in reading music and playing the piano. Anyone who was anyone back then could manage the ivories. Sheet music publishers made fortunes. Radio killed that. Subsequent generations let the radio play the music for them.

Introduced to music composition by a friend, Stanworth Beckler, in the mid 40’s, Whalen learned and taught himself the fundamentals. He was already familiar with the keyboard and as he explained to Anne Waldman, “I could read music. . .but [Beckler]showed me and with his help I learned a great deal more about playing the piano and about counterpoint and harmony and also reading orchestral scores. . . .and I still when I can get at one, like to play the piano.” Whalen was always cheered by his musical interludes and found them a great resource “because reading scores. . .gave me some notion about form. . .I do have some inkling of what artistical form, or what form in time is, which is what music actually does. There’s a form that happens in time, and this is something that happens in poetry, at a faster or slower speed.”

Picking out harmonies and composing a work, a composite, stepping in and out of a stream of consciousness, aspects of which are recorded on the pages of a notebook, the synchronicity of serendipitous cognition. Individual concerns provide the thread over a span of time traced to its resolution but never its conclusion as kinetic musical energy.

It would not be too farfetched to consider Whalen’s poems analogous to musical compositions. Keith Kumasen Abbott had access to Whalen’s notebooks at the Bancroft Library and found this relevant passage: “…the biggest kicks in music is Rhythmic Invention; the tune is the easy part, etc. which, I hope, is what my poetry is, if anybody had ears to hear, feet to tap. Chaucer, Skelton, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Shelley, Blake, Hopkins, Yeats” (Journal entry,11:IX:67). In Rhythm-a-ning Abbott goes on to state: “One of Whalen’s favorite musicians, Thelonious Monk, re-arranged church, big band, Tin Pan Alley and Harlem stride music for his own artistic ends, Whalen felt free to adapt and restructure his poetic models. Whalen’s originality, humor and musical ability allowed him to shadow, parody or mime previous metrical conventions as he places them in new frames and combos.”  In comparing the similarities of invention between the jazz musician and the poet, Abbott quotes Martin Williams from Leslie Gourse’s Straight, No Chaser, 1997: “on ‘Five Spot Blues’ . . . an archaic triplet figure is elaborated within a traditional framework. It is perhaps a measure of Monk’s talent that he is willing to undertake something so totally unpretentious. And yet in his solos, he stretches out that little triplet motif, then abruptly condenses it into half the space it is supposed to occupy, embellishes it until it is almost lost, then rediscovers it and restores its unapologetic simplicity. Almost anyone with an ear for melody and rhythm could follow him exactly, I think, yet in its small way ‘Five Spot Blues’ is also a measure of his sense of order, of his rhythmic virtuosity, his originality, and his greatness.” 

Abbott then points to the parallel in Whalen’s poetry. Whalen’s rhythmic experimentations are evident in his manipulations of accent and tone via shifts in diction, syntax and grammar, his unique morphing of meter for syncopation inside regular measures, and his use of the line lengths, enjambment and spacing to speed or retard time.” As Whalen himself said in the Waldman interview, “even in a Bach Invention or in the Well-Tempered Clavier you get this, or I eventually got around to where I was feeling these shapes or forms arranged and moving in certain ways and at the same time making a composition. . .” The arrangement of shapes and forms of written sections in post logical juxtaposition are what go into the making of a Whalen composition. “These forms in time,” Abbott reiterates, “include counterpoint, harmony, syncopation and improvisational rhythmic techniques. In his writing he couples those skills with low to high diction, Buddhist koans, American folk sayings and/or popular songs, Tin Pan Alley burlesques and/or vaudeville routines.” 

All Together Now 

In the process of understanding Philip Whalen’s poetry the reader should be prepared for the fact that a promising premise may be of less significance than where the poem takes them and that they should be open to ending up in unanticipated places whether the poem produces satisfaction or desire, discomfort or horror.

Kenneth Rexroth, in a selection of essays, With Eye and Ear (1970), wrote that Whalen “is a greatly learned man, more in the mainstream of international avant-garde literature. . .a man of profound insights and the most delicate discriminations. It all seems so effortless, you never notice it until it has stolen up and captivated you, the highly wrought music of his verse. It all sounds so casual and conversational, . . .”  A literary taxonomy of Philip Whalen might read Americano, Pacific Rim, Neo-Romantic, Buddhist, Autodidact, Demotic, Poet.

Bruce Holsapple’s essay, On Philip Whalen, published online as a pdf file by La Alameda Press, although shored up with the requisite scholarly lumber and academic framing, delivers an appropriately clear-cut look at how Whalen’s poetry works. “Whalen writes in a demotic style, one based on speech, in the tradition of Whitman and Williams. The tone is typically intimate, casual and humorous. He considers himself a lyric poet which is to say his perceptions and thought processes are used as part of the poem’s content. Whalen’s poems involve a single speaker who expresses states of mind and processes of perception, thought, and feeling. In his use of first person, Whalen follows the common practice of allowing the speaker to be understood as the author and the poem to be understood as an act of speech. [He] has a penchant for vernacular phrasing.”

Some of Whalen’s poems are random, going with the flow, an improvisation, and other times it is the profound inspiration of an auteur, and often it is a little bit of both. As Holsapple points out, Whalen’s hands-off technique allows the poem to develop on its own, to be “free” verse, or in the Western parlance, “free range” verse, when he writes “when the poems became less representative of a subject establishing a stance or truth, there [is] less need for thematic or macroscopic control.”

If the poems do not have consistent topical themes and are merely allowed to mean themselves, what is their function? “Poems are made for the pleasure of making them,” Whalen states in the introduction to Decompressions, the 1978 selected poems from Donald Allen’s Grey Fox Press, “not for the purpose of being merely ‘understood’ by literary scholars and blue stockings who edify themselves with the ‘study’ of poetry.”  Whalen here hits upon corporate poetry’s dirty little secret: poems don’t have to be about anything but themselves. “The poem does not exist on account of its meaning,” Whalen continues, “It takes on an apparent course, now, from start to finish, but it wasn’t composed to fit a plan.” Whalen’s contention takes the poem back to its original oral roots as a non-codified utterance. His demotic turn brings the poem back to its originality as speech in its address to itself and to others on the same cosmic wavelength. “No longer organized by topical concerns,” Holsapple observes, Whalen’s poems “now become manifestations of mind, with the movement of the mind understood as a metaphysical event. The poem is deliberately disparate at a thematic level, but unified at an emotional level.”

Whalen’s freeform mental juggling of observations, threads, suppositions is kept suspended in a kinetic chain of nonrelated events so that when the action ends an intuitive (language-based) appreciation of what has transpired occurs, similar to the lights going up in a movie theater and walking outside with scenes and images recalled to consciousness, savoring the familiar resonant ones, trying to reconcile others in a questioning of the experience. “This leaping about is probably related to what Whalen termed as ‘following’ the poem,” Holsapple concludes, “for he is no longer constrained by either tone or perspective.” Whalen’s eschewal of these restraints “widens both the range of his material and the poem’s emotional domain.”

As a conscious artist, Whalen manipulates the shapes and tenor of the language material in a spontaneous continuity whose resolution is in the consensus of its parts. There is no doubt that Philip Whalen is a true original in the American mold and ranks with Dickinson and Whitman in being what Williams termed “true products.”  The American voice is continually being paved over by the cultural leveling of an undereducated bourgeois mentality in the thrall of the imperial glot. The true poet is always an outlier.

According to Whalen, exuberance, joy, ecstasy, satori are anti-social feelings. “When expressed in modes other than artistic ones, something is likely to get broken, someone might get hurt, quite accidentally.”  Channeling ecstatic energy into writing a poem is one way of capturing it. But not in the ebullient “I think I shall write a poem today” way. As Whalen puts it, the poem precedes the thinking of its composition. The poem is going to “think itself,” he says, “in addition to ripping the poet out of his head—think light wave/particle/bundles being slowly emitted in a pattern from the surface of somebody’s face and travelling very slowly through space to mingle with the chemicals of a photographic film and slowly change them so that they in their turn remember the pattern and can reproduce it whenever called upon.  Those wave/ particle/ bundles and their combination are words for a poet and his mind is at once their source and the pattern of their intensities.”

Whalen’s influence is considerable if not always acknowledged. Even though Allen Ginsberg did not “get” what Whalen was doing, and Charles Olson called him “a great big vegetable”, there were many young writers of subsequent generations who appreciated his approach as something new and unique in his synthesis of Williams, Pound, and Asian prosody, and to a certain extent emulated, adapted, and found kindred use for his methods. Just a few need to be mentioned: Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, Anselm Hollo, Bill Berkson, Keith Kumasen Abbott, and Ted Berrigan. Alice Notley deserves special mention as her poetry pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a poem with an originality and inventiveness that parallels Whalen’s.

In Donald Allen’s The Poetics of the New American Poetry, Whalen unapologetically lays out the impossibility and delight of writing poetry. “It is impossible to describe how poems begin. Some are imagined immediately, are ‘heard’ quite as if I were hearing a real voice speaking the words. Sometimes I ‘hear’ a poem in this way and it is a complete statement, a complete verbal or literary entity. Sometimes the same imagination provides me with single lines or with a cluster of lines which is obviously incomplete. I write them down and put them away. Maybe a few hours later I’ll ‘receive’ more lines. Perhaps they won’t arrive until weeks and months go by. Some of my long poems took years to come, and then it took a few days or weeks in which to revise and fit all their pieces together. Some poems arrive as dreams. Others begin from memories. Some start out in the middle of a conversation I’m involved in or words that I overhear other people speaking. An imagination of the life of some historical person may occur to me. . . . A landscape, a cat, a relative, a friend, a letter, walking, the unexpected receipt of a new poetry magazine full of work by new young writers, shopping for vegetables, making love, looking at pictures, taking dope, sitting still and looking at whatever is happening in front of me. . .all this is how to write, all this is where poems are to be found.”  The truth of the matter being self-evident, no explanation is necessary. Whalen adds, “Writing them is a delight.”


Further Reading

The Collected Poems Of Philip Whalen, (Michael Rothenberg, ed.) Wesleyan University Press, 2007, is the definitive scholar’s edition. The poems are arranged chronologically, and the volume includes a number of informative indices among them Whalen’s introductions to various volumes of his poetry in which he gives the clearest definition of his methods and esthetic.

Off The Wall, Interviews with Philip Whalen (Donald Allan, ed.) The Four Seasons, 1978, where the Anne Waldman, Lee Bartlett,  and Aram Saroyan interview material can be found.

Crowded By Beauty by David Schneider, the definitive biography of the life and Zen of Philip Whalen (reviewed here).

Anything and everything by Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, Anselm Hollo, Bill Berkson, , Keith Kumasen Abbott, Alice Notley, and Ted Berrigan.


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volumes I & II, 1969-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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The Poet As Cynic

The Poet As Cynic

Carl Wendt, poet and literary factotum, still adjusting to being
awarded the megabucks Dorian Pillsbury Prize in Poetry, finds himself
hitchhiking along a deserted Northern California backroad highway.

Excerpt from Ode To Sunset
A Year In The Life Of American Genius
A fiction by Pat Nolan

 Coming out of his thoughts he found himself walking to the west end of the small one-horse town toward a tall conifer offering shade on the shoulder of the road. As Diogenes the dog once said, “I have come to debase the coinage.” Now I’m leaving, he added with a measure of self-satisfaction. He was a poetry curmudgeon, like Rexroth, but without the Wobbly cachet. He’d always thought of himself as different, eccentric perhaps, superior, some would say, certainly apart from the rest, an exile from the herd. And that bit of askew provided an off-kilter balance that kept him unique.

“What does it matter beyond gilding the breath for its own sake?” Was he to consider himself a cynic like old Dio Dog? Well, for one thing, he was pretty blasé and indifferent, like a stray, living the public life, making no bones about his lust, on the loose, running free. A dog is shameless, and he was as shameless as an Irishman, or setter. In fact he was one of a cult of the shameless, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it, and which included most poets whether they admitted to it or not. And as a cynical cur he had an infallible olfactory sense to sniff out what was bullshit and what was not when it came to the tenets of poetry. Like the mutt that he was, he was loyal to his friends and presented a lip curled snarl to those egotistical poetry pimps who would dare tread on his turf with their outdated presumptions.

On the other hand, he tried to maintain an easygoing temperament. That was his goal at least. To be thankful for a clarity of mind that penetrated the smokescreen of mindless ignorance, folly, and conceit, his own and that of others, particularly that of others. And his good nature came from living in accord with a common sense that allowed him to accentuate the positive while sidestepping the dog pile of the negative in the furtherance of his day-to-day survival. He had a rein on his arrogance most of the time because he knew that it led to false judgments which in turn led to negative emotions, unnatural desires of the fame and fortune variety. All the same he had a killer instinct for the emotional jugular. He walked the line knowing that his good nature depended on a single minded self-sufficiency, the mental composure of a Zen monk, a joyful participation in the sorrows of the world, that allowed him to glean nuggets of wisdom from the most mundane and insignificant moments of existence, what Basho had called the spirit of karumi.

For his good nature to flourish he knew he had to eschew such valueless concepts as wealth, fame, power. How then could he explain the wad in his wallet, his bank account, his sudden rise in visibility? He’d been nominated for The Holbrooke Foundation Excellence in Literature Prize, otherwise known as the HELP, and been assured that he was a shoo-in. He was being sucked into the mainstream by the attention of others, tagged for envy and spite, but also appreciated as a discovery much as the petrified bones of a fossil might be. His shameless impudence, his ridicule of social norms, of literary conventions, his violating the rules of conduct and social interaction taken for granted as civilized behavior were now being lauded as visionary and/or quaint.

He’d taken pride in his robust no-frills lifestyle that required only the bare necessities for existence, a liberty unshackled from any need to conform to convention. And it was essential that he apply himself to staying unfettered by dint of daily practice much as Buddhists put into practice the tenets of their beliefs, not only in exercising judgments and forming mental impressions, but also by keeping physically fit with his meditative constitutionals which also served to get him from one place to another.

As D Dog used to say, “There are two kinds of exercise, that of the mind and that of the body.”  The healthy body creates in the mind split second intuitions by virtue of its vigor but the one is imperfect without the other since a healthy body and clarity of intellect depend equally on both. Of course he had strayed, often willfully, from many of these precepts yet had kept them in mind like a cracked and faded photo in the folds of a wallet. And it was not like he was a recluse or anything. He had lived in the full glare of the public’s gaze, indifferent in the face of criticism at his unconventional poetics. And certainly not cowed by the proscriptions of political correctness, he had the right to be outspoken, contrary, and irascible, vain and intractable. He considered himself, above all, a citizen of the cosmos, elbowing the stars and gods alike. And perhaps because of this heady company, he was always more than ready to point out the fallacies and pretensions at the root of everyday rote, and to question every aspect of interaction with the world as a clear path to integrity and purity of existence.

In light of events over the past six months, his was an ironic reversal of fortune. For starters he wasn’t in all that good of a shape, physically. Not since the night of what he self-referenced as the “Halloween Bash.”  The time in the hospital, the months spent recuperating after the surgery, had taken a toll on his stamina. He still got around but less easily with his game leg, and his jaunts around the city required careful consideration and the hustling of rides from friends. It had slowed him down and subsequently he slowed down.

Then there was the money. The award had only succeeded in making his life more complicated. Suddenly he was back on the debt radar and being hounded by collection agencies over his unpaid student loan, back taxes, and medical expenses. Not to mention those of his acquaintances who suddenly and conveniently remembered a loan they had made some years before and couldn’t remember if he had ever paid them back. Wasn’t there a statute of limitations on that kind of thing? Not that it mattered. He was going to eat up that money like a termite with a sweet tooth through sugar pine.

In his vacillating self-concealment he was feeling the regret that comes with questionable success. What he had lost with this sudden celebrity was his shadow. He had become transparent so that light passed right through him, an invisible man practicing an invisible art. At one time he had been content with being a famous nobody or, better yet, nobody famous. Behind his cynical dog-like sneer he tried to maintain a core of innocence that allowed him to still write poetry. Yet the corrosive effect of fame on the innocents was well documented. Kerouac was a prime example, hounded and shamed for being just that, a pure product of America, harassed for the very innocence he proclaimed. “Fame makes you stop writing,” Jack lamented. He was also reminded of Michel Brazon’s story of hanging out with Bryce Dunnigan on the terrace at Enrico’s one night. Someone at the table was annoying the celebrated Confederate author of Fishing With Dynamite with suggestions as to how he could further boost his national appeal, such as making appearances on late night talk shows. All of which sounded exactly like something the predictably inappropriate Brazon would do. As Michel told it, Dunnigan fished a hundred dollar bill from his wallet and held it up, saying something like “this is what I think of fame,” and set it aflame with the centerpiece candle. When he heard the news that Dunnigan had put a bullet through his head, the thought had crossed his mind: much more effective than burning a C note.

“You know that there will always be an awful lot of good poets,” Dick Granahan once told him. “Some no one will ever hear of, and that’s what kills them. Some, on the heels of luck, are renowned from the first word that dribbles from their pens, and that’s what kills them. Everyone else is just twisting in the wind of slow death oblivion. Great artists are always offing themselves because it doesn’t matter that they’re great, they still can’t live with themselves.”

That he knew, but it bore repeating. Fame, like shit and death, happens. Then the times and fashion change and step right over you as if your entire life were nothing more than a crack in the sidewalk, a lump of detritus, a flash in the pan.


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.


New To the Society’s Shelves
Sandy Berrigan, Listen To The Wind, privately published, 2019
Eric Johnson, This, Farflungland Editions, Iota Press, 2020
Mark Young, The Right Foot Of The Giant, Bumper Books, 1999
Jack Kerouac, Some Of The Dharma, Viking, 1997
Paul Fericano, Things That Go Trump In The Night,
Little City Press, 2019
John C. Thirlwall (editor),The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, McDowell Obolensky, 1957
Lee Perron, Kenneth Rexroth, A Bibliographic Checklist, Sun Moon Bear Editions, 2009
Ihara Saikaku, The Life of an Amorous Woman (Ivan Morris, trans.), New Directions, 1963
Richard Martin, In Defense of the MFA and Exotic (Vacationland) Writing Workshops, Fell Swoop #122

 

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