To: The Membership & Interested Parties
From: Keith Kumasen Abbott, Honorary Member, NBBPS
Subject: Philip Whalen’s Poetry, Calligraphy and Doodles
LITTLE MAG ART
Philip Whalen’s Poetry, Calligraphy and Doodles
Some General History
With the exception of the Evergreen Review, the longest surviving Beat Generation magazines were largely turned out on mimeograph machines and mostly edited by poets. Beatitude, Floating Bear, Wild Dog, had long runs. Mimeo mags were cheap and fast and this led to their longevity. Except for the typing up of the mimeo masters, actual production was quick. Mainly because mimeo was such an easy process for duplicating text, the mimeo tradition extended through the Hippie days of the 1960s and beyond. This technology, however, severely limited the art that could be published.
For printing images, editors either had to draw directly onto the waxy mimeo masters with a special round tipped tool or have the image electronically cut by a Gestafax stencil machine. Very few poets had access to one of those. So, mimeo covers were normally reproduced by regular offset printing.
The cover art of the Beat mags was often photographic, sometimes Abstract Expressionist, big slabs of paint or collages with lines of varying thickness. With either, a moderately good printing press was needed to get any kind of distinctions of tone and line. The New York mags, especially those of the New York School, often traditionally featured artists with galleries and/or reps, while the West Coast mimeo mags were often adorned with “homemade” or “funk” or “psychedelic” art by artists of those various California art movements, such as Bruce Conner, Jess, Wallace Berman or George Herms.
Inside the covers of the typical Hippie mag, the art was often done by rapidograph pen with a small nib. Mostly they were intricate images exhaustively drawn by artists in the throes of acid or speed trips. The art seemed to demand that the reader have a flat in the Haight-Ashbury with a sunlit window seat, a ferociously chemically aided attention span, and a few days to kill.
With the advent of cheaper used IBM electric typewriters, more poet/editors could afford to typeset their own magazines and spend their money on offset printing instead. This made including artwork easier.
A few pre-Beat American poets and writers decorated their own books and magazines, most notably Kenneth Patchen with his painted books and “poemscapes”. One of the most visible West Coast writers to create a distinctive artistic blend of poetry and visual art was Philip Whalen.
Philip Whalen’s History and Influences
Whalen attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. All three had taken literature classes from Lloyd Reynolds, a master of the Western Calligraphy, an expert on the history of letterforms, and an idiosyncratic teacher with a freewheeling, unconventional mind. Although Whalen was the only one of the trio to take a calligraphy class from Reynolds, all three left Reed with distinctive handwriting and produced broadsides and books in their scripts. Whalen continued to practice various letterforms with a calligraphic pen in his journals and apparently composed most of novels and poems by longhand. His early doodles and calligraphy poems exhibit an historical, but thoroughly playful sense of the Western Calligraphic traditions. After he spent some years in Kyoto, Japan, he returned to America and became an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.
The Whalen collection of poetry that concentrates on his Buddhist poems, Canoeing Up Carbarga Creek, also reproduces seven of his calligraphic Zen based broadsides and ink drawings. These art works reinforce the connection between Zenga painting traditions and Whalen’s aesthetics.
Whalen adapted several Oriental attitudes toward composition for his calligraphic renditions of his poems. A voracious reader, his knowledge of the same was not small. References to classical Japanese and Chinese philosophy, theology, aesthetics, paintings, calligraphy and art appear throughout his poems and prose. In San Francisco, he was a regular visitor to the Brundage collection of Asian art in Golden Gate Park, acquiring a familiarity with their holdings, and during his stay in Kyoto he became more conversant with religious iconography and philosophy.
Literary and Publishing History
By the 1960s, little mag editors could count on Whalen shipping them a sheet or two of his calligraphic journal productions along with poems. His work in its “natural” state fascinated readers, probably because these drafts created the sense of being in an artist’s studio, looking over his shoulder and watching him create his poems. And then there was an incredible infectious feeling of freedom, joy and lively form to Whalen’s works that became an ideal of those days; as Whalen himself characterized the mood, “A magic electrical Tibet.”
Called “a poet’s poet” by Allen Ginsberg, Whalen’s writing was regarded by many young poets by the middle 1960s as a major direction for new future poetry. Its vocabulary was eclectic, drawing from science, advertising, popular working class expressions (titled Native Folk Speech), philosophical jargon and street jive, to name only a few sources. Some of his texts seemed composed primarily for their sound values alone, some as visual text. With a modest formal training in keyboards but a lifelong interest in musical matters, Whalen refers to or takes off on blues or jazz tunes and musicians in many poems; Thelonius Monk shows up frequently and his idiosyncratic compositions probably are the closest analogy to Whalen’s poetry. His jazz timing, his occasional scrambling of syntax and grammar, and his insertion of “concrete poetry” (or calligraphic or non-referential) elements preceded some of the Language Poets textual concerns in the late 1970s.
Temperamentally and spiritually Whalen was, in Jack Kerouac’s words, “a strange mystic living alone smiling over books.” His reclusive nature and sitting meditation practice contributed to his startlingly original poems. His abrupt left and right ontological turns had the flavor of Zen koans. His sudden, perplexing and yet inspired jumps into visionary rants, quiet epiphanies, personal conundrums, social truculence and social criticism charted a mind committed to seeing each ordinary moment in all its levels.
In his art and journal pages, too, Whalen mirrored this multi-level approach and dispensed with most of the rules of formal Western Calligraphy. He 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. The implicit challenge to the viewer of why not became vitally important and necessary to his generation’s sanity. Such improvisations rescued and expanded their sense of joy during the repressive, relentlessly middle-class and sometimes exasperatingly trivial 1950s.
This disregard of the “correct” way for doing things was shared with such Zen stalwarts as the Japanese Buddhist priest Ikkyu, who once wrote out a Chinese poem starting with gorgeous upright correct Chinese calligraphy and then, violating one of the cardinal rules of brush calligraphy, rapidly shifted from one style to another in his excitement and pleasure until the last characters are in the free flowing “grass” script, barely legible even to the cognoscenti, in a bravura tour de force of an improvisation and emotional release. In Whalen’s poem Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis, the end comes with a similar rush:
Their world and several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherry blossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all
The freedom and “live” sounds of Whalen’s collage poems from the 1960s led more than one reader into the erroneous assumption that he did not edit his poetry. Actually, he was a meticulous assembler of his printed poems. In his interviews with the poet Leslie Scalapino Whalen detailed how he would type up sections of his calligraphic journals or poems before laying them out on his floor. He would then shift the sections in and out of patterns until he got what he wanted. It’s obvious that he paid close attention to the empty spaces in his texts, the gaps and lacunae and jumpcuts and had a clear notion of how those gaps worked, what those gaps signified in displacement of time, place, character or thought. He said some poems took years to assemble, even though many read as if they were written in one spontaneous sitting. The calligraphic improvisations were often moved whole into some other larger order, their freshness intact.
However, for his 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 major statement of aesthetics termed this: “graph of a mind moving.”
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.
A poem might emerge from a random memory train. Or, the poet notes some thought; it ends and then he resumes his calligraphy practice, but somehow the practice becomes part of what turns out to be an ongoing poem. In the following something like that seems to have occurred.
Love Love Love Again
I keep trying to live as if this world were heaven
puke fish dark fish pale fish park fish
mud fish lost fish selfish
Rockers and Mods
“acres of clams”
This an infectious percussive drumstick rhythm of the hard consonants followed by repetitious snare brush rhythm of the fish sound. A jazz scat singer would love improvisations like this. The softer m sounds bring the rhythms to a close, and the stanza balances on an advertising slogan from “Ivar’s Acres of Clams” a popular seafood restaurant in the Northwest.
Whalen’s teacher, Lloyd Reynolds, published practice sheets that exhibited hilarious, diverting or subversive chains of words when he was supposedly demonstrating how, say, Slab Serif Italic Caps were made. This persistent need to play with and subvert expectations marks both men’s work. Often, for poets who perform calligraphy, these chains of practice words and techniques somehow evolve into sentences and concepts, sometimes without the poet noticing very consciously, because the attention is on forming those letter combinations. Lists of single words suddenly take on grammar and syntax, become sentences, and seem to have a life of their own, arousing images or thoughts or characters. In his manual Italic Calligraphy & Handwriting Reynolds illustrates how joins between similar Italic letters are formed inside words and uses this example.
The result could be called automatic writing, if the point were exploring the unconscious. However, these works begin with the conscious practice of letterforms and techniques. The results of such happy accidents are found poems in the most literal sense. They bloom inside the acts of calligraphy. But one can also imagine a Groucho Marx scene where he demands an imminent mime gnome manual from a government bureaucrat.
Keith Kumasen Abbott is a poet, calligrapher, and novelist living in Colorado. He is the author of Downstream From Trout Fishing In America, a Memoir (Astrophil Press, 2009). More about Mr. Abbott, his art and writing is available at Keith Abbott, Writer