Report: Scenes From Life

Group reading of
Philip Whalen’s Scenes From Life At The Capital
Monday, October 23, 2017
Moe’s Books, Berkeley, CA

They said they would, and they did.  Two years ago Alastair Johnston of Poltroon Press had thought to combine the occasion of Philip Whalen’s birthday, October 20th, with a group reading from the recent reissue of Whalen’s Prolegemena to a Study of the Universe at Moe’s in Berkeley.  The readers then were Alastair Johnston, Owen Hill, Steven Lavoie, Tinker Greene, David Brazil, Pat Nolan, and Michael Rothenberg.  Much like the high spark of low heeled boys, a notion gained consensus among the participants that evening that a regular tribute to Philip Whalen and his work, on the anniversary of his birth, say, was not a bad idea.  And it was more or less agreed that the following year, on or about Whalen’s birth date, the usual suspects would gather at Moe’s to honor him with a reading of his poetry.  Because of its length, Scenes from Life at the Capital was chosen as a poem that would hold everyone’s attention.

A year came and went and the proposed event never materialized due, undoubtedly, to that mysterious inertia (rivaling dark matter) that often grips the poetry world.  But it was an idea whose time would come the following year on October 23rd 2017.  This time the participants were poets Alan Bernheimer, Norman Fischer, Tinker Greene, Owen Hill, Alastair Johnston, Steven Lavoie, Denise Newman, Pat Nolan, and Laura Woltag.  Clark Coolidge had also been scheduled to read but problems of a mechanical nature prevented him from participating.  The nine readers were each allotted two page increments to be read round robin style with the first reader also being the last reader with the extra turn at the seventy four page poem. Luckily everyone had the same edition and the readers proceeded alphabetically.

Fresh off the boat. Photo by Gary Snyder

Scenes From Life In The Capital was published by Don Allen’s Grey Fox Press in 1971.  Coming on the heels of his first collected poems, On Bear’s Head, the long poem continued Whalen’s dialogue with Kyoto and his life in Japan, a period that provided a new vitality for his poetry and a more serious engagement with Buddhism. His romance with Japanese culture is already quite evident in the section titled The Winter and the poem of the same name dedicated to Burton Watson that closes out his 1969 collected poems.

As befitting the occasion, Whalen’s poem is a marshalling of disparate voices: his own as voiceover narrator, sotto voice or aside, appropriated authoritative voice (headline, newscast, signage), academic prose voice, Fieldsian bombast or Bucklean bebop improvisation as well as the strictly alphabetic voice found in the shape of a word in the act of calligraphic concentration leading to playful digressive whorls and vectors.  Each of the poets reading that night adapted their voices to the score.  Many had been fortunate to have actually attended a Whalen reading, some more than once, and had a memory of the nuanced play of voices in the poet’s interpretations of his work.  To replicate that or give a reasonable facsimile was easier imagined than accomplished, and, mostly college educated, the poets rendered that nominal effort.  The many voices of the readers gave Scenes From The Life At The Capital a fitting performance despite its tongue twisting unpredictability, Kyoto place name speed bumps, and occasional francophone declamations.

Whalen as viewed by Kerouac was one of the West Coast rustics, the Pacific Rim boys, ostensible hardy woodsmen, spiritual descendants of Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo and the gone native French coureurs du bois.  Whalen and Snyder were learned mavericks, outlaw autodidacts, embodiments of Han-shan’s bodhisattva inclinations seeking a spiritual lifeline outside the prescribed Western canon. So it is not unusual to find Whalen as ambassador of poetry to Kyoto, the ancient cultural capital.  Scenes records a running commentary of delight and despair at his being there. The title also perfectly describes the poem’s composition as it is exactly that, snap shot still life stop action scenes spliced into a stuttering pattern of cinema vérité (or imaginé) narrative.

Old Kyoto Hand

In Whalen’s long poem, and in his poetry in general, the methods of film and poetry come together. Mining his notebooks he uses a cut and paste method similar to film editing to maximize word play and fleeting perceptions out of which subtle coincidence is teased. Each phrase or sentence acts as a complete occasion framed by the input of experience put into words to denote lucid perceptions.  The stanzas function as imagistic cinematic frames focusing on selective details of a Kyoto mise en scene. As Paul Christensen so aptly puts it, “The base of Whalen’s poetry is not so much the perception or even the object itself, the historic grounds of Imagist esthetics, but the phrase in which a sensation enters the language function of mind.  That point of impact marks a transformation of outer to inner realm, a cross-over into the yielding human imagination which doesn’t seek to translate or manipulate the experience, but enjoy it in a felicitous wording of the encounter.”  (“To Hunt For Water Under Stones” Jacket 11)

Although composed of notebook entries from some fifty years ago, the poem has its moments of timeliness and timelessness as well as an anachronism that belongs to its era.  Whalen begins seated center stage as the narrator summoning ghosts at a Noh performance or as the perennial house guest/couch surfer: “somebody’s else’s floor, as usual”. What follows is a sentient appraisal of the present, the past, the distant, and the close at hand, a travelogue marveling at the new, despairing of the old.

mockery trumpery pink chenille fuzz elephant baby mockery
trumpery trumpery mockery
monger                                  freeny-monger?                   fundle

Even though the preceding is likely the result of a calligraphic exercise as is “Festoon” earlier in the poem, it jumps out at the reader with an eerie prescience.  Whalen’s residence in Kyoto provided him with an Archimedean perspective, a new place to stand to view his nation’s imperialism and be moved to pen a fierce polemic. The lessons of history spliced in as headlines and onair new reports are cited as a cogent evaluation applicable to the late sixties turmoil of Viet Nam and Kent State as well as to the uproar of our own times.

Our main difficulty : fear and distrust of freedom

[ ]

Liberty in other hands is “license”


When did the dumb bunny bomb first hit U.S.A.?
How come everybody appreciated it so much?

[ ]

Almost all Americans aged 4 to 100
Have the spiritual natures of Chicago policemen
Scratch an American and find a cop.  There is no
Generation gap.

[ ]

A friend wrote from Kent, Ohio, last year
“The Midwest is full of people who want to write poetry and want to listen to it.”
This year the National Guard, weeping with pity and fright
Kill four students, firing “into the mob”

[ ]

America Devouring Her Own Young
(The soldiers are also our children, we’ve lied to them, too
Americanism, Baseball, Commerce, Democracy, Education,
Golf, Home Economics,
The complete college curriculum
Then put them in uniform and turn them loose with guns
To kill “hate-filled long-hair dirty dope-fiend Com/Symp”)

[ ]

The American Revolution was a tax-dodge
Dreamed up by some smart Harvard men
Who got some good out of it.
A few of their high-society friends also scored

[ ]

Kent State, Jackson State, There was no reason to kill them
Fusillade into an unarmed crowd
Of children
I can’t forgive us for feeding them
to the Bears currently raiding Wall Street

[ ]

6th month, 1180

[ ]

No matter how far we travel
We find most of the world living as quasi-civilized
Nomads among polished marble ruins of great cultures
The quality of life and the meaning of these remains
Are quite imperfectly known to us, no matter how skillfully
We parse the verbs of lost languages
All ignorantly we project our own savagery & cannibalism
Upon societies and individuals who were
Our civilized ancestors

[ ]

Japan is a civilization based upon
An inarticulate response to cherry blossoms.

After Kyoto

There is a label that might be applied to this particular style if for no other reason than to highlight the fact of its ubiquity in the American canon.  It has been used with various degrees of success by a number of poets, notably but not exclusively Williams, Pound, and Eliot.  Whalen, in this poem in particular, exemplifies an approach to poetry that can be termed Demotic Notational Ephemerism. The method is demotic in that it is plain spoken or language of the commons in tone.  It is also notational in that it is the annotation (marginalia, commentary, the subtext, if you will) of the text of life in the capital.  And ephemeral in that it is a tracing of language in red dust, the transient detritus of thought. This long poem represents an accumulation of phenomenological content accessed by the senses that comes together in a panorama of articulate responses. Deconstruction and discontinuity are tools for sidestepping the emotional illusion of reflective nature and which is the aim of the modern poem. Scenes From Life At The Capital demonstrates that a loose disjointed work born of spontaneity can hang together like a marvelously unpredictable kinetic word construct.


The reading offered an opportunity for a close and intensive examination of the poem through the voices of others.  It highlighted the pleasures of encountering the flashes and intuitive leaps in the company of those predisposed to enjoy them, to experience the momentary insights and joyful responses to the sorrows of the world.  In the aftermath of the surprisingly powerful performance not much was said of plans for an encore in perhaps a year or two.  A marathon reading of the entire collected poems was given passing thought but that would  likely take up an entire weekend, and what venue could conceivably host it.  A yearly symposium on Whalen’s work sounded just a little too academic though his work certainly warrants it.  Maybe next time the tribute will come together as a reading of favorite poems, the longer ones shared among the voices of multiple readers.  Whatever and whenever, there is a definite need to continue to honor Philip Whalen and his importance to American poetry.

Submitted to the Memebrship
by the Parole Officer

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1 Response to Report: Scenes From Life

  1. robert feuer says:

    Present here, and in much of Nolan’s work, is a wit and humor, that lurks behind his excellent choice of words. His love for the poets he writes of and their work shines through.

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