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, four 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  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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