Hello, I Must Be Going
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.
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”?
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.
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.
Phil comes out of the bathroom saying, “Soon I shall be the Zenshin Flatline, and not worth the stealing.”
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.
“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?”
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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.
“Is this my severance pay, Phil?”
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.”
“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.