Whalen's is a deliciously perverse perspective to take in a society that holds fast to the idea that what matters is piling up career achievements, furniture, bombs, veto power, cosmetic surgeries. And it was just that way of seeing that made Whalen perfectly suited to be a member of the venerated but irreverent canon of rowdy Beat poets and to be a resolute practitioner of Buddhism.
Lifelong literary celebrity was bestowed on Whalen on October 13, 1955, when he recited what he now calls some "sort of slobber I had on hand" at the "Six Poets at the Six Gallery" reading in San Francisco. There his name became irrevocably tied to those of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and the birth of the West Coast strain of the Beat Generation. That was the night Ginsberg first read "Howl"--his inconsolable rant against a society that would sacrifice its own for money and victory in war. ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," it begins.) His reading lit up the crowd and ignited the counterculture literary movement that defined itself through spontaneous acts of poetry, expressing disillusion with consumerism and the cold war mindset.
Whalen describes it as an occasion "when Allen demanded to be recognized as a poet, to be famous. So he was."
Whalen had met Ginsberg and Kerouac not long before, while staying in Berkeley with his lifelong friend Gary Snyder, who would in 1974 win a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry and whom Whalen had met at Reed.
"So one day Gary says we gotta go down to San Francisco because (Ginsberg's) friend Jack Kerouac is here and he wants us to meet him." They hopped on the now defunct F train, which once whirred across the Bay Bridge, connecting Berkeley and San Francisco. "We got off the train and here were these two guys standing on the corner of First and Mission, Jack wearing his Jimmy Dean red windbreaker and Allen sort of bopping beside him," Whalen says, with a deep voice threatening to break into the laughter of delight.
Soon thereafter they came together as part of the Six Poets at the Six Gallery: Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia, with Kenneth Rexroth acting as master of ceremonies. Kerouac was in the crowd but too shy to read. "He just drank and hollered and told everybody 'let's pass the plate and get more wine.' So they did," recalls a mildly tickled Whalen. (Whalen would later appear in two of Kerouac's works: as Warren Coughlin in Dharma Bumsand as Ben Fagin in Big Sur.) Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti--who would publish "Howl" and fight government charges of obscenity in order to do so--was also on hand to hear the voices that still fill the shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, which he founded in 1953 in San Francisco's North Beach.