Philip Whalen '51 is the kind of poet who can compare himself to Buddha one moment and a baked ham the next--all while having a good chuckle over the idea that neither he, nor Buddha, nor Heraclitus, nor even a parkful of cherry blossoms, has anything over a slab of hot pork.
It's as if he's in on the cosmic joke of life itself-- that despite all appearances, everything is really the same--and that we're all equal and equally sure to slip off and become something else.
Whalen, now 75, is a big, bald Beat poet--one of the handful of exuberant, daring truth-seekers whose work collectively came to be known as Beat writing in the late 1950s. Self-promotion is anathema to him, but thanks to the grace of wise friends and smart publishers, a fair number of volumes of his work have made it into print. Memoirs of an Interglacial Age(Auerhahn Press, 1960) and Like I Say(Totem Press/Corinth Books, 1960) were the first, while On Bear's Head(Hartcourt, Brace & World/Coyote, 1969) is widely considered to contain some of his best pieces.
More recently his Buddhist poems have been collected in Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek(Parallax Press, 1996). Since 1973, when he was ordained as a Zen priest, Whalen has devoted substantially less time to designing his elegant and playful literary snapshots. Meanwhile, his blithe take on Buddhist tenets such as impermanence, which has long finagled its way into his witty prose, has become more pronounced in his work. In one of his most acclaimed poems, "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," conceived in 1955-56 during a stint as a fire lookout for the forest service in Washington state, Whalen wrote: