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reed magazine logoWinter 2008
Language as Transient Act: the Poetry of Philip Whalen

Language as Transient Act: the Poetry of Philip Whalen, by Leslie Scalapino '66

A characteristic of all avant garde movements has been to change the way of seeing in a time by removing or breaking down the barrier between the spectator/reader and their being that present-time (also being in that present): To remove the barrier so that the spectator can no longer be separate from their present, from their being phenomena. This puncturing of time as space, in the conceptual space of poetry or theater, can also operate to dismantle social structuring.

The Beat movement was particularly American as literary, visual art, and cultural phenomena: a populist avant garde. (While the term ‘avant garde’ commonly implies ‘elite,’ in contrast to ‘populist,’ the term means ‘vanguard’ denoting the new, a change of the language and perception.)

While removal of the barrier between the spectator (participant as reader, listener) and (their) present-time, being what is the present, is akin to Gertrude Stein (a grandmother of the Beats), it was also compatible with Buddhist philosophy and practice—and it has intrinsic political meaning. Dismantling social structuring on an overt level was evident in the Beat movement as history of activism. Anti-war activism and writings, and expressions of sexual freedom were characteristic of the Beats (as cited in, for example, the famous censorship trial of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Michael McClure’s play, The Beard, for their explicit sexuality).

Extending on their Modernist basis to include Asian sources (differently from Pound’s use of these), some Beats also incorporated western visionary traditions. Ginsberg’s range included W.C. Williams and William Blake, yoga practice, use of hallucinogens, and Tibetan Buddhism. McClure’s influences were Blake and Shelley, Pound, Williams, Olson, biology and physics, peyote, and later Zen Buddhism. Gary Snyder is a Zen monk. Burroughs’ texts drew on the use of drugs and the method of cut-ups from other sources as a method of bypassing the controls implicit in intuitive, psychological self-expression.

Philip Whalen, a Zen monk, a voluminous reader learned in Asian as well as European and American texts of philosophy and literature, who could quote and cite sources from memory even blind at the end of his life, was influenced early-on by Williams, whom he met when Williams visited Reed College where Whalen was a student with Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. Whalen described (to me in conversation) his discovery of Williams’ poetry: It opened for him the possibility of freedom from an ‘academy’ notion of a poem, which he viewed as being narration of subject matter in a preconceived ordering, bound up. Rather, he realized that a reordering of every level can take place in the line and in the sound structure of the language itself. Whalen was also influenced by Stein and Pound. He made the distinction to me that his direction was more the phenomenological undertaking of Stein than the visionary direction suggested by Blake that was taken up by Ginsberg.

The relation the Beats created between Modernism and Asian thought and Buddhist practice was that of making a phenomenological relation in the language: Breaking down the U.S. cultural convention of mind-body split, language is brought to bear as physicality as mind phenomena itself.

The freedom that Whalen took from Williams’ poetic line, for example, as (in Williams) only its own sound/shape (rather than being ‘about’ something else, a subject) is applied in Whalen to an examination of mind itself as shape and movement itself, or stillness, even extending that movement or shape to see the mind as inseparable from history (from being phenomena ‘outside’)—while history’s inseparability undoes dichotomy of ‘outside’ and ‘inside.’


reed magazine logoWinter 2008