Leslie Scalapino

Language as Transient Act,
The Poetry of Philip Whalen

Introduction to

Philip Whalen

Collected Poems
Wesleyan University Press


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 trials 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.’

The poem, “In the Night”, for example, is a series of lines that are comparisons between dissimilarities, sounds Whalen hears at night which include demons and ghosts, Whalen running, an elephant, a hen, the Japanese wars of Onan:


“elephant and sunset”

“huge hen”


Lots of speed makes the surfboard slicker
Falling upward…

                      ONIN-NO-RAN (1467-1475)
Lots of speed. I fucking ran.
Civil wars more interesting than any other kind America

                                        (Heavy Breathing
, in Collected, p. 690)

The relation in this night space to (its) events and sights, real and imagined, is ‘actually’ only sound (such as a Japanese war, “ONIN-NO-RAN,” and “I fucking ran”). Everything that is left out, infinite numbers of sounds, also creates that space, of ‘actual’ referenced history and of night perceived by Philip Whalen. His only editorial remark in the poem is that, “The world is larger/More complicated than we can remember/And so we fall upward/Into a fake superiority.” That is, we order falsely when we summarize and explain, a hierarchical construct which conceals relation. So Whalen playfully orders on the basis of sound (similarity/ dissimilarity at once), condensing to be only a view in history at once an observation on history.

In some poems Whalen used the structure of the fugue, the form of which is variations returning to a theme that’s a basis, his measure being invention which becomes a way of seeing the separation of (his/reader’s) mind from events outside when ‘applied’ in a structure, the structure being his comparison of events from different periods chosen by their intuitively derived contrast or similarity (such as, again, the similarity of the sound of the language rather than the content).

In “Occasional Dilemmas,” Whalen says “I applied the gentle but determined pressure of my right/forefinger,” as if physical pressure applied to words (such as “DUCKRABBIT,” “BLUE,” and “NIGHTJAR”), and equates the pressure applied to words to, “the marvelously double vision: total security is the same as total surveillance and repression.” He concludes “Occasional Dilemmas” with what I take to be a humorous but clear statement of his poetic purpose and method:

Olson told us that history was ended.
A.—“O.K. What is it you think you’re doing?”
B.—“I’m trying to wreck your mind, that’s all.”
                                                             (Heavy Breathing. in Collected, p. 685)

Whalen is proposing to use language, which by omitting consecutive steps at his will (while acknowledging the total surveillance and repression of will, his or any), not only ends history in the sense of that which is conventionally presented to us, but ends history in the sense of anyone’s own re-creation of any event— while his movement in a poem is a series of leaps each leading to more than one event or ‘result’ at the same time. He prolongs the ‘pressure’ (sometimes by his producing a stream of fictions in a poem) until the writer/reader can reach a state of giving up on constructing and on figuring out. The poems are modes of freedom from security. Security is a state of curtailment.

The Beats altered use of image to incorporate relativity. Ginsberg’s description in his Indian Journals of viewing the fire-enflamed corpses burning on the ghats on the Ganges is concentration on the disintegrating self as no entity of being, reflecting Hindu and Tibetan meditation methods. That is, his intention is not vivid image (is not fixation on the image as such) but rather language as transgression of the barrier between flesh (regarded as not an entity of self, there being none) and the filter of ‘our seeing,’ customary social behavior compartmentalizing experience. Ginsberg is breaking down the separation between optical seeing and (language which is to be) ‘seeing’ as changing conceiving. He used chanting (physical, hearing) to break down compartmentalizing of experience (such as customary description as subject). Sound in Ginsberg’s poetry gives an incantatory, visionary frame.

In Michael McClure’s poems, the language shapes are both his mind’s activity as imagination (or image as ‘vision,’ at once optical and visionary) in the instant of writing—and are a poem’s language investigating shape made by its movement as such. Using the separation, the fact that language can’t ever be the same as the object (words can’t be the object “black lily”), McClure breaks down the distinction between text as object and the phenomenal object of “black lilies” (only words), and physical sensation (of the ‘speaker’ or reader). As image, the distinction between material phenomena and intuitive apprehension is broken down—or between that which is ‘visual’ and (that as) language.

In comparison to McClure or Ginsberg, Whalen’s writing, not image-based and dismantling its own frames, is sound schemes, frequently the leaps and omissions of conversational exchange whose space and process are active mind phenomena. Conversation implies more than one mind, also implies the mind creating self, and simulation of history, the inside and the outside together. For Whalen, sound as mind phenomena is not only memory, fantasy, and sound of speaking in conversation, but these as transient, relative history itself only ‘taking place’ as being apprehended in the process of readers’ minds making relations in reading and speaking as the writing. His drawings that were maps or graphs figured into this as both making and seeing connections then, at once. Reading’s apprehension is actively constructing the text.

Whalen thus decreases the distance between us as spectators (readers) and phenomena by breaking down the separation one continually makes of oneself as ideas (one being outside phenomena) rather than being one’s actions that are also continual and simultaneous with one’s idea of these. As in the poem, “The Same Old Jazz,” he’s making a structure that’s itself an illusion seen outside (“OK, it’s imperishable or a world as Will/& Idea, a Hindu illusion that our habits continuously/Create”): until that illusion is exactly what is created ‘inside’ as the poem at the same time going on at once (by the reader reading): “And it all snaps into focus/The world inside my head & the cat outside the window/A one-to-one relationship/While I imagine whatever I imagine.” That is, his language both is, and also breaks down, the illusion of causation as a one-to-one relation of inside and outside—and breaks down the illusion of their separation, of one being outside this process, is both at once.

As causation and illusion of such simultaneously, Whalen frequently created a compression of all times onto one in a poem while keeping each historical time or reference distinct and dropping the consecutive steps of mind process forming connections. The conceptual space as the space of the text is a series of leaps, yet such a ‘leap’ (just as occurs in a joke, for example) is not a subject, connection, or sensation. As if there were points “A” and “B” in which the ‘leap between’ has no explicit expression that is a particular, rational ‘result’ that we could label “C”— nor is the place between stemming from either “A” or “B”—in reading there is the impression of all points, as if on all of space, producing each other at once. Yet one point is not movement between them, either. Short poems in The Kindness of Strangers are indicative of this method: which is to create a present-time that is only disjunctive (therefore is not time as such, though for description, I’m characterizing it as ‘times’), allowing the mind to be nowhere in formation. The ‘times’ (such as “I fucking ran” and “elephant and sunset”) are occurring separately and at the same time (as taken in at once by the reader). So the present is only empty there (has no nature as itself, is words) and the future and past being a series of such presents-without-entity appear to arise from each other. Similar to Japanese Zen master Dogen’s articulation of being as time, in Whalen’s use of line (or one stanza, which may be two or more times superimposed on each other), past, future, and present are going on separately and at once and not excluding each other. That is, everything as poetic line and the use Whalen makes of sound scheme arises in relation to everything else.

I asked Whalen if his writing was the same as meditation: that is, if his writing was doing the same thing as the process of meditation as the ‘disjunctive present’ which is no-separation of self and outside, and does not form these (self or outside) either. He answered no, that writing is writing and meditation is itself. I take that to mean: Language is always an ordering device. Language can’t be the same as a state that does not rely upon any device and creates no entity, can’t be a state that hasn’t even language to rely upon (which is the characteristic of meditation). If the subject of writing is ‘being only a disjunctive present,’ the writing is not doing that, it would merely reproduce subject matter and division from it. Yet I think Whalen was using language to make being outside even what language is, let alone its conventional usage, while his poetry is based in language’s daily usage as speaking, thinking and fantasizing. The Beats as a movement were undertaking to undo convention of U.S. ‘seeing’ which continually reproduces ‘being’ divided from subject matter as subject matter. Whalen undertook that ‘undoing’ as the process of the language itself.

Language as Transient Act: Whalen’s poems being imitation of mind phenomena akin to one speaking to others (to him—his writing is much like his own intonation was, his syntax and vocabulary in speaking in conversation), this ‘speaking’ is also akin to one speaking to oneself as if rehearsing and making-up scenes which thus create the future and past. These have no other existence than performance (no other existence than reading and speaking).

He was writing as reading, an activity as if inside each present instant of one’s mind process unfolding, active reading that’s transformative by being a continuous nerve movie, simulation of already existing interior and outside as these are at once (rather than writing being simply entertainment which we view from outside). He described the result as: “A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines—‘continuous’ within a certain time-limit, say a few hours of total attention and pleasure: to move smoothly past the reader’s eyes, across his brain: the moving sheet has shaped holes in it....” (On Bear's Head, p. 269)

The sense of the continuous nerve movie is particularly applicable to what I’m calling his ‘history poems,’ his time simulations that may be many times at once stacked as a continuous present. One such is the poem, “Life in the City, In Memoriam Edward Gibbon” (Heavy Breathing , Collected pp. 554-55) which is four times at once: the time of the Victorian who was Edward Gibbon but synonymous with Whalen writing the poem, the times of the Roman Empire whose rise and fall Gibbon wrote, and the immediate (in the poem) present time of Heian Japanese life (black lacquer hats and ox-drawn carriages for people in the Middle Ages). A Whalen time experiment may be a dream, one time period of dreaming (though the dream may reproduce several times ‘of its own’ at once) retaining only the original dream order, statement of its motions as the state of mind in that exact instance unrelated to composing or representing anything (such as “Dream,” p 166). He asks whether the poem (these relations) is the only occurrence of a time: “What if I never told any of this?” (On Bear's Head , p. 15) Thus the poem is different from the dream.

The longer poems such as “Scenes of Life at the Capital” or “Birthday Poem” were written by hand in a notebook over extended periods of time. Eventually, Whalen would type up the entirety, cut apart the phrases placing these on the floor, and place phrases together depending on the intuitive leap made by their juxtaposition as active choice of the instant of compilation. The ‘comparison’ (of two passages or phrases chosen from ‘random’ times) both is, and is outside of, the close-up of whatever particular historical instant in which the separate phrases were written or juxtaposed. Any event, once an aspect of Whalen’s view or psychology, is only itself, a relation to its context. The ‘history poem,’ as simulation of present-time continually, is only a present illusion superimposed (as play, memory, and separate current present) on a past illusion that is action then (the text as real-time past and present). Thus action is going on in all times at once, these elements brought to be simultaneous by the factor that the language itself, by being chosen as random times, not related in the sense of a purpose for narrative, is outside of conscious shaping, even as Whalen cites in the poems the constant effect of his own determining: “I’ve run so far in one circle I’m visible now” (On Bear's Head, p. 250).

Whalen extends that freedom to a conceptually spatial range, his texts broaching the possibility of, or being, free-fall not bound by preconceived boundaries of ordering (arbitrary definitions or boundaries in the sense of the relation being merely assigned, customary labels), and sometimes not bound by even sound comparisons or narrating emphasis (these would also be hierarchical structuring). To say that it is not bound or determined even by sound is to say that he sometimes drops even the use of a sound scheme which would supply cohesion. That is, he is not manufacturing resonance or any means of ‘applying’ union or resolution as if from the outside. The text is allowed possibly to ‘fall’ as in movement, as if a waterfall. The poem may risk even inertia, or may be attentive staying at a line, by virtue of its own workings. His works were thus a mind experiment of reality equivalent to the Buddhist concept of free-fall which recognizes all supposition, perception, and phenomena as having no actual order of occurrence except that imposed by the mind as its own context. All perception as events are temporary states: “What are you doing right this minute?/What shall you do one second from now?/…Feather spins as it falls/Even if you did it better, who would care?” (On Bear's Head , p. 240) Whalen was proposing the possibility that all of this order, constructed, and the entire fabric of constructed order could be dropped. I asked Whalen whether the intention in his poems was to drop all structuring either as use of sound or time (similar to the Zen conception of language as itself phenomena: that words are merely labels of entities and all labeled entities are a giant web where the only reality is the imposed inter-relatedness of the entities). As to whether his poetry was an intentional breakdown and therefore investigation as mind free-fall, Whalen replied that this interpretation was interesting, implying by his tone that he did not disagree, also that this was not necessarily his preconceived plan, he was experimenting, which is what gesture as investigation is.

He was the first American poet to propose or work within this terrain of free-fall in the Buddhist sense (but which is also akin, for example, to Wittgenstein’s writings, seminal for many contemporary poets, as some Language poets) of words being merely labels, language itself as the material of investigation.

All of Whalen’s poems were originally composed in notebooks like illuminated manuscripts, notebooks in which he included color drawings, some like maps of the poems placed beside poems but maps that are unlike the poems. The drawings are a different space. They may be within the text, possibly a translation of it or related, or not. These doodles with hand-drawn text tend to have multiple readings that are possibilities as reading order in which none of the sections or stanzas of handwritten text are foremost (that is, there is no hierarchy of interpretation in reading). Also, the drawings in color are a space that can’t be translated, the poems printed later are suppressing material from the hand-drawn version of the text which, however, remains in the text as a shadow. When I remarked to him that the sense of this translation is that there is no original (not even the hand-drawn journals), therefore no privileging of one view or strata over another, Whalen agreed.

The influence of Pound’s Cantos is present in some of the time experiments in which Whalen superimposes historical events separated in time (thus effectively being at the same time) inserting drawings that are a different space within the poem (as Pound inserted Chinese characters, for example). The comparison to Pound, however, demonstrates a notable difference: Pound’s model was authoritarian, a few who have knowledge are the top of a pyramid, disseminating knowledge downward by teaching. Pound urges the reader of the Cantos to know excellent models in order to learn: The sight-at-once of ideograms is predicated on deciphering sources from lines of traditions. Learning a language, that is a composite of centuries of tradition, is also the goal in reading the ideograms. Equally learned, Whalen, however, was writing a poetic structure that is non-hierarchical, in that, activity is occurring everywhere (throughout a poem) in each line and in the relation between two lines: in the activity in reading, in Whalen’s text the outside and the inside occurring at once. Whalen’s structure is as if ‘the opposite’ of Pound’s, reversing its implications, while incorporating an imprint of it.

Thus Whalen’s structure is non-hierarchical in the action of dropping narrating organizing principles, all being authoritarian. Activity of his text (reading) is everywhere not operated upon by only one—in the sense that the reader participating as in conversation, and like being inside one’s own mind movement, is in the activity of reading in the same way as the author writing. By undergoing the same mind movements as the author (rather than ‘identifying with’ him psychologically or looking upon him as an expert and teacher), the reader is on the same level, is ‘in the place of,’ is an equal as an occurrence in the text.

Whalen’s mode, in which reading is seeing constructing of history occurring from oneself/the reader by (and) also occurring outside of oneself, implies that the dropping of that construct would create a different history. Compression in Whalen’s poetry, for example, is the activity of compassion—which is ‘just seeing’ throughout clearly, the effect of which alters occurrence. (On Bears Head , 14-16, 24-27, 219-221) Not sentiment or ‘expression,’ compassion in a Buddhist sense is not about feeling, is not a summary or expression of how one feels at some time about something, it’s (as in Whalen’s writing) a transpiration ‘taking place’ as the action of the text itself.

While my description of Whalen’s influences and inventions is an attempt to suggest aspects of reading the poems, Whalen many times stressed that he didn’t write to teach or reform, he wrote for pleasure and curiosity. He had the view that if there was no pleasure for reader and poet, there was no reason to do it. His poems in their playfulness are sometimes jolly, gentle pinpricks as mock-ups of history in free-wheeling menageries. The Collected is a vast terrain that’s a clear, compassionate mind-revelation in which the reader can bask.

©2008 Leslie Scalapino. PEPC Edition 2008. Used by permission of the author.