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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
75 summer 2 00 8 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly and inclusive. But they remained magis- terial in tone and spirit. It fell to Philip, influenced by his Zen practice, to let that pretence go, writing instead a poetry that was offhanded, present-moment oriented, and that could include any- thing that came along, not because the poet wanted it to, but because it hap- pened to be there. Philip was the first to recognize that poems are not actually “about” anything and that no one is in charge of them. So the poem’s scope could be immense, its form spontane- ously arisen in the course of writing. I remember first seeing evidence of this in Phil’s work in the late 1960s, when I was thunderstruck and suddenly liber- ated from my literary struggles by the elegance of these lines about not being able to write a poem: Worry walk, no thought appears One foot follows rug to wood, Alternate sun and foggy sky Bulldozer concrete grinder breeze The windows open again Begin a line may start: spring open, like seams of a boat high on the hot sand — from “The Best of It,” by Philip Whalen, 1964 Philip was, famously, a learned man. After the Second World War (in which he served as a radio operator), he returned home to the GI Bill and went to Reed College, where he took up reading and writing in earnest, deciding that he would devote his life to these pursuits, salary or no. He spent the rest of his life living out this promise to himself, relying on the kindness of strangers, until, after stints as a high- country lookout in the Cascades and an English teacher in Japan, he returned to America to become one of the earliest ordained Western Zen monks. Despite his erudition, which appears throughout his poems in the form of doodles, puns, speculations, and idle chatter (“Balzac: “brillant et très fécond... malgré certaines / imperfec- tions de style et la minutie de quelques de-/scriptions....”) / St. Honoré preserve us against black coffee / These Japanese knickknacks & from writing ourselves / To death instead of dope, syphilis, the madhouse, jail / Suicide...), Philip was given to deceptively sophisticated recitations of plain American English. Here is the entire text of his 1963 poem called “Whistler’s Mother,” one of my favorites: Mother and Ed are out in the car Wait til I put on some clothes Ed’s in a hurry. He hasn’t eaten since this morning Wait til I put on some clothes. Mother and Ed are out in the car. Do you have any clothes on yet? Let me come in. Wait til I get some clothes on Ed is impatient. He and mother are waiting. Can I come in? Wait til I put on some clothes. Mother and Ed are out in the car Wait til I get into some clothes Can’t I come in? Aren’t you dressed yet? Wait til I put on some clothes Mother and Ed are out in the car. Can I come in? Wait til I get on some clothes. No one had ever written anything like this before, not even close. What’s Buddhist about it? Well, not to put too fine a point on it (and I wouldn’t argue with someone who called it un-Bud- dhist), this poem reflects what’s right in front of you, with nothing added, no poetical emotion, no projected mean- ing, not even a striking image to set it off. True, it sounds nothing like a Jap- anese or Chinese poem, but then this isn’t the Chinese or Japanese tradition, it’s the American tradition. It builds on, and takes much further, some of Pound and Williams’ use of Ammurrican slang, as well as Stein’s mindless repeti- tion. It’s about the immediacy of words themselves, taken, fearlessly, to the nth degree. And it was this powerful insight (“Guess what, it turns out that writing is words, how they sound, how they look lying there on the page”)—essen- tially Buddhist in character (there’s no self or person, just what arises)—that influenced poets of my generation, who built on it, as Philip had built on his predecessors. (Leslie Scalapino writes persuasively on this in her introduction to The Collected Poems.) A whole other angle on Philip’s immediacy in writing has to do with his calligraphic style, his doodling and drawing, which is integral to the poetry, though seldom reproduced (editor Michael Rothenberg is aware of this, and the present volume gives us a much larger sampling of this material than has been generally available before). At Reed, Philip studied with the great calligraphy master Lloyd Reynolds, and he was aware early on of the tradition of graphic poetry that was always part of the Asian tradition. Over the years, Philip worked out an analogue for it in Western calligraphy, and his journals are full of drawings, drawn words, and doodles, sometimes colored and some- times in black and white. Some have argued that a printed poem by Philip is inevitably a translation of the actual poem, which is, as with Asian poems, an original artwork. Beyond all this brilliant, formal inno- vation, Philip was also the first poet to intimately chronicle the sights and sounds of American Zen. His Tassajara Monastery poems of the late 1970s are down-to-earth, personal documents of what it’s like to live a full-on Buddhist life, and his great long poem, “Scenes of Life in the Capitol,” takes us into the daily life of Kyoto, with its Buddhist shrines and temple bells. So any educated Western Buddhist needs to know this book. A life’s work between two covers, document of a mind in motion, buddhanature as screed, it tells the story of all of us who are trying to find a way to be what and as we are, as Buddhists. Reviews