Essay

“How Do You Like Your World?”

The Zen of Philip Whalen.

by Travis Nichols
In his book Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968), Thomas Merton compares the true Zen artist’s mind to a mirror, a reflective surface that does not strive for meaning or poetic beauty. He quotes Zenkei Shibayama:
The mirror is thoroughly egoless and mindless. If a flower comes it reflects a flower, if a bird comes it reflects a bird. It shows a beautiful object as beautiful, an ugly object as ugly. Everything is revealed as it is. There is no discriminating mind or self-consciousness on the part of the mirror. . . . Such non-attachment, the state of no-mind, or the truly free working of a mirror is compared here to the pure and lucid wisdom of Buddha.

Whalen
Merton suggests that such faithful recording requires intense concentration and heightened consciousness rather than just a free artistic spirit. And while both Japanese Zen poetry and American poetry in the Objectivist tradition purport to show the world in this manner—without superfluous adjectival or analytical baggage—the poetry of American Zen poet Philip Whalen takes the artist-as-mirror idea to beautiful extremes.

Whalen’s poetry reflects not just objects as they are, but his own mind as it is too. And what a mind! A drug-fueled Beat-scholar’s mind, an epicurean mind, a mind comically but earnestly wrestling with nonattachment, a mind passing through the phenomenal world. In “Haiku, for Gary Snyder,” Whalen describes what he sees, but the object is soon obliterated:
IS
Here’s a dragonfly
( T O T A L L Y )
Where it was,

that place no longer exists.

Rather than trying to pin down the dragonfly, Whalen describes how his perception shifts as the dragonfly shifts, flux reflecting flux.

This is not an idealizing mind at work, but a mirror-like mind recording as precisely as possible all the objects that pass in front of it plus all of their accompanying thoughts and vibrations from the phenomenal world plus the mystical insights slipping through from the cosmic world. At first glance, the work seems capricious, but further attention reveals how remarkable and singular in American poetry Whalen’s oeuvre is.

Whalen’s poetic mind is often analogous to a mind in the beginning stages of zazen, the term for Zen-Buddhist meditation. Buddhist beginners are encouraged, as they settle into meditation, to let the pieces of the world appear in the mind and disappear without attachment. Instead of letting the chatter of the world float away, as those entering into zazen are encouraged to do, Whalen catalogs it. From his poem “For Albert Saijo”:
Fireweed now—
Burnt mountain day
Sunny crackle silence bracken
Huckleberry silver logs bears
bees and people busy.

Or from “International Date Line, Monday/Monday 27:XI:67”:
Here it comes again, imagination of myself
Someplace in Oregon woods I sit on short
Wide unpainted wooden cabin steps
Bare feet wiggle toes in dirt and moss and duff
The sun shines on me, I‘m thinking about all of us
How we have and haven’t survived but curiously famous
Alive or dead. . . .

These zazen moments, gleaned from the outside as well as the inside world, “shift,” as Whalen describes them in an early poem, “from opacity to brilliance.” Passages of dense interiority—bursts of intensely private language, rich in sonic play and vivid imagery but nearly nonsensical—level out into moments of profound insight and clarity. And while his poetry may not seem like Merton’s “pure and lucid wisdom of Buddha,” it shows an authentic struggle to get there. An acute and representative example from the end of his long poem “The Slop Barrel”:
The sun has failed entirely
Mountains no longer convince
The technician asks me every morning
“Whattaya know?” and I am
Froze.
Unless I ask I am not alive
Until I find out who is asking
I am only half alive and there is only

WU!
(an ingrown toenail?)

WU!
(A harvest of bats??)

WU!
(A row of pink potted geraniums///???)

smashed flat!!!
The tonga-walla swerved, the cyclist leapt and
The bicycle folded under the wheels before they stopped
The tonga-walla cursing in Bengali while the outraged
Cyclist sullenly repeats:

You knows you got to pay for the motherfucker
You knows you got to pay for the motherfucker

The bells have stopped
Flash in the wind
Dog in the pond.

Many poets would instinctively cut the opacity and the interiority out of this poem in favor of straight imagery and profundity. They would skim the “pure and lucid wisdom of the Buddha” off the top and leave the rest to rot. And for good reason. It’s terrifying to see someone purposefully leave all of it in—no one would accept such a submission!—but by doing so, and by addressing the struggle between private thought and public expression as the major theme of his work, Whalen’s poetry shines.

Readers get to see him wrestling with the mundane as well as the profound, and in this way he shows himself to be a trickster and a fool, but also a Bodhisattva, helping his readers on their path to enlightenment through lyric poetry with a peculiar but authentic Zen aesthetic. This work has lofty aims despite its often pedestrian content. “I want to be a world,” Whalen says in his “Short Funeral Ode,” “not just another American tinky poetty boo.”

In his professional life, Philip Whalen was not a tinky poetty boo; he was a Zen priest. He was ordained so in a 1987 transmission ceremony performed by Roshi Richard Baker, who himself was ordained in 1971 by Roshi Shunryu Suzuki, one of the most important figures in American Buddhism. Whalen’s transmission was part of the soto Zen tradition that began 800 years ago with the poet and monk Dogen Zenji, and which has followed “warm hand to warm hand,” from elder to elder to the present day.

Here’s another example, from one of Whalen’s most famous poems, “A Vision of the Bodhisattvas,” that shows progress toward, rather than attainment of, enlightenment:
They pass before me one by one riding on animals
“What are you waiting for,” they want to know

Z—, young as he is (& mad into the bargain) tells me
“Some day you’ll drop everything & become a rishi, you know.”

I know
The forest is there, I’ve lived in it
more certainly than this town? Irrelevant—

What am I waiting for?

This Bodhisattva search for enlightenment within both the phenomenal world and one’s own mind has a long tradition in soto Zen poetry. It has traditionally been expressed in Japanese poetics through the aesthetic of wabi. Scholars see Japanese haiku master Basho, through his life and poetry, as the best historical example of a man of wabi, because of his single-minded devotion to its underlying aesthetics and ethics.

Sometimes translated as “poverty” and other times as “poetic truthfulness,” wabi (and its offshoot, shiqori) is described by Toshiko Izutsu and Toyo Izutsu as the “verbal crystallization of what naturally effuses from the mind as man looks upon things of Nature and human affairs with the emotion of commiseration.”

Or, in Whalen’s terms, “(an ingrown toenail?) WU!

Whalen’s work, which he has described as a “nerve movie” and as a “picture or graph of a mind moving,” may seem at first glance far from the condensed imagery of Basho:
Lonesome and deserted,
a solitary asunaro tree
in the neighborhood of blooming cherries?

And yet, Whalen shows a clear and resonant affinity with Basho through his devotion to wabi aesthetics.

Understanding this aesthetic helps Whalen’s content make more sense, but his form is another problem altogether. His radical formal experiments and alienating jump cuts made his publishers nervous enough to ask for two “explanations” of his work, the most revealing of which is the poem “Since You Ask Me.” A slightly experimental and random-seeming affair, “Since You Ask Me” states that his poetry is “not ideogram, not poetic beauty.” These seemingly small negations lend insight into the work, showing Whalen’s progressive move away from the American modernist tradition of Williams and Ezra Pound, as well as complicating any easy analysis of his form.

An ideogram, in the Poundian sense, creates meaning by associative montage. That is, it places images side by side without offering any explanation as to their relation, leaving that work to the reader (see The Cantos for an extended example, or “In a Station of the Metro” for a brief example). Each image functions, according to literary critic Lucien Miller, as a Poundian “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” By placing these images side by side, meaning accumulates.

With this logic we could then be tempted to view Whalen’s lines as snapped-off similes and freely associative sputterings, what poet and critic Albert Mobilio has called “fragment-o action,” but Whalen’s work resists this interpretation, in no small part because he acknowledges the desire to read his poetry this way and then willfully counters it. Not ideogram. But if not ideogram, if not objective correlative fragment-o action, then what?

Discarding ideograms as such makes it much more difficult to resolve the prevailing disjunctions throughout Whalen’s work. This could mean that they are all just directionless, nonsensical ramblings. Or perhaps (as poet Leslie Scalapino states in her introduction to Overtime, a collection of Whalen’s selected poems) that those disjunctions are meant not to be resolved, but to function as paradoxes to our linear bent minds, like extended koans.

Thus instead of mimicking the “natural” progression of time, Whalen’s poetry pushes past the accepted perception of linear time and attempts to show a simultaneous time more akin, we can imagine, to time in the Buddhist cosmos, where several worlds interact codependently around and within the one we perceive every day. This jibes with what Whalen has said is the underlying principle of his character, a visionary experience of oneness with a various and plural system of universes.

As he says in his poem “Historical Disquisitions”:
Hello, hello, what I wanted to tell you was
The world’s invisible
You see only yourself, that’s not the world
although you are of it

A further look into the Buddhist cosmos, as well as a study of the central idea of “no self,” can also relieve some anxiety about Whalen’s seemingly spastic nonlinearity. Because a close observation of his mind in action is as important to Whalen as is a close observation of the phenomenal world in action, he is aware that, as Buddhist scholar Rupert Gethin states, “the basic structure of [the] hierarchy of consciousness parallels quite explicitly the basic structure of the cosmos.”

Thus we get countless mental digressions throughout Whalen’s work, with the inside world moving fluidly into the outside one, without a clear separation between the two. The poem functions as a meeting place between these two, much as the breath does in Suzuki Roshi’s zazen practice.

In addition to the cosmological details, in Philip Whalen’s poetry we get a plurality of selves in quick stories, quotations, and imaginary speeches much more akin to the Buddhist idea of selves in flux. None of Whalen’s selves are wholly different from one another, but they are unrooted and ever changing so as to expand Whalen’s speakers into large, contradictory worlds. Whalen, though not always self-less, has a way of expressing his self as constantly in flux, jumping through temporal schemata, flying from ordinary experience to fantastic thought.

“Another damned lie,” he says in “Self-Portrait Sad, 22:ix:58.” “My name is I / Which is a habit of dreaming & carelessness / no nearer the real truth of any matter / In any direction myself bound & divided by notions.”

In addition to mimicking the no-self Buddhist cosmos and delighting in wabi, this poetry highlights the experience of reading. Instead of employing an oracular speaker who bestows the lesson onto the reader, Whalen’s poetry simultaneously lifts the reader up and pulls his speaker down, so that both participants in the poem seem to be on the same phenomenal plane as they move through the text.

In other words, Whalen’s poetry does not explain itself or offer explanation after the experience of reading its disjunctions. Instead, it holds up its observation and waits for the careful reader to smile in acknowledgment, thus securing a mind-to-mind transmission in the radically lyric tradition of the Buddha.

Photo copyright John Suiter. All rights reserved.
Originally Published: March 25, 2008

COMMENTS (19)

On March 25, 2008 at 6:42pm Gil Dekel wrote:

The state of no-mind.

While it is very easy to condemn or judge, it is harder to show the neutrality of things. Everything is a point of view, yet to judge a thing and say what is 'not', is easier than to say what it 'is'.

While many artists prefer to find the fault in the self or others, thus to show 'what is not', only few have the mind set to indicate on the positive for the purpose of enlightening all humanity. Blake is one example.

In a PhD research I am looking at how such artists are inspired, and how they observe reality through 'positive' eyes.

Gil Dekel

www.poeticmind.co.uk

On March 26, 2008 at 9:43am The Serpent wrote:
Travis

great essay. It's very clear and condensed. I'm going to teach Whalen to undergraduates this summer, and to grad students next fall, and i'm going to have them start with this essay. Thanks.

On March 30, 2008 at 3:58am Lucy Nowak wrote:
great poetry

On May 1, 2008 at 1:05pm Curtis Faville wrote:
The ironic thing about Whalen is that his

reputation was based largely on his

having been "associated" with the so-

called "Beats" early in his career,

whereas he had a fully formed, original,

and powerful visionary voice of his

own.

In other words, it isn't important to

build a biographical justification for his

work around a concept of "coterie" or

regional or cultural foundation. That

just isn't necessary. This is true no

matter how much importance we place

on Snyder, Kerouac, McClure, Rexroth,

Ginsberg et al.

Also, Whalen's novels need to be

included in the review. "in Philip

Whalen’s poetry we get a plurality of

selves" --this is particularly true of the

novels: Whalen is, in one sense, all of

the male characters at the same time,

a proliferation with interesting

antedecents, i.e., Jung's theory of

collective being.

On May 1, 2008 at 1:11pm CUrtis Faville wrote:
The other thing which goes unmentioned

here, is the casual and sly humor that is

always present in his work. His colloquial,

accessible equanimity saves the quasi-

religious "Zen content" from

portentousness and pretense, and makes

the poems livelier and quicker. The

humor becomes a shorthand for modesty

and humility. That pot on the stove is

steaming furiously, but it will just have to

wait! The poem isn't finished!

On July 9, 2008 at 5:31am David Schneider wrote:
A wonderful, insightful essay - thank

you. I think Mr Nichols is right at the

crux of Whalen's work.

The novels- You Didn't Even Try and

Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head

take on different literary problems it

seems- including the creation of

character, and the manipulation of

social time. The Diamond Noodle on the

other hand feels very aligned with the

poetry.

Whalen was ordained as a zen "priest"

or "monk" in 1973. What happened in

1987 was that he was certified as a zen

teacher and lineage holder in his own

right.

On March 15, 2012 at 10:18pm Stephanie Jacobson wrote:
I am feeling very indifferent towards Whalen's form. On one hand I feel like it is very unique to include his inner thoughts within the poem. On the other hand, I feel as though it reads as just a conversation. My struggle with enjoying that comes from the fact that when I write poetry, I love to paint a picture with words. The same is true for the poetry I read. It has an intentional flow. Sometimes it seems like Whalen's "inner thoughts" disrupt the poem. Obviously, this is just personal preference. I do enjoy his originality and honesty.

On March 19, 2012 at 10:49pm Shana Samuels wrote:
After my first introduction to the Whalen form of poetry, I can conclude
that it is a form that one definitely has to read deeply into. I love that it
is unique and has a deeply personal feel from the writer but I can see
how one could get lost or never fully appreciate the poem after one
read. I also feel that a reader might gain a better understanding if more
educated on the aspects if Buddhism and the wasi influences mentioned
in the poem. Personally I can appreciate something so different from my
world of contemporary poetry but I know it would take some time to
truthfully understand and attempt at this form myself.

On October 17, 2012 at 2:53pm Joanna Iwan wrote:
The combination of beautifully written poetry and the thoughts that are filling Whalens mind are what make his works so intriguing. It is this “search for enlightenment” within the poems that makes these poems an experience. They seem to be a search for deeper meaning, and are not clouded by aesthetics. I feel like that is where the beauty lies. In such a personal work, Whalen manages to use his own personal thoughts to lead the reader on; to almost guide the reader through the poem, and through the purpose of each work. Of course this does make his works rather difficult to follow.

On March 19, 2013 at 2:14pm Aleksandra "OLA" wrote:
I think that watching on a world in form of a mirror makes sense to me. I wonder what happened to people that they stopped to enjoy simple things. People forgot that they don't need to search for a hidden meaning, analyze and interpret symbols and rip masks out of something. When I get outside and scan my surroundings I find interesting things. In this urban jungle I can enjoy first blooming flower, wicked shape of the cloud and beam of the sunlight. Although the poem just bored me I agree with the author that we should just let go of some things, let them be as they truly are. It is a form of a detachment from the reality, which brings peace to your mind. It could also act as a way to achieve the spiritual neutrality, which refreshes our mind, stimulates our thinking, and very frequently gives us a clue how to solve our problems.

On March 20, 2013 at 9:53pm MBrooms wrote:
I firmly believe that no matter how old we grow to be there is
always room for enlightenment. I enjoyed reading this essay initially
because I was looking for a closer insight on Buddhism and their
underlying doctrine.
It would take a well trained and open mind to see things without the
comfort of rose colored glasses. Reflectons can be horrific... Almost
unbelievable.. but always truthful. Explanations (coupled with
opinions) sometimes cloud our sight and sway OUR own opinions so
to see things unbiased and raw would shake one's world.
I can see why Whalen had such a flux, without those rose colored
glasses, I would as well be constantly battling preexisting beliefs and
prejudices.. Only to find my own reflections in the end.

On March 20, 2013 at 11:10pm Giovana Rodriguez wrote:
Whalen’s poetry is interesting because he includes not the not-so profound details of life, such as what they see passing through the streets. It may be difficult for many to understand because he does include seemingly irrelevant thoughts and imagery. But he is able to include life as how it comes about, seemingly irrelevant and continuous. I disagree though that it is terrifying for the reader to see someone purposefully leave it all in. It is just uncommon for there to be a line that does not have multiple meanings hidden beneath, confusing the reader that is accustomed to highly complex poetry. I think that it is refreshing in a way to just enjoy the imagery presented by the poet instead of analyzing deeply into the words. In a way that is how you become closer to Zen, by observing without judgement.

On March 20, 2013 at 11:46pm Shawn wrote:
Whalen is very interesting to me painted as a poet who is free spirit yet has a concentrated level or at least has stated one must be conscious yet free minded. In his poetry it is very free minded yet at the same time very dull. I feel commentary given by other people on his work and his mind frame is more interesting than that work itself understand the point that Whalen draws from Buddhism, yet I feel I really have to seek more information into the religion itself. Although I do comprehend the information given in respects to Buddhist, I feel I must gain more knowledge for myself in order to possibly more interest into Whalen's work.

On March 23, 2013 at 3:40pm Mark Bozovich wrote:
I really don't know what to say about Philip Whalen's
work. The examples of Whalen's poetry presented in the
article did not make me as excited as it did Travis
Nichols. I understand the importance of form but I feel
his subject manner was a bit strange. I feel that the
zen priest could have focused his work on issues that
requires some zen influence like the title of the
article “How Do You Like Your World?”. I enjoyed the
article's reference to a mirror's perspective and it
conveys no judgment. The world needs more people that
don't judge but see things as they are.

On October 30, 2013 at 1:09pm Carolyn Love wrote:
THIS ARTLCE WAS VERY INTRESTING TO ME BECAUSE I FOUND THE MIRROR CONCEPT THAT WAS INTRODUCED, TO BE FAMILIAR TO ANOTHER CONCEPT THAT IV'E STUDIED AND REALLY THOUGHT TO BE HELPFUL IN UNDERSTANDING SOCIETY. IM A SOCIOLOGY MAJOR AND ONE OF THE FIRST CONCEPTS I LEARNED WAS THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE ABLE TO STEP OUTSIDE OF YOURSELF AND LOOK AT YOUR DILIMMAS ON A GOBAL SCALE. LEARNING THIS CONCEPT IS A REAL ADVANTAGE BECASUE IT MAKES YOU OPEN YOUR EYES WIDER AND FORM A PERSPECTIVE THAT YOU GENERALLY WOULD NOT WITHOUT SEEING THE BIGGER PICTURE. I THINK THAT'S WHAT THE MIRROR C ONCEPT PROVIDES AS WELL, THE ABILITY TO DETACH YOURSELF REALLY GIVE YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO ANALIYZE THE WORLD AND ITS PRODUCTS TO FORM A MORE RATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

On October 30, 2013 at 3:04pm Dan Moreno wrote:
Whalen’s work is exceedingly difficult for me to read and understand. I
have recently began studying the art of poetry and feel like there is so
much more out there to learn after reading this essay. The brief
deconstruction of Whalen’s writing style provided in the essay helped
steer me towards terms and techniques I should look into to further
understand his work. Having some sort of knowledge on Buddhism
helps as well. I do look forward in bettering my poetic skills to the
point where I can at least understand what is going on in Whalen's
poetry. He seems to make a great deal of tangents when reading
through his poetry but then again, when it comes to reaching
enlightenment there comes a great deal of distractions.

On October 31, 2013 at 4:01pm Karistian ChaVaughn Broussard wrote:
Before reading this article I was unfamiliar with Whalen and his work. This
article did a great job of ,deconstructing in a way, the man and his way of
writing. The poems listed in this article I were enjoyable for me and I
would love to read more of what he has written. The mirror concept in the
article is very interesting to me. I particular enjoyed lines from the poem
Historical Diquistitions. "The world is invisible you see only yourself, that's
not the world although you are in it." Such an interesting perspective. It
brings to mind for me the concept of getting back what you put in.

On November 1, 2013 at 11:11pm Jacqui Zoellner wrote:
"The world is invisible you see only yourself, that's
not the world although you are in it."

I also like this perspective. The way people view things are often skewed.

On March 18, 2014 at 11:15pm Nekia wrote:
Whalen was true to Zen poetry and incorporated imagery, free verse,
questions, etc. I am particularly fond of the way that Whalen spoke to
the reader when composing his poetry. It was almost like he forces the
reader to have intellectual conversation with himself, in that, the poems
are not defined nor the lines connected, but they offer pieces of a
puzzle that is yet to be solved. Whalen’s poems seem to not only be an
expression of his enlightenment, but seem to also provoke the
enlightenment of the reader. The reader is prompted to seek
understanding from the fragmented thoughts, thus seeking clarity,
which falls in line with the spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism, which
emphasized the mind and its quest for full understanding. I appreciate
the fact that Whalen puts it all out there, his thoughts, his feelings, any
random profanity or gesture that graces his mind. To some readers his
work may seem “all over the place” but I appreciate how Whalen took
Zen poetry a step further by freely exposing his mind and all its
workings without connecting the dots for the reader or providing an
instruction manual. His work was left to be interpreted by the reader,
which is rather engaging and interesting in my opinion.

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Biography

Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The Stranger, and the Huffington Post, and his work has appeared in a range of magazines and journals, such as the Boston Review, Crowd, Lungfull!, and . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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