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“How Do You Like Your World?”

The Zen of Philip Whalen.
"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." Travis Nichols reflects on the work of American Zen poet Philip Whalen.

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.

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:
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
Unless I ask I am not alive
Until I find out who is asking
I am only half alive and there is only

(an ingrown toenail?)

(A harvest of bats??)

(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.


  • 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...


“How Do You Like Your World?”

The Zen of Philip Whalen.


  • 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...

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