January 3, 2009

Philip Whalen: Beat Poet, Zen Abbott, my namesake.

I still have a letter from him somewhere, as warm and personal as the man himself…written just a year or so before his death. Story goes my ma had a schoolgirl crush on him (the school being Naropa University, where my mom was a young student, and Philip a not-so-young visiting professor) and so asked the big bald gentle bear of a man if she might name her soon-to-be-born son after him. He demurred, hemmed and hawwed (unliked the soon-to-be-born son, Philip Whalen was a modest sort of fellow, whatever his poetical or meditative accomplishments). So, remembering that her beau, my father, was a big fan of Waylon Jennings, my ma suggested she name me after Philip, but change the spelling of W-h-a-l-e-n to the slightly more common (at least in the South) W-a-y-l-o-n. Philip W-h-a-l-e-n agreed, and both my mom and dad were happy with the name. And for my part, though I had no say in the matter, well it works for me.

So just who was this Philip Whalen? A Beat Poet and Zen Abbot. A calligrapher and scholar. For more, click here. Or here’s more info via a recent review of a review via my friend Rev. Danny Fisher’s most excellent web site:

In the latest issue of The NationJordan Davis reviews The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (edited by Michael Rothenberg). For the uninitiated, Whalen was not only one of the most notable of the Beat poets, but also a Zen monk and the former abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center. He was also the basis for the character “Warren Coughlin” in Jack Kerouac’s essential novel The Dharma Bums.

Davis dubs the collection “a beautiful book,” writing:

    Until [the release of his book On Bear’s Head in 1969] [Whalen’s] work had circulated much more in the usual manner for poetry than that of his famous contemporaries: broadsides, chapbooks and small-press editions. Between the scarcity and the word-of-mouth publicity, incredibly enough, there came to be loud public demand for a work based entirely on the sensation of coming and going. Here is the entirety of “Early Spring”:  

      The dog writes on the window
       with his nose

    …the connection between his writing and Zen practice [is] that he constantly makes a conscious issue of what for most writers would remain unconscious material…for the rest, go to Danny’s Site.

Bonus [“The third of Four American Art Songs from Jonathan Sirlin’s 2008 Senior Thesis project. The text is “The Fourth of October, 1963″ by Philip Whalen. Sung by Julia Bullock, Soprano and Matthew Dell, Tenor.”]. Video:

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