Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Philip Whalen

The Poetry Foundation describes Whalen as an “an ally and confidant of the major figures of the Beat Generation” such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac – but also as a significant poet in his own right. He was among the poets who famously read their work at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955 and was a strong influence in the San Francisco Renaissance as a whole.

The essayist Paul Christensen writes about Whalen in the Dictionary of Literary Biography:
"Whalen's singular style and personality contribute to his character in verse as a bawdy, honest, moody, complicated songster of the frenzied mid-century, an original troubadour and thinker who refused to take himself too seriously during the great revival of visionary lyric in American poetry." 

A view which is also confirmed by Paul Hoover, who notes in the anthology’s introduction to Whalen’s work: he “embraces the world with a Whitmanesque openness and gentleness. Yet the wit of Whalen’s writing reminds […] of eighteenth-century satirists Alexander Pope and John Dryden.”

Like many other artists of this period, Whalen’s life philosophy and work was strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism and he became an ordained Zen monk in 1973. He lived in various Zen centres across New Mexico and California until his retirement in 1996. Whalen died in 2002 at the age of 78.

Links: (review of his Selected Poems volume)

My own response to Whalen’s work has its root in his poem “The Slop Barrel” which is included in the anthology. Whalen’s use of the image of a tiger made my consider and dive deeper into my own thoughts and feelings about tigers. The below piece is stylistically and thematically highly indebted to the amazing Juliana Spahr.

~ - ~

As Tigers Go

We always thought it would have been cool if we had been born in the year of the tiger. We always thought it would have been much more glamorous. It was just an idea. We never told anybody. We didn’t believe in that kind of thing anyway. It was just that we were a cat person. We liked to think of us that way. 1972: 37,350

We stared at the back of Kellogg’s carton every morning before school. We asked our mum if she could buy the sweet ones. The great ones. The ones with the smiling tiger cartoon. It seemed so much more fun. 1979: 31,600

We went to the zoo with school where they were pacing behind glass. We had cheese sandwiches in the wildcat house. Some of kids started knocking against the windows. We just watched. They were big. They were real. 1984: 26,900

We saw them on TV but someone always wanted the other channel. We just shrugged and watched MacGyver. We still wondered about them occasionally. 1989: 23,450

In school they taught us about the rain forest. We thought about the jungle. We remembered watching the Jungle Book when we were small and knowing all the words to all the songs and never liking the tiger. We thought about giant trees and orchids and lianas. We thought about their yellow fur among the undergrowth. 1993: 12,000

We laughed about the waiter stumbling over the head of the tiger rug in a New Year’s slapstick comedy sketch on TV every year. It was an old black and white broadcast and we never even thought about the skin as an animal. We laughed and listened to the church bells at midnight. We watched the fireworks sparkle over the rooftops although we had learned how damaging and expensive they were. 1997: 7,500

We read William Blake’s The Tyger. We learned it by heart because we liked it. We learned to recognise its heavy trochee meter in other poems and read loads more of Blake and Poe and Shakespeare and we liked them all. We walked in the dark and heavy steps of poetry through puberty. We liked the books more than the forest. We stayed indoors. 2001: 5,250

We went to uni straight after school while others went away to travel. We had political ideas and voted left. We considered recycling important but we liked to fly to other European cities for short holidays. 2005: 4,850

We never really thought about the rain forest. We declared we weren’t great with plants anyway. We wanted to get a cat. We wanted to write and make a difference. We thought about poetry a lot and moved to a different country where it rained more and there were stronger ties to India. 2006: 4,300

We saw a few illustrations in the museum and thought they looked not really like tigers. We remembered the small status of tigers which used to stand in the living room of an old school friend, who’s father travelled to China regularly. The remembered always thinking of them as very odd and not at all like the tigers we had seen on the telly. We thought about art and culture and how things were different where the tigers lived from where we lived. We were curious and wanted to know more but we never got around to it. We thought about people with tiger tattoos sometimes. 2010: 3,500

We thought about giving a tiger adoption to our newborn nephew but then decided for a dinosaur shirt instead. We started giving to Greenpeace and liked the WWF on Facebook. We felt guilty about printing out too many emails. But we stuck to the 4-ply loo roll. We sometimes stared at the “mixed source” paper certificate on the packaging wondering what it meant but we never got around to looking it up. Greenpeace sent an appeal in the post. We glanced over the brochure and it somehow ended up between the takeaway menus in the kitchen drawer. A tiger in the drawer with the direct debit form.  2014: 3,050


Bengal tiger, endangered, current population less than 2,500, declining trend. Indochinese tiger, endangered, current population 600-650, declining trend. Sumatran Tiger, critically endangered, current population 441-679, declining trend. Siberian Tiger, endangered, current population 331–393, declining trend. Malayan tiger, critically endangered, current population 250-340, declining trend. South China Tiger, critically endangered, no confirmed presence, possibly extinct. Javan Tiger, (1980s) extinct. Caspian Tiger, (1970s) extinct. Bali Tiger, (1940s) extinct.

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