The Haiku of Philip Whalen

I’ve been reading and enjoying the new biography of Philip Whalen by David Schneider, CROWDED BY BEAUTY. In some strange synergy, a friend on Facebook posted a poem I wrote about Phil when I was in my late twenties.

South Ridge Zendo

Walking to Philip’s downhill in the rain
A bird embryo on the sidewalk
Zazen organizes events around itself
Like opening or closing a green umbrella.

Tears begin when I sit with incense
Like the smell of you late last night
Hair full of smoke and earth
As you pull my pants off in bed.

Bowing together now
An unopened rosebud on the altar.
Outside in raindrops we can’t stop laughing:
Did you see Philip pull that thread out of his robe?

Mindless, happy going home I am singing
All Buddhas, ten directions, three times
I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues and
Buddy Can You Spare a Dime.

Climbing uphill, an almost full moon
Hits me like a moan in the belly
And I turn to look and see
White bell flowers heavy on the stem.

Have also been thinking how my relationship to haiku derives much more from the Beats than from the early Haiku Society days. It doesn’t draw as much from the Japanese tradition, is more Americanized. And while many contemporary haiku writers focus just on that form, my work is basically free verse with loose formal elements. So re-printing below n article on Phil and haiku, which first appeared in MODERN HAIKU.

The Haiku of Philip Whalen

Miriam Sagan

Philip Whalen, one of the original Beat poets, was published by numerous small presses and also in some major collections during his life. The work was scattered, however, until editor Michael Rothenberg brought it all together in the 932-page volume The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press, 2007). Embedded throughout the collection, which is arranged chronologically (Whalen was a strict dater of his work), are numerous tiny poems in the haiku tradition. For example,

Awake a moment
Mind dreams again
Red roses black-edged petals

Whalen was one of the poets at the 1955 Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, a seminal event in American poetry, where Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time. Whalen went on to a lifelong social—if not aesthetic—association with the Beats, but his place in poetry is more closely allied with writers of the San Francisco Renaissance and with mentors such as Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams. “A fat bespectacled quiet booboo,” was how Jack Kerouac described Whalen, whom he immortalized as the character Warren Coughlin in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums as well as in later novels as Ben Fagan, “a hundred and eighty pounds of poet meat.” That was Philip Whalen when Kerouac met him, fresh out of a stint in the army where he served but did see action in World War II. He had recently graduated from Reed College in Portland, Ore., where his roommates were Gary Snyder and Lew Welch, both to become major poets. Born in Portland and raised in The Dalles, Ore., Whalen lived for a few years in Japan but spent most of his life in San Francisco. The landscape of the Pacific rim was one of his influences, along with philosophy and the Zen Buddhism he eventually settled on as a practice. Whalen was the only Beat writer to be ordained as a Buddhist priest, and in his later years he ran a temple in the Castro District.

As a poet Whalen was not a self-conscious practitioner of haiku. Indeed, Kerouac was more devoted to his understanding of the form, and consciously practiced it. Allen Ginsberg is credited with developing his “American sentence,” a sort of one-line haiku in English. For Whalen some of the impulse to short poetry was similarly epigrammatic, or aphoristic, in the tradition of Western wisdom literature. His work is also often humorous or quirky in the senryu tradition. Whalen did note, however, perhaps with some surprise, that his most anthologized poem, written in 1964, was one he thought of as a haiku:

Early Spring

The dog writes on the window
with his nose

This poem is indeed emblematic of Whalen’s work in the form. To begin with, he titled his haiku. Yet in many cases his titles might serve as conventional first lines in a haiku. If the title “Early Spring” is considered as the first line of the poem, we have a very fine haiku—the dog impatient to get out into warm weather, the window maybe a little steamy, the humor of a poet seeing “writing” in an unusual spot.

In anther example the “title” of the haiku is also its date:


Sadly unroll sleepingbag:
The missing lid for teapot!

Here again, in senryu fashion, there is a moment of humorous surprise—tidying up the sleeping bag resulted in losing the teapot lid. Now that it is found, the world is complete again, with necessities taken care of—a place to sleep and tea to drink. The tension between sleeping and waking is also seen in

Awake a moment
Mind dreams again
Red roses black-edged petals

After all, tea keeps a person awake and that wakefulness has meaning in a Zen context. In “Awake a moment” worlds blur between dream and consensus reality. The reader can’t tell any more than the poet can where these red black-edged petals are located.

A sense of the malleability of the self is also found in

Where Was I ?

New desk, old chair
I look at them, hopelessly
Where’s the man who writes

Without the title, this poem approaches the classic haiku form. It is almost a Zen koan, asking which is the real self, the one writing or the one who seems to be blocked? Others of Whalen’s haiku-esque poems were written as gifts, in the Asian tradition. A 1960 “Haiku for Gary Snyder” has the same use of presence and absence, or negative space and inhabited space, as “Where Was I??”:

Here’s a dragonfly
Where it was,
that place no longer exists.

In contrast, “Haiku for Mike” is more of a senryu, although it also poses a question— humorously —about existence:

Bouquet of HUGE
nasturtium leaves
“HOW can I support myself?”

One of Whalen’s later poems gives a self-conscious nod to the senryu tradition. Section 4 of “Epigrams & Imitations” reads:

False Senryu

A cough
waits for the bus.

It’s false of course because senryu wouldn’t usually use this kind of trope che, where a part of the body stands for the whole person—but it has its own humorous charm.

Perhaps most in the haiku spirit, with a bit of humor in the word “pestering,” is

Ginkakuji Michi

Morning haunted by black dragonfly
landlady pestering the garden moss

Here the image is a complex one. The dragonfly, that image of speed, rotates through the garden. By contrast, the gardener is focused on the immobile moss. To the poet’s mind, however, these activities are haunting, pestering. It is as if there is a longing for stillness in the center of the work.

Whalen’s poems are certainly unconventional in terms of American haiku, and purists might not consider them haiku at all. Throughout his poetic career, Whalen took an experimental approach to form, and haiku is no exception. He did not experiment simply for the sake of novelty, however. He was trying to track his mind, its twists and turns, in meditative fashion.

Ordained as a Zen monk in the Sôtô lineage, Whalen spent his last years as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. He wrote little or nothing at this point, partially stymied by ill health but also absorbed in practicing Buddhism. His haiku, then, are an extension of his poetic practice of observation and mindfulness. Whalen’s short poems—indeed all his poetry—are about the instantaneous and the ephemeral. In this, he participates in his own way in the classic tradition of haiku.

• • •

2008 Modern Haiku •

Thinking About: Philip Whalen

This weekend I had an unusual–and poignant–experience: the chance to talk at length about poet Phil Whalen with two people who knew him very well. David Schneider is the author of STREET SAINT–the astute biography of Isaan Dorsey, who ran a Zen Center/AIDS hospice on Castro Street. Now Schneider is focused on Whalen, who although of superstar status in the group I knew around him is one of the lesser known Beats.
Actually Whalen didn’t really consider himself a Beat, despite knowing Kerouac and being close to Ginsberg. Really he was part of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance–and his influences were intimate ones–he roomed with Gary Snyder and Lou Welsch at Reed.
David Schneider was visiting from Germany, and researching Phil’s handful of years in Santa Fe–essentially “lost” years or years of exile from San Francisco. He came here with his Zen teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, both in show of loyalty and to finish his training. Miriam Bobkoff, who knew Phil both at San Francisco Zen Center and here in Santa Fe, joined in the discussion, coming from the Pacific Northwest.
Phil was endlessly witty, amusing, opinionated, crabby, erudite…and endlessly in need of cosseting, feeding, driving, and amusement. Robert Winson and I were just caretakers in the midst of a long line of many. I was shocked, though, to realize that when I met him in 1984 in Santa Fe Phil was only 60, just four years older than I am now.
It can be difficult to say how well we really know another human being. And I wouldn’t say I knew Phil–I admired him, served him, and feared him a little. Our relationship was always a triangle, with Robert as the apex.
Miriam B, David, and I sat for several hours in my living room, drinking tea and then wine and beer. It was freezing out, the snow unmelted, adding to the enclosed feeling of the scene. David did a hilarious imitation of Phil doing an imitation of a Russian sailor talking about potatoes. Everyone who knew Phil has dozens of stories about him–but who was he?
Apparently he once said at Naropa that he regretted giving up poetry (presumably for the practice of Zen). I always wondered about this–because Santa Fe seemed o be the place he stopped writing anything but off the cuff ephemera, charming but insubstantial. Did he give up poetry–or as is the way of the fickle Muse towards the middle-aged–did poetry quit him? What about the relationship of Zen to writing–a relationship which talks out of both sides of its mouth? On the one hand, Zen roshis may insist their students give up art. On the other hand, artists from John Cage to Allen Ginsberg claim the formidable influence of Buddhism.
I’m glad I have no professional relationship to Buddhism. To my shock I’ve been anthologized as a Buddhist poet–but frankly the poets of the 20th and 21st century claim everything from lesbian feminism to ecology as the basis of their work. We live in a culture–something even writers seem not to notice–a culture we breath like invisible oxygen but a set of norms nonetheless. So the poet’s viewpoint we attribute to Zen might as easily come from the new physics or even the pursuit of art itself.
I have no answer about the compatibility of Zen practice and writing–because the question doesn’t present any dilemma for me. But I suspect it did for Phil Whalen. However, despite that, and despite his complex personality, it is rare to hear someone’s memory spoken of with as much affection as his is.

For a sample chapter from the forthcoming biography, go to