Saturday, January 24, 2009

on Philip Whalen 1923 - 2002

I can put my toe in my mouth
from Take I, 4: II: 58

Philip Whalen wrote (although I cannot seem to find again what poem it is from):

If I couldn't write or speak
At least I broke and stole
that branch with love

A part of me has always wanted to steal these lines and claim them as my Statement of Poetics. I copied them down in a book a year ago as something that stood out to me and now that I cannot find the full poem, I am going to continue to discuss them completely out of context. They are officially becoming my "Red Wheelbarrow."

Whalen was a Zen Buddhist originally from The Dalles, Oregon (that is for you Alex). Among many other places, Whalen wound up in San Fransisco where he became a part of the Beat movement. Like many of the Beats, Whalen's poetry was very "truthful." I place quotes around this idea because all poetry tells of a truth in one way or another but in criticizing poetry, people often look for work that they can derive an immediate message from. Whalen's work, more so than someone like Stein, at least appears to provide people with ideas/materials that are more readily accessible. Even so, I do not want to lump Whalen's poetry into the category of Confessional Poetry -- this would distract from his poetic ability to build beautiful lines and I think there is something to be said for how he puts together a line. Take for example a line from his poem "Sourdough Mountain Lookout:" " The high cirque-lake black half-open eye." There is something about his word placement in this line that rolls nicely off the tongue.

The place where Whalen falls short with me is that I simply do not care. It is not for lack of trying; his writes lovely descriptions of landscapes (that I do prefer over almost any Frost poem) and musings of the human existence. There are times when I can indeed see him sprawled out on the concrete soaking in the sun and I am sure I would not mind being there with him. Out of all the Beats, he seems the calmest, maybe the least hopped up on drugs.

But to go back to the lines I began this discussion with; I say that I want to steal them for my Statement of Poetics because they seem to suggest a level of innocent freedom with regards to the writer/work and the writer/audience. "I broke and stole that branch with love" is a manifesto for poets to try and explain that we are not necessarily trying to fuck with you and make as little "sense" as possible but rather we are trying to say "I love you" or "pass the butter" different than every Hallmark card or commercial.

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