Monday, September 19, 2011

An excerpt from "Crowded by Beauty," a new biography of Philip Whalen

Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen

Here is an excerpt from Crowded by Beauty: A Biography of Poet and Zen Teacher Philip Whalen, by David Schneider, forthcoming from University of California Press. A longer extract is published in the current issue of Trticycle magazine.

Whalen, along with Gary Snyder, was integral in the San Francisco group of poets who read at the Six Gallery in 1955. They were introduced by Kenneth Rexroth, a San Francisco poet of an older generation, who was a kind of literary father-figure for the younger poets and had helped to establish their burgeoning community through personal introductions at his weekly poetry readings. That night, Snyder read "A Berry Feast", and Whalen,"Plus Ca Change."

This excerpt describes Whalen's experience living as Snyder's roommate in 1952. Whalen eventually followed Snyder to become a Forest Service lookout, although as Schneider notes, Whalen "was much given, even then, to the sedentary life."

...Philip might never have found work in the mountains: sitting in that same Telegraph Hill apartment in the hot summer of 1952, Whalen read one of Gary’s regular letters, this one from a Forest Service lookout on Crater Mountain in the North Cascades of Washington State. Provoked by it, and by working (“bad anytime, but especially nasty in summer in the city”), Whalen wrote back to declare, “By God, next summer, I’m going to have a mountain of my own!”

This he did; then got another mountain the following year, and spent a third summer as a forest lookout the year after that, making this by far his steadiest, most satisfying job until many years later, when he became a “professional” man of the cloth—that is, a Zen priest. Whalen would never have read in the historic Six Gallery reading had not Snyder put Philip’s name and poems literally in front of Allen Ginsberg’s face. Philip certainly would have floundered longer with unemployment and flirted more dangerously with outright homelessness had Gary not taken care of him whenever the two were in the same town at the same time.

They roomed together in San Francisco off and on from 1952 to 1954 in a flat on Montgomery Street, above the city’s North Beach district, to which they descended together nearly nightly for beer at Vesuvio and other drinking establishments. Thus Philip and Gary came to know the writers, players, merchants, philosophers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, and scholars circling around the Bay Area in the gestation phase of the San Francisco Renaissance.

During this same period, Snyder and Whalen began going together to the American Academy of Asian Studies (now the California Institute of Integral Studies), where they heard and met Alan Watts, and later also D. T. Suzuki. From among the audiences there, they got to know Claude (Ananda) Dahlenberg, who cofounded the East-West House and later became an ordained Zen priest under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. And from connections there, they began attending the regular Friday evening literary gatherings held at his home by the poet Kenneth Rexroth.

Snyder, Whalen and Lew Welch

Other Friday evenings found Whalen and Snyder in Berkeley for the study group with Rev. Kanmo Imamura and Jane Imamura at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple. Together the Imamuras were descended from the most important old families of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, yet they welcomed the young men, going so far in the subsequent years as to turn their little church publication—theBerkeley Bussei—over to the artist Will Petersen for a time. Snyder, Whalen, Ginsberg, and Kerouac all published early poems in its pages. The benevolent Imamura family gave both Snyder and Whalen their first contact with people actually practicing Buddhism instead of purely discussing its philosophies and traditions.

Whalen might have made his way out to the Academy or over to the study group without Snyder’s impetus, but Philip was much given, even then, to the sedentary life. As long as he could, he spent hours each day reading, writing, drawing, playing music, doodling, staring into space—wondering from time to time where and how he could find a job that wouldn’t drive him crazy. He ventured out when he needed to—for cigarettes or food or for fresh air—but he had nothing like the get-up-and-go Gary had. It is, in fact, difficult to think of anyone with the drive and sense of adventure the young Snyder had.

These qualities propelled him up mountains, up trees, down the hole of tankers, out into deserts, back into libraries, into universities, into monasteries, across the country, out of the country, across oceans; they armored him against the many outer and inner obstacles an un-moneyed young man might encounter in such travels; they sustained him as he went where he needed to go, saw what he wanted to see, studied what, and with whom, he needed to study, worked as he had to, and cut loose when he could. ...

Photos: (top) Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen sit outside a temple above the village of Shimoyama in Japan(Brancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley). (bottom) Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch before a poerty reading at Longshoreman's Hall (Photograph by Jim Hatch).

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