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Philip Whalen, 78; Zen Priest, Mentor Among Beat Poets

June 28, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Philip Whalen, the burly Zen priest and Beat Generation poet who played a major role in the San Francisco renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s that radically changed American poetry, died Wednesday at age 78.

Suffering from heart and brain maladies, his eyesight lost to glaucoma, Whalen spent his final years at a public nursing home in San Francisco, supported financially and emotionally by his many admirers and acolytes in the often inseparable worlds of Buddhism and modern poetry.

"He was a poet's poet," said Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, a friend of Whalen's since their days at Reed College in Portland, Ore., in the 1940s. "People looking for subtlety, nuance and beautiful turns of language looked to Philip. He had a wonderfully dry sense of humor--ironic, cutting, mocking."

Before his health failed, Whalen was abbot at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro district of San Francisco and comforted dying AIDS patients.

Poet-editor Gary Gach said Whalen maintained his wit and self-deprecating style even when he knew death was imminent. When a friend asked him whether he wanted a milkshake, he replied, "No, I'd like what they gave Socrates."

And when friends grew morose at the thought of his passing, he joked about his funeral: "I'd like to be laid on a bed of frozen raspberries."

Whalen's poetry melded Eastern and Western traditions, explored the then-practically unknown concept of environmentalism and playfully mocked the conformity of U.S. life.

Although his poetic reputation never matched those of Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso or the most famous Beat of them all, Allen Ginsberg, Whalen influenced the movement as a friend, confidant and mentor to younger poets.

Amid the ego clashes and sexual romps that were common among the Beat poets and their many amours, Whalen was a calming, maturing influence. When poet Kenneth Rexroth blamed the mischief-making Jack Kerouac for encouraging Rexroth's wife to leave him for poet Robert Creeley, Whalen played the role of peacemaker and helped the poetic community survive intact.

"He was a quiet, gentle, scholarly soul who never wanted to be part of the acclaim or limelight," said Ann Charters, a leading scholar of the Beat Generation. "He was a dear friend to young poets and writers, particularly to Kerouac when he was suffering terribly from alcoholism."

Born in Portland and raised in small towns of the Northwest, Whalen worked at an airplane factory and a shipyard, served stateside in the Army during World War II, and used the G.I. Bill to attend avant-garde Reed, where he roomed with aspiring poets Snyder and Lew Welch.

Older than most of his fellow students, Whalen introduced them to the works of Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and William Blake.

After moving to San Francisco, he met Ginsberg and Kerouac, "the first people I thought of as being really literary." He took peyote and found it a life-altering experience: "All my dopey theories and hang-ups and things about writing ... suddenly disappeared."

He dropped his efforts to match the formalities and structures of T.S. Eliot and Stevens and instead became a charter member of what Kerouac called "a kind of new-old Zen Lunacy poetry, writing whatever enters into your head as it comes, poetry returned to its origins, in the bardic child, truly ORAL ... instead of gray faced Academic quibbling."

Whalen was present for the now-fabled poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October 1955. There, Ginsberg first read "Howl," which became the anthem of a movement: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...."

In mock-seriousness, Whalen read "Plus Ca Change," a put-down of the reticence of the age.

*

Listen. Whatever we do from

here on out

Let's for God's sake not look at

each other

Keep our eyes shut and the

lights turned off--

We won't mind touching if we

don't have to see.

I'll ignore those preposterous

feathers.

*

Whalen credited "Howl" with liberating him from the strictures of form and the fear of being self-conscious. In "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," taken from his experiences as a fire-spotter, he wrote:

*

Outside the lookout I lay nude on

the granite

Mountain hot September sun but

inside my head

Calm dark night with all the

other stars

HERACLITUS: "The Waking

have one common world

But the sleeping turn aside

Each into a world of his own."

*

After studying in Japan, he became a Zen monk in 1973, took the name Zenshin Ryufu ("Zen-mind-dragon-wind") and spent two decades at Zen centers in San Francisco and New Mexico. He wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry, fiction and commentary, although much of his work has never been published. In "Never Apologize, Never Explain," Whalen wrote:

*

A pair of strange new birds in

the maple tree

Peer through the windows

Mother and father visiting me

"You are unmarried

No child begot

Now we are birds, now you've

forgotten us

Although in dreams we visit you

in human shape."

*

In Zen, critics have noted, Whalen found a combination of discipline and freedom that he had long sought. "The world is wicked by definition; my job is to stay aware of it," he wrote in "Birthday Poem."

Histories of the Beat Generation are replete with references to Whalen. He appears in fictionalized form in two of Kerouac's novels: as Ben Fagan in "Big Sur" and Warren Coughlin in "Dharma Bums."

Whalen never married; his only known survivor is a sister, Velna Whalen, of San Diego. A memorial service, organized by the San Francisco Zen Center/Green Gulch Farm, is planned for September.

In his final days, Whalen's friends, including Beat poets Diane di Prima and Michael McClure, gathered at his bedside and took turns reading him his favorite poems. McClure read Chaucer, Robert Burns and Emily Dickinson.

"He was brilliant and he was grumpy and we loved him," McClure said. "We all feel very hollow inside. But Phil will not be forgotten."

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