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They saw it all

December 16, 2007|Lewis MacAdams | Lewis MacAdams is the author of "Birth of the Cool: Beat, Be-Bop, and the American Avant-Garde." He is at work on a biography of Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine.

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen

Edited by Michael Rothenberg

Wesleyan University Press: 872 pp. $49.95

About Now

Collected Poems

Joanne Kyger

National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine Press: 798 pp., $34.95


PHILIP WHALEN and Joanne Kyger are often viewed as "poets' poets" -- a kiss of death that generally implies their music is out of most people's range. But really, what this means is they're the types of poets to whom other poets turn for their perfect pitch, to proclaim who they are.

Whalen and Kyger are essentially School of Backyard poets, who look out their kitchen windows and see the universe. Both have given themselves permission to write about what is immediately in front of them and/or on their minds, no matter how exalted or mundane. They are both domestics who leave plenty of room for splendor. Both have mastered the conversational; both feed off slang. Everything is the subject of their poems. Now, these two remarkable careers are represented by a pair of retrospective collections: "The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen," edited by Michael Rothenberg, and Kyger's "About Now: Collected Poems."

Whalen was born in 1923 in Portland, Ore., and raised in the Dalles, a small town in the Columbia River Gorge. After serving in the Air Force during World War II, he went to Reed College on the GI Bill. There, he lived off campus with poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch and met William Carlos Williams when he came to visit the school.

Whalen was a few years older than his roommates. To Snyder, he was erudite. "Philip seemed to have read everything important in the English language, including a lot of basic Buddhist texts," Snyder writes in a foreword to "The Collected Poems." In October 1955, Whalen and Snyder joined Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia and Allen Ginsberg to read their poems at San Francisco's Six Gallery. This was the night that Ginsberg debuted his epochal poem "Howl" and helped usher in the Beat Generation.

Joanne Kyger was born in 1934 in Vallejo, Calif. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, she arrived in San Francisco in 1957 during the "Howl" censorship trial. She got a job at Brentano's bookstore on Union Square and absorbed the informal teachings of San Francisco poet luminaries Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer.

San Francisco was the poetry capital of the world in 1957, and Kyger stumbled into all sorts of lineages, from pacifists who had been incarcerated in the Pacific Northwest during the war to students to the freshly shuttered Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as well as every kind of anarchist and Beat. In the late 1950s, Kyger became one of a handful of persons gathered around a Japanese Zen Buddhist missionary named Shunryu Suzuki. They practiced meditation in an old wooden building in Japantown that would become the San Francisco Zen Center.

In 1958, Kyger met Snyder, who introduced her to Whalen. At the time, she saw herself as "a practicing poet, learning. Philip was sure of his work." She admits to having been a little overwhelmed by the unfurled rhetoric of Duncan and Spicer; but with Whalen, "I read it and I could understand every word!" Two years later, she and Snyder traveled to Kyoto where they were hurriedly married at the insistence of their patron, the formidable Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Snyder threw himself into Buddhist practice while Kyger struggled with daily life. By 1963, she and Snyder were meeting up with Ginsberg and his companion, Peter Orlovsky, in India. For Snyder and Ginsberg, the trip heralded their emergence as culture heroes to the proto-hippies, but for Kyger, it signaled a different kind of turning point.

At the beginning of 1964, Kyger returned to San Francisco by herself, "a bit wiser and a bit more disciplined," her marriage to Snyder at an end. The only person to meet her was Whalen. There was a synergy between them, a sympathy; when Whalen published "You Didn't Even Try" (1967), the first of his two novels, his heroine, a petulant but beautiful woman with a keen mind, resembled Kyger.

In 1971, Kyger moved to Bolinas, in Marin County, where she has lived ever since. Whalen, on the other hand, trundled from house to house for years. A lifelong bachelor who hated living alone, he exuded a certain neediness. He loved books; he loved classical music. He wanted to be fed. Kyger says that Whalen "liked being in the middle of a domesticity so that he could report on it. He liked to write long letters filled with the news of what everybody was up to."

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