I first saw Philip from the wings backstage, he was directing a rehearsal, making some point with the actors. I was a freshman of seventeen.
Philip as director and actor in some student productions—I heard soon, though, that he wrote poetry and then in conversation later, I was delighted by his erudition and searching wit. We became friends.
Philip had grown up in The Dalles—up the Columbia gorge and at the beginning of the dry side of the ranges. He had been in the air force, and had already read much philosophy, literature and history. Being part of Phil’s circle (especially with Lew Welch) was like being in an additional class—having an extra (intimately friendly) instructor, one with nutty humour and more frankly expressed opinions. He extended us into areas not much handled by the college classes of those days, such as Indian and Chinese philosophy. I had done some reading in the Upanishads, had ventured into the Tao Te Ching and the Confucian classics, and was just beginning to read Warren’s translations from Pali Buddhist texts. Philip had an elegant style of speaking with intonations, phrases, and subtle linguistic mannerisms that lightly affected many.
I wasn’t writing much poetry yet—but Lew Welch and Phil were, and we all admired it. I didn’t begin to write poems seriously until I was in my mid-20’s. By that time I’d been briefly in Indiana for graduate school and then back to the Bay Area. Philip and I then shared an apartment on Montgomery Street, and began to move in the circles of writers and artists of the whole Bay Area: Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Michael McClure and many more. We took up the study and practice of Mah Jong and the I Ching; cross-town walks to the beach and the Legion of Honour—Philip was always writing, reading, and whenever possible playing music. At one time he went to considerable trouble to get an old pump organ into our apartment, to play Bach on.
Philip and I would go our separate ways to work, up and down the whole West Coast, and always end up back in San Francisco at some convenient meeting place like Cafe Trieste, or a little later Kenneth Rexroth’s Friday evening salon. Chinese poetics, the flow of Indian Sanskrit poetry, Pound’s line, Blake quoted by heart, Gertrude Stein avidly read aloud, Lew Welch singing Shakespeare songs to his own melodies, all led the way toward whatever it was we did next.
Ginsberg and Kerouac came to town, and catalyzed the energy already fully present into a more public poetics & politics. I left for Japan. For some years I sent Philip the news of the Capital, until he came there. Once in Kyoto, Philip seemed instantly intimate with the sites of literature and history, commenting that “here was where Lady Murasaki had that little altercation with the other lady over which carriage should go first” or some Buddhist temple that had been built on an old palace foundation. Then he began to be drawn more and more to the message of the Buddhist temples, and the lessons of impermanence their vast graveyards out back provide: thousands of little stupas for the departed monks. Thus moving from the seductive cultural fascinations of old Japan to a deeply realized samsaric awareness. Once back on the West Coast it was not long before he made the step into full Zen practice. But Philip never left his poetry, his wit, or his critical intelligence behind; his way of poetry is a main part of his teaching.
Philip always the purest, the highest, most dry, and oddly cosmic, of the teacher-poets I’ve known.
Claws / Cause
“Graph” is graceful claw-curve,
grammar a weaving carving
paw track, lizard-slither, tumble of
a single boulder down. Glacier scrapes across Montana, wave-lines on the beach.
Saying, “we were here”
scat sign of time and place
language is shit, claw, or tongue
“tongue” with all its flickers
might be a word for
fucking, and fate.
A single kiss a tiny cause [claws]
— such grand effects [text].
From “Poetry and Zen Talks of Philip Whalen.”
Shambhala Sun, November 2002.