The Whalen Poem

Some of my poet friends don’t understand my allegiance to Ron Silliman’s Blog, and they certainly don’t understand why I lament the loss of Ron’s unrelenting blogging (along with the babbling of poets in the comments section) that came to an (almost) screeching halt a year or so back. To those folks I have two new words—William Corbett. Aka Bill. For some reason I’ve never paid much attention to Corbett’s work. I’m out here in El Paso, he’s over there in Boston. He’s plugged in, I’m not plugged in. No, that’s not true. I’m sort of plugged in. I think my wires got frayed. I think it was 1973. Lee and I, like Hansel and Gretel, went off following the trail G.I. Gurdjieff for three or four years. That’s a long other story. Ni modo.

Anyway, Silliman from time to time breaks his silence[1] and his overwhelming catalog of poetry events and dead poets and videos of poets reading (some dead, some alive) with a personal blognote.  On June 3 of this year he wrote about Corbett’s little book from Hanging Loose Press The Whalen Poem. Shit. Even the title made me want to buy the book. I’m a Philip Whalen addict. Corbett says this about his book of poem—

I spent the summer of 2007 reading the galleys of Philip Whalen’s Collected Poems. I was in Vermont and had the leisure to read slowly, ten or so pages a day. About halfway through the master’s poems I began to write The Whalen Poem. I kept at it until just after Halloween. No book I have written, poetry or prose, has given me the deep pleasure I felt in writing The Whalen Poem.

I understand exactly. I’ve done the same thing. My only dilemma with Corbett’s book is that I didn’t write it. Of course, I would have written it my way. Differently.

Here’s a little piece that gives a good taste of the book. The poem has the off-the cuff dreaminess and improvisational energy that Whalen had, but of course it's purely Corbett being who he is. Besides, I chose it because I’ve felt this same confused emotion so many times in my life. Growing up and having all these different poetry heroes and then finding out they aren’t (weren't) who I thought they were supposed to be in my imagination. 

Pollock by Namuth

He was drunk
He was nasty
            Many knew
We young ones didn’t
He looked great
Brooding in denim
Cigarette between long fingers
On the running-board
Of his beat-up Model-A Ford
On the Evergreen Review cover
Names of heroes
He’s not the same now
You grow up and adjust
You want the old feeling
It’s still there but not
To be trusted…well,
It’s not for him anyway
But for that world when
You didn’t have to know
What you know now

I even had this feeling about Philip Whalen. I first discovered his book Memoirs of an Inter-Glacial Age in the U of Arizona Library in 1964 and from that time on I read everything he wrote. His poetry and its underlying poetics gave enormous energy to my own work as I wandered through the landscape. I only heard him read once in my life. He came to the New Mexico State University. I had looked forward to the reading for months but when I heard him I was disappointed. He didn’t read the poems like I felt he should be reading the poems.[2] The old standards, poems I knew by heart. Poems I had shouted aloud in my scruffy apartments in Tucson and Seattle in the 1960s. Shit. Later that evening at the party at the Somozas’ house, Whalen had so many Zen-wannabes imported from Santa Fe hanging around that I couldn’t get close to him. Besides, I didn’t feel any connection to them. They lived in Santa Fe, I lived in El Paso—enough said. I couldn’t read Whalen’s poetry several years. His reading had sucked that energy away. But I finally realized  that was silly. His poetry was viscerally connected to my work. I finally forgave Whalen for being Philip Whalen. Weird. Or maybe I forgave myself for being who I am. Or something. Maybe I just learned to sit on a zafu and stare at a wall. Even that Whalen had contributed to.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, this is supposed to be a celebration of Bill Corbett’s book The Whalen Poem. Here’s a couple of short delicate pieces for a cold snowy day during the time of Winter Solstice—

There is room here
For 720,000 ladybugs
Devouring 4.6 billion aphids


Drought in Georgia
San Diego fires
I always go commando
Deserving everyone’s love

[1] I’m always worried I’ll find pictures of friends there along with the news of their catching the rickety little raft to the other side. And of course I'm not ready to be up there with all the other dead guys. 
[2] I mentioned this once to Jim Koller and he agreed with me. He too didn’t like the way Whalen read his poems aloud, and Jim was a close friend of his.


Bill Deemer said...

Whalen was middle-aged & I was just a kid when I first met him. I would sit in the kitchen of his apartment at 123 Beaver St in San Francisco & listen all ears to him & his visitors. It was only later I realized how much patience & generosity he displayed.

I heard Phil read his poems publicly many times. I have never heard a poet read aloud without getting an insight into his character & poems. I was lucky enough to hear Jack Spicer read After Lorca cover to cover in Jamie MacInnis' apartment in l965, months before he died. I hadn't realized how much humor the poems contained. A real dry, dead pan, W. C. Fields humor.

Whalen was a private, solitary man.
It was obvious when he read that he would rather be home alone reading & writing.

Yeats said oratory is heard, poetry is overheard. Though it's not fashionable to say so, many poems & poets are better one-on-one.

Bill Deemer

Bobby Byrd said...

Good stories, Bill. And I agree. Boy, I wish I could have heard Spicer read. I heard him and Whalen via recordings (the Vancouver and Berkeley conferences which came to the UofA via Drum Hadley). My dilemma when I heard him was all the crust of the years of daydreaming. Today I'm pulling ON BEAR'S HEAD off the shelf. And thanks for Random Hearse. bb

Bill Deemer said...


I have some gossip about the Vancouver & Berkeley Poetry Conferences. Whalen & Charles Olson had a falling out in Vancouver. They had been great friends. The lovely For C. was written for Olson. The story I heard (I think from Dave Haselwood) was that Olson in a talk, quoting Whitehead, called God "the novel organ" & Phil burst out laughing.

Here's the shocker: Philip Whalen did not participate in the Berkeley Poetry Conference. Ginsberg was back from India, Snyder from Japan, John Wieners was in town for the first time in years. And Philip Whalen not on the schedule anywhere. I was told that Olson said if Whalen attended, he wouldn't. The pettiness of the great is a mystery of life.

It must be Year's End & Old Age:
I'm feeling nostalgic. I'll end with a poem by Whalen, quoted from memory (my books are in boxes, replaced by dvds like Yellow Sky & Along Came Jones).


My real trouble is
People keep mistaking me for a human being.

Olson--being a great poet--says:
"Whalen! That Whalen is a-- a--
Whalen is nothing but a great big vegetable!"

He's guessing in exactly the right direction.


PS: How did your daughter's recall vote turn out?


Bobby Byrd said...

Bill, I woke up this morning 430 with my own version of Year's End & Old Age Blues. In a dream I had lost a game of putt-putt where the hole was at the edge of a stainless steel bathtub. So the first thing I wondered when I woke up was: What have I done in my life? And why? Like a mini-panic attack worth a couple of deep breaths and a visit to the morning outside. So I survived and just now checked your quoting of Whalen's TRUE CONFESSIONS in the Collected. Exactly right! With the exception of some missed em dashes. Pretty good.

Thanks for asking about Susie. The petitioners collected enough votes so the Recall Election will be held in May for her, the mayor and Steve Ortega. Their crime, according to the right wing religious crazies, was extending benefits to unmarried partners, to include gay and lesbian couples. I think she'll do okay. She's done good stuff, and so is popular except with aforementioned crazies. Folks just got to get out to vote. Of course, in El Paso, that's never a sure thing.

Bill said...


I got to thinking about For C. & looked it up (in The New American Poetry 1945-1960, which I found first). I was definitely told it was written for Charles Olson, but it doesn't sound like it. Maybe somebody in the Spicer group said that as a put-on. That was their style & I'm gullible. PW said, Don't believe anything you hear & only half of what you see.

Tell Susie: Winston Churchill said, Democracy is the worst form of government, save for all the others.