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UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library adds archival collection of Beat poet Philip Whalen's art, poems and notes
04 Dec 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Print quality images of Whalen are available for download

Philip Whalen

Poet Philip Whalen.

Berkeley - Archivists at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library are busy cataloging 20 years' worth of notebooks filled with the verse, illustrations and notes of Beat poet and Zen monk Philip Whalen.

Librarians are combing through the contents of nine overstuffed boxes of journals, posters, correspondence, photos and writings, as well as 77-year-old Whalen's personal library. With Whalen's permission, the materials were retrieved by the Bancroft staff from the basement of a San Francisco house where Whalen stored his work. The residence is near the San Francisco Hartford Zen Center, where Whalen lives. Comprising the bulk of the collection are 62 handwritten notebooks produced by Whalen from 1959 to 1979, a period generally considered his most productive and creative.

"It's done very neatly, also with doodles and drawings that are part of the poems," said Leslie Scalapino of Oakland, a poet and longtime Whalen friend. The notebooks contain the first drafts of his poetry, "so in terms of studying his work, it's a gold mine," she said.

"This is a major coup for us. It's really quite a find," said Anthony Bliss, rare books curator for The Bancroft Library.

Whalen is author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, fiction, commentary and interviews. His volumes of poetry include "On Bear's Head" (Harcourt, 1969), "Canoeing up Carbaga Creek" (Parallax Press, 1996), "Scenes of Life from the Capital" (Cranium Press, 1970) and "Overtime" (Penguin, 1999). Much of his work has never been published, Bliss said.

Professor Ron Loewinsohn of UC Berkeley's English department considers Whalen "arguably the most underappreciated of the Beat writers."

"I think his form is the most radical and the most subtle of all the Beat poets," Scalapino said. Plus, the shy Whalen was less social and gave fewer public readings of his work than many other Beat poets, she said, adding, "He just had a more private kind of life."

"He's a shy, retiring sort of guy," Bliss said. "Not aggressive and not pushy, and it's our loss that so much of his work remains unpublished."

Whalen lives as ordained Buddhist monk Zenshin Ryufu, which means "Zen-mind-dragon-wind." He is legally blind and in poor health caused by a longstanding infection involving his heart and an artificial valve, said Scalapino.

Whalen remains an avid reader, thanks to friends who read to him, she said. He no longer writes poems, Scalapino said, "but he speaks the way his poetry is."

Whalen was on stage for the launch of the Beat Generation. It happened at a San Francisco Marina District car repair garage-turned-art space in September 1955 when Allan Ginsberg first read "Howl" in public. On the bill with Ginsberg and Whalen were Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia. Whalen is depicted in Beat writer Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" as a character named Warren Coughlin.

The Whalen collection, highlighted by his calligraphic writing and illustrations, complements the library's archival material of San Francisco Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights Bookstore and publishing company. Ferlinghetti encouraged the disillusioned and rebellious Beats who emerged in the 1950s.

The new archive will be a major resource for scholars researching late 20th century art and literature, as well as fields such as California or Bay Area writing, or San Francisco's literary renaissance, Loewinsohn said.

"People have attempted to compare Whalen's poems to mosaics or collages, and while that's a useful approximation, his poems are really more like mobiles," professor Loewinsohn wrote for an upcoming Bancroft publication.

"The scenes or sequences are suspended in relation to each other so that, as you read past them, the relationships between the scenes or sequences are constantly changing, like a mobile, whose pieces are constantly moving in relation to each other."

Whalen's poetry uses voices from all social levels and blends formal and eloquent styles with the casual and slangy. He is abstract, intellectual and extremely sensual, Loewinsohn said, and seeks to share the sacramental nature of the world with his readers.

Born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in The Dalles, Oregon, Whalen earned his bachelor of art degree at Reed College in Portland, where he was a classmate and roommate of poet Gary Snyder. It was there that he learned calligraphy from faculty member Lloyd Reynolds, who taught art history and creative writing. Reynolds also was well known for promoting calligraphy.


Print quality images of Whalen are available for download