The Operating System


Whalen Chair small

Above: “Philip Whalen, Sensei, in his peaceful chair, my apartment living room, East 12th Street New York March 1984. he was visiting East coast to give readings N.Y. and Buffalo, calm poet. ‘What are you reading?’ ‘I’m not reading I’m just turning the pages.’ ” – Allen Ginsberg. photo c. Allen Ginsberg Estate

I met Philip Whalen in 1976 at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where I was a student (22 years old). Philip co-taught a class with Allen Ginsberg called “Visiting Poetics.”
At that time Philip was a Zen monk, with a shaved head and a brown robe. (I didn’t realize he’d become a monk just three years earlier.) Whalen’s works are themselves Zen teachings, as great as the haiku of Buson — but few Americans know them because they’re private jokes that don’t look like “poetry.” Here, let me open his Collected Poems at random:
Walk on down Kiyotaki River canyon from Jingoji
Missed the trail, found confluence of Kiyotaki and Hozu rivers
Smooth gray-green cliffs of single rock
Heavy green water, no way back to the Capital
Except by boat, foliage and raging maple colors
Over dragon rocks of dream.
Late extravagant lunch, Arashiyama, Hurricane Ridge
I just reread a little of The Prelude
To which I could only reply, “You poor fish.”
(That’s from “Scenes from Life at the Capital.” For some reason, whenever I open a book at random, I come upon a sparrow.) I have the notes from Philip’s classes, but where? Until I find them, here’s what I remember him saying:
1) “Only two people understand my poetry, and one of them is dead.” (I presume he meant Lew Welch, the now-forgotten Beat poet who walked off into the woods in 1971 & disappeared forever.)
2) “My poetry is all about consonants.” (At which point Allen Ginsberg tilted his head and said: “I guess my poetry is all about vowels.”)
3) “If you want to be a poet, try to arrange to be born rich.”
4) “Santa Fe is the asshole of the universe.”
I don’t recall Philip ever mentioning Zen.
Quite possibly he rarely thought about being a Zen monk, the way most of the time we all forget if we’re Italian or Welsh.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image] Sparrow lives in the obscure hamlet of Phoenicia, New York, on the Esopus River. Follow him on Twitter @ Sparrow14.
One of his sestinas is in the current American Poetry Review, and six of his poems were recently published by Empty Mirror.
Also, he is in the band Foamola: [the Editor is pleased to note she organized the below evening, at Mellow Pages Library in September 2013]

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