October 20, 2002

Philip Whalen Celebration

Sunday October 20, 2002
2:00 - 4:00 pm
Reed College Chapel
(Reception following, in Faculty Lounge)
Free admission; all ages welcome

Inspired poet, Zen abbot, and Beat Generation Reedie, Portland native Philip Whalen passed away this June in San Francisco. On what would have been his 79th birthday, local writers, old friends, and Reed College students and faculty will join in celebrating his life and work. Reminiscences and readings of Whalen's poems will be accompanied by excerpts from documentary films about the poet, produced by the American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University.

Readers and speakers will include Moshe Lenske, Lois Baker, David Biespiel, Dan Raphael, Alice Moss, Rosemary Lapham Berleman, Carol Baker, Kathleen Worley, Gabriella Ekman, Chris Piuma, Laura Feldman, David Abel, Alicia Cohen, Greta Marchesi, Mark Owens, Ashley Edwards, Krista Hanson, and Anjelina Keating.

Reed College is located at 3203 SE Woodstock Boulevard; the Chapel and Faculty Lounge are in Eliot Hall (the main building facing Woodstock, in the center of the campus). Parking is available in three college lots, the East lot being the closest to Eliot Hall.

For a comprehensive collection of Web links related to Whalen's life and work, see this website.

Spare Room is a semi-regular reading series with a focus on innovative writing.


Philip Glenn Whalen was born on October 20, 1923 in Portland, Oregon and grew up in The Dalles. After serving in the Army Air Forces as a radio mechanic in WW II, he attended Reed College on the GI Bill. Among his classmates were fellow poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch.

"He was a poet's poet," said Gary Snyder, on hearing of his friend's death. "His intelligence and skill is very subtle and very deep. There are many poets who feel in his debt." Snyder and Whalen exchanged letters for many years, "about politics, philosophy, literature, poetics, Buddhist practice and Buddhist thought -- all on a kind of fun level . . . He reminded me of Dr. Samuel Johnson. His humor was dry, witty, ironic and learned," said Snyder. "It was always very instructive."

During his army days Whalen had read Gertrude Stein, and a week-long visit to Reed by William Carlos Williams in 1947 further stimulated his interest in poetry. In the summer of 1951 he moved to San Francisco, meeting Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg soon after. (He appears in fictionalized form in two of Kerouac's novels: as Ben Fagan in Big Sur and Warren Coughlin in Dharma Bums.)

On October 6, 1955, Whalen joined Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Gary Snyder for the historic Six Gallery reading (at which Ginsberg's "Howl" was first publicly heard). Organized by poet Kenneth Rexroth, the reading took place in a former auto repair shop at Fillmore and Union for an audience of 150. The poets -- most of whom hadn't met before that night -- became instant celebrities, and the "San Francisco Renaissance" (as it came to be known) was in full swing. Whalen's work began appearing in print with regularity thereafter, and was included in Donald Allen's epochal anthology The New American Poetry in 1959.

From 1958 until 1971 Whalen lived mostly in Japan: "That was when I was doing a lot of writing. I would write every morning." In 1959 his first book, Self-Portrait, from Another Direction, was published by the Auerhahn Press in San Francisco. Memoirs of an Interglacial Age and another volume of poems, Like I Say, appeared in 1960. More than twenty books, including three novels, followed during Whalen's life.

Whalen eventually returned to San Francisco and the Hartford Street Zen Center, where he spent most of the rest of his life. He was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk in 1973, taking the name Zenshin Ryufu ("Zen-mind-dragon-wind"), and later became Abbot, caring for AIDS patients until his own ill-health prevented that.

"A degenerative eye disease stopped him writing and reading in 1987; but friends would read aloud to him and he was able to have a weekly sushi meal with Michael McClure and Diane diPrima. The darkness must have been a burden to such an erudite and literate man but he bore it with consistent humour and energy: when I saw him last a few years ago I had only to mention a book and he was up and moving, his arm swinging to the exact spot on the shelf," wrote British poet Tom Raworth in an obituary in the Independent.

In his last days, Whalen maintained his wit and self-deprecating style; when asked by a friend if he wanted a milkshake, he replied, "No, I'd like what they gave Socrates," and discussing his funeral with friends whom he thought were treating the subject too morbidly, he said: "I'd like to be laid on a bed of frozen raspberries."

Philip Whalen died June 26, 2002 in San Francisco.