Philip Whalen and Small Presses

Photos of Philip Whalen at different points in his life

If Philip Whalen’s reader fears a sense of eavesdropping, the pursuit of history is an effort to listen for whispered wisdom, and to honor lineage.

Ever since publishing became a chip in global empires, small press publishing has been the true voice of the arts. In the small press world itself, there is both legacy and current conditions; given the troubled times of current conditions, perhaps a look at legacy is due. A gift of small press books is a large literary gift, for these are elusive works through time and each is a testimony. Small press books are more apt to be aware of book art legacy itself, and the occasion of one thoughtfully done ought to have some ceremony.

Circumstance thus directs us to a four inch by seven-inch book presented with a card stock cover folded over ten pages center stapled called The Unidentified Accomplice or, The Transmissions of C.W. Moss (Coyote). A glance at the book’s text reveals individually calligraphed paragraphs per page in what seems visually to be a single poem. The single date is 2006 and is listed “Of The Estate […]”. A book published by an estate is a direct statement to the legacy of the artist, it is additional evidence; in this case, this single folio is a testament to the literary legacy of Philip Whalen.

The dedication is specific, it contains the phrase” written for”; the epistolary nature of the work is overt; however, the dedication also contains the phrase” quite unexpectedly” and perhaps the reader is to understand that this is a single thought about friends, now revealed in a charming publication. Some debate might be herein had about the posthumous publication of private letters. That this work was released by the artist’s estate reveals that certain veils remain unlifted perhaps, but more forceful is the afternote written by the author, and dated “Stinson Beach, California/Wednesday, 24 July, 1968”: a nearly forty-year lapse between pen and publication.

The text itself is fourteen paragraphs handwritten, with some letters calligraphed—mostly the first capitol of the paragraphs.  An exception to this is paragraph 14, where the first sentence is illuminated,” LIKE IT or lump it” and continues with a not quite cursive series of lines, “Don’t take nothing off of nobody/ I know where I’ll go when my time comes./ Did I run and was I tired?/ I told him it was none of her business if I did.” Reminded of the direct address of the dedication, these lines appear to be a type of confession, a mantra of ferocity.  Whalen’s afterward reveals that the lines are a type of transcription of a character’s lines in the movie Bonnie And Clyde; popular cinema being a fairly ephemeral art, this book feels to be an artifact of recent but forgotten history.

While Whalen himself ought to need no literary introduction, being a Father Beat, and while some of Whalen’s work has had large volume posthumous publication, some of his later work did include small press publications. Of these is Goofbook (Big Bridge, 2001), which also speaks to a forty-year lag between pen and publication. Both the Editor’s Note and the Dedication directly address an individual—in this case, Whalen’s friend, Jack Kerouac. The Editor’s Note also transcribes a conversation between the publisher and the author that quite directly identifies the work as a letter specifically to Kerouac. If the reader fears a sense of eavesdropping, the pursuit of history is an effort to listen for whispered wisdom, and to honor lineage.

Goofbook itself is a perfect bound chapbook of some 30 odd pages, with a cover photo of Whalen and Kerouac—utterly traditional in appearance for books these days, including an exterior bar code to enable ease of shelving in bookstores. Let the timid reader be warned, perhaps at this point, for the text of Goofbook is neither traditional or, in today’s current conditions, might not pass community standards: Whalen has interspersed the text with drawings, including ones of his anatomy and a rendering of sexual congress. As a draughtsman, Philip Whalen’s interest in drawing is more concerned with accuracy when it comes to foliage than to animal life: his positioning of a drawing of eggplants has more care to verisimilitude. The drawings themselves are placed in the text in an innate illustration of the drift of the topic, which has much to do with the cooking of a meal. These graphic elements extend into the text itself, which employs capitalization, ellipsis, parentheses and spacing. so that the flavor of the work as a visual expression is clear. This letter, as the author repeats the sense of direct address, is more than writing or more than drawing, it is handcraft, an intersectional work bridging both.

The work itself moves with the fluidity of a conversation, and perhaps this is the crucial part of legacy: a sense of the artist’s mind. Goofbook follows Philip Whalen’s thoughts to his friend in about a weekend’s time. At various points, Whalen describes the writing act itself, and even includes his physical  position: “Now 3 A.M .& tired toothache & elbow tired of holding me up (clipboard on livingroom couch) & so to bed again the waves & feathers, Vishnu asleep on feather serpent Kukulan (26).” Whalen shows himself to effortlessly move between the prosaic activity of preparing for sleep with a mythological metaphor, and despite the prose form of the work, the impact on the reader is one of poetry.

Philip Whalen’s poetic prose style is generally more open, drifting over a page or two, but there are occasional moments of condensed perception:

all this is pretty fancy, coming from one dried pinecone—squirrels & mice are asleep on top of seedpile they got it from, holes 7 burrows high in the Sierra now under 10 or 15 feet of snow & more to some, considering that it’s raining here in San Francisco & I see a seagull out the window, probably another storm coming in from the sea ( also dark/light, STELLA MARIS) I hear sparrows (13)

While a traditionalist might argue against the passage as a poem because of format and colloquial language, let us be reminded that Whalen was an instrumental figure in the inclusion of colloquial language into the canon of literary expression. What rings as poetry here is the flight of thought from the writer’s immediate surroundings into an awareness beyond the immediate, and then a return to the immediacy of bird calls. Whalen is an educated thinker, an artful wordsmith—the reader is transported as if in a poem that is disguised as common speech: the gift of the Beats.

While Philip Whalen’s legacy as an American Poet has been previously established, the work presented here might not have come to light in current conditions. While the content of The Unidentified Accomplice is mild enough, the book’s presentation of a single work in an odd trim size makes it hard to shelve, and the limited-edition nature of small presses makes the book an unlikely candidate for mass distribution. Even more problematic is Goofbook, because of the adult nature of some of the drawings, it would be impossible for a large press with unstable funding to present, and, even then, some false propriety might be obstructive. It is due to the small presses that this work comes to the reader. The dedicated literary reader will soon discover that such works are often not readily available, a search through the myriad rare book sites might reveal a copy from a library, cast off as social unacceptable. Perhaps such a reader will stumble on other one of surviving copies from small press publishers, and thus now know therein lies gold.

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