Part of our continuing series on the Wild Dog Collection by SHSU Special Collections intern Kara Stafford
The third member of the West Coast Beats was Philip Whalen, although he was better known as being a major figure in the San Francisco Renaissance. He was born on October 20, 1923 in Portland, Oregon. His family left Portland when he was four to go live in The Dalles. His family could not afford to send him to college, so when Whalen returned to Portland in 1941 he worked as a laborer in shipyards and airplane factories. In 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was trained to teach radio operations which kept him stateside and allowed him to read and write poetry. In 1946 Whalen, thanks to the G.I. Bill, was able to enroll in Reed College. While attending Reed College, Whalen met Lew Welch and Gary Snyder. These three men would become key figures two related literary movements, the Beat Movement and the San Francisco Renaissance. In 1951 Philip Whalen graduated Reed College. Between 1951 and 1955 Whalen worked odd jobs, including a fire-spotter in Mount Baker National Forest, to support his writing. In 1955 with some pushing and nudging from Gary Snyder, Whalen read at the historic Six Gallery reading.
Unlike most of the other Beat poets Whalen’s poetry was not very political. He showed a reverential treatment of the mundane and used self-deprecating humor. A good example of this can be found in the Wild Dog collection in. Whalen published four of his poems in issue 17 of the Wild Dog magazine. The poems are called: Fragment of Great Beauty and Stillness, Doukhobor Proverb for Oskar Heiserman, Disgust with a Poetical Evening at Miss Q’s House, and Grand Historical Ode, To a Certain Lady who has praised my poems. These poems express nature and the ordinary in an extraordinary way. They can be found in Series 2, Subseries 4, Box 9, and Folder 2.
Philip Whalen, like Gary Snyder, practiced Zen Buddhism. In 1973 he became a Buddhist monk. Although he would spend the rest of his life as a monk, he continued to write poetry and in 1985 he was awarded the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award. In 1991 Whalen became the Leader of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. He served as Hartford Street’s leader until his health forced him to retire and on June 26, 2002, Philip Whalen passed away.
To view and read Philip Whalen’s poems and The Wild Dog Papers visit Newton Gresham Library’s Special Collections on the fourth floor of the Library.