Always Save the Best for Last

There are a number of poems in the last third of Overtime that appealed to me. Most of these discussed the connection between place and inspiration, a subject that has been of particular interest to me lately. In fact, as I was hiking the Columbia Gorge today I was wondering whether it belonged to me or I belonged to it. In my recent readings I have sensed more and more a connection to those artists who come from similar backgrounds.

Interestingly enough, though, this first poem suggests that the opposite is true. Early on Whalen seemed to feel that sitting in the woods under a tree contemplating life like Henry David Thoreau was going to be an integral part of his writing:

Homage to St. Patrick, Garcia Lorca, & the Itinerant Grocer

A big part of this page (a big part of my head)
Is missing. That cabin where I expected to sit in the
Woods and write a novel got sold
out from under my imagination

I had it all figured out
in the green filter of a vine-maple shade
The itinerant grocer would arrive every week
There was no doubt in my mind that I’d have money
To trade for cabbages and bread

Where did that vision take place-maybe Arizona
Or New Mexico, where trees are much appreciated-

I looked forward to having many of my own
possessed them in a nonexistent future green world of lovely prose
Lost them in actual present poems in Berkeley
All changed, all strange, all new; none green.

Tassajara, 17:iii78

Interestingly enough, though, Whalen ends up writing his poetry in Berkeley and San Francisco. Perhaps we cannot choose our inspiration, perhaps it chooses us. Some of Whalen’s best poetry seems to be inspired by the practice of his Zen Buddhism, not by the environment, though I, perhaps because of my experiences, am drawn to those poems that call on both the environment and on his experiences with nature.

One of my favorite poems in this section is “The Bay Trees Were About to Bloom:”

The Bay Trees Were About to Bloom

For each of us there is a place
Wherein we will tolerate no disorder.
We habitually clean and reorder it,
But we allow many other surfaces and regions
To grow dusty, rank and wild.

So I walk as far as a clump of bay trees
Beside the creek’s milky sunshine
To hunt for words under the stones
Blessing the demons also that they may be freed
From Hell and demonic being
As I might be a cop, "Awright, move it along, folks,
It’s all over, now, nothing more to see, just keep
Moving right along"

I can move along also
"Bring your little self and come on"
What I wanted to see was a section of creek
Where the west bank is a smooth basalt cliff
Huge tilted slab sticking out of the mountain
Rocks on the opposite side channel all the water
Which moves fast, not more than a foot deep,
Without sloshing or foaming.
Tassajara, 1J:ii79

It does seem to me that I do have special places like this that I come back to, places that are “sacred to me.” These places inspire us by their very nature. These places are like a current running through us that ties us to who we are. Whether these are actual places or virtual places may well be debatable, of course.

“What About It?” coincidentally enough seems to directly state ideas that flashed through my head as I hiked Wahkanee Falls today. How could it not be a favorite?

What About It?

When I began to grow old I searched out the Land
Of the Gods in the West, where our people have always said it is.
Once I floated there on the water. Once I flew there.
I heard their music and saw the magic dancing.
They appeared in many shapes; once as kachina,
Once I could only see shining feet and radiant clothes
Their houses blend into water, trees and stone.
A curtain moved. Water fell in certain order.
Sometimes there was a great mirror of polished bronze.
Other messages were smell of hinoki, sugi, gingko
Newly watered stones.
The land itself delivers a certain intelligence.

How embarrassing to note that four days are gone.
All I can say right now is I can see clouds in the sky
If I stand still and look out the window.
Diane Di Prima came and told me, "If we leave
Two hours of the day open for them
The poems will come in or out or however;
Anyway, to devote time in return for a place
That makes us accessible to them."
San Francisco, 17-28;iv:7&

For me, at least, “The land itself delivers a certain intelligence.” And strangely enough, the kind of land he describes here, one with water “water, trees and stone” are precisely the kind of places that inspire my creativity. Of course, so far my creativity, unlike Whalen’s, has not resulted in “poems.” But that does not necessarily mean that they don’t inspire another type of creativity.

Although “Chanson d’Outre Tombe” isn’t the last poem in Overtime somehow it seems appropriate to end this review with this poem:

Chanson d’Outre Tombe

They said we was nowhere
Actually we are beautifully embalmed
in Pennsylvania
They said we wanted too much.
Gave too little, a swift hand-job
no vaseline.
We were geniuses with all kinds
embarrassing limitations
o if only we would realize our potential
o if only that awful self-indulgence
& that shoddy politics of irresponsibility
o if only we would grow up, shut up, die
& so we did & do & chant beyond
the cut-rate grave digged
by indignant reviewers
o if we would only lay down & stay
THERE-In California, Pennsylvania
Where we keep leaking our nasty radioactive
waste like old plutonium factory
Wrecking your white expensive world
Tassajara, 27di1d979

No matter how I or Diane may feel about particular Beat poets, they are, indeed, a phenomena well worth paying attention to. They wrenched literature and poetry from the University world and dragged it screaming into the everyday world of beat despair. Whether that is a good or bad thing is perhaps debatable, but I, for one, the only one I can speak for, think that poetry is too powerful to be limited by artificial classifications. All of us are better off when we are inspired by poetry, or, any form of art, for that matter.

Here’s a chapbook of more Whalen poems

Here’s another review of Overtime

Stuck in the Middle , Somewhere

I’m about halfway through Philip Whalen’s Overtime and finding more and more ties to those aspects of Beat poetry that I don’t find very endearing. At times I feel like I am trying to read a lifetime of entries for some guy’s blog in a week, including page-long rants in CAPITALS. I MEAN, HOW LONG CAN YOU SIT THERE LISTENING TO SOMEONE WHILE HE YELLS AT YOU ABOUT NOTHING? Now, it might have been great if I had read this over twenty years time, but this isn’t what I expect in a poetry book. Cut the CRAP, man. GET ON with the GOOD STUFF.

Here’s a SHORT example of the crap that, unfortunately, links Whalen to some of his friends:

A Penny for the Old Guy

nickel nickel dime
dime dime nickel quarter
(quarter two-bits)
quarter quarter four-bits
quarter quarter quarter six-bits
nickel nickel nickel fifteen cents
six bits & a quarter dollar buck
dollar dollar dollar dollar dollar fin
fin fin sawbuck
Double sawbuck twenty
5 times twenty is a bill

bill bill bill bill bill
bill bill bill bill bill

with much assistance from Lewis Welch

Lord, how much “much assistance” can it take to write something like this?!! NOT MUCH, if you ask me. And this book had an EDITOR? I wonder what he was SMOKING ?

The trouble is that about the time I start to give up, start skiming pages, I find something I really like, something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss:

3 Days Ago
It quit raining and I could spend some time on the beach turning over pebbles, low tide and heavy surf, slow flashes of sun behind clouds. No translucent agates: jasper, a dark- jasper-flecked carnelian that’ll have to be cut and polished to explain why I picked it up.
I waste all this time proving the splendor of the world, everybody wants out of it or wants it ugly before they’ll believe it’s really here