Philip Whalen

Philip Whalen 1923–2002


Philip Whalen is an iconic poet of  the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s. His work flourished and gained a following for its “reverential treatment of the mundane and its self-depreciating humor.” While his work explored many of the themes relevant to beat thought, he had a strong fascination with Zen Buddhism and other Asian religions, environmentalism, and mocking the conformity of U.S. life. Whalen’s poetic growth flourished in part to his friendship with Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. Together the three developed their unique bohemian lifestyles and writings while at Reed College.  Snyder invited Whalen to read at the Six Gallery reading* on October 13, 1955, and it was there where he was also introduced to Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other important Beat writers. It was with these new found contacts that he further entrenched himself in to the world of the San Francisco beats–that, and peyote. His fascination with Buddhism and eastern traditions came into fruition when he became an ordained Zen monk in 1973. From there on he spent the remainder of his life in Zen centers in San Francisco and New Mexico. Whalen passed away in 2002.

Paul Christensen writes: “Whalen’s singular style and personality contribute to his character in verse as a bawdy, honest, moody, complicated songster of the frenzied mid-century, an original troubadour and thinker who refused to take himself too seriously during the great revival of visionary lyric in American poetry.”

“Whalen has managed to espouse the religious principles of Zen Buddhism without renouncing the world around him, retaining a humorous, whimsical balance in his poems, and mixing the pleasures of California life with contemplation in such a way as to persuade readers that the flesh and spirit may be enjoyed together in the fulfillment of one’s life.”


(In the photo above, from left to right, Welch, Snyder, Whalen, 1963)

– F. Fernandez


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