Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen

Image of Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen
Release Date: 
July 26, 2015
University of California Press
Reviewed by: 

This big biography of Philip Whalen (1923–2003) brings the man, his vision, and his writings up close. Whalen, author of 14 books of poetry and six of prose novels and memoir, was an intimate of the West Coast writing scene for five decades. Though he lacked the charisma and ambition to become a popular figure, this book shows he is a major writer.

Fellow author and Zen priest David Schneider achieves this through healthy chapters on the friendships of Whalen with writers: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, and Michael McClure, and with Buddhist priest Richard Baker. Many other friendships come into play including those with poet Lew Welch and professor Lloyd Reynolds of Reed College, and such figures as Anne Waldman, Diane DiPrima, Robert Duncan, Neal Cassidy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Donald Allen, and others, many of whom he lived with temporarily in his rather open and transient lifestyle. 

Chronology is not abandoned here; in fact, one which Whalen himself had partially prepared follows the author’s insightful introduction. And each of these detailed chapters on Whalen’s relationships follows their own chronology. The Zen of the title is necessary to understand the man and his work. Whalen had followed his own rambling woodsy and urban, intellectual and wild life patterns until 1972 when he moved into the San Francisco Zen Center and eventually became ordained by Richard Baker as a Zen priest.

Whalen comes across as a unique individual who had great sensitivity and humor (often self-deprecating), and boundless appreciation for people and music, places and literature. His love for Joanne Kyger, while she was in love with their friend Gary Snyder, reveals something of his sensitivity and innocence. His loose yet truthful writings are presented with understanding. Whalen’s unconventional lifestyle finally found an anchor in Zen Buddhism, which he practiced with serious intention for three decades.

The book is well documented with primary source material of Whalen’s own journals and prolific correspondence, as well as interviews with him and a host of others. A fine collection of photographs of Whalen and friends enlarges the portrait. One garners from this well written and sensitive biography of a key American author a sense of the energy and openness of the whole Beat and San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s to 1970s.