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Still life with dying poet

Laurie Duggan reviews
Unhurried Vision, by Michael Rothenberg

La Alameda Press, at,
distributed by The University of New Mexico Press,
November,120pp., Paper: 1-888809-40-X US$16.00

For a different point of view, read Randy Roark's review of the same book here.
This piece is 1700 words or about five printed pages long.

There is often a degree of ambivalence when we write about the recent dead. When I put together my own memoir of John Forbes in which I used items of our correspondence there was always the feeling that John himself might not have approved of the exercise (well, he almost certainly wouldn’t have since in later years he found my hoarding of documents as disturbing as it was occasionally useful). What I was presenting was MY John Forbes, maybe in the sense that Susan Howe presents My Emily Dickinson, except that John was personally known to me and had only recently died. Writing like this does battle with the dead as much as it valorises them. The author is getting away with something that their subject might have clung to or disabused them of. Sometimes it’s like there’s an element of unconscious subversion at work or else it’s their own work that the authors wish to advance rather than that of their late friend. Certainly there’s a deal of ‘management’ involved.

Michael Rothenberg served as an amanuensis to Philip Whalen in his last years of illness and blindness and appears to be both executor (of the as yet unpublished journals) and potential official biographer of the older poet. Unhurried Vision is a kind of verse diary of the year (1999) in which Whalen became terminally ill.

At the time of his death Whalen hadn’t written or at least hadn’t published any work of his own for some twenty years. It had seemed like this silence had been occasioned by his practice as a monk at the San Francisco Zen Center, though abstinence sits rather uneasily with the image of the author that comes to us through the poems (poverty, sure, but abstinence, no).

          My favourite word in English?
                    (Unhurried Vision, p105)

We always want the poets we love to write more. The idea of a secret hoard of work may be anathema to the authors themselves (who may seek to destroy old drafts or things that might have become embarrassments), but for the rest of us it’s not like that. We know there’s good work and bad work but who, among Auden lovers for example, would want to be without his often amazing juvenilia? When a poet stops writing we’re inclined to disbelief. Surely there must be a notebook somewhere? Posthumously there’s a certain degree of necrophilia involved in this. And if we can’t have the real thing might we be satisfied by a book of poems written in the mode of the author by one close to them? This is the atmosphere in which a book like Unhurried Vision might be expected to exist.


In the late 1970s I sent a copy of my own second book Under The Weather to Philip Whalen. The book, influenced greatly by him, had largely been savaged by Australian critics and I wanted to see what he himself would make of it. I received a letter in his inimitable Reed College calligraphy that was encouraging without being unaware of my failings. ‘Your poems all get started wonderfully’ he said, and this was enough. He advised me to pay more attention to ‘minute particulars’; something I’ve tried to do ever since.

My own work owes a great deal to the American mid-century poets, at least those of ‘postmodern’ persuasion. But my admiration for this work is tempered by distance and an awareness that some of its assumptions might not translate unproblematically. In the late 1960s, for example, many young Australian writers under the spell of the Americans felt that they had to reject irony. The postmodern American poets in particular regarded irony as the preserve of the academy: it was seen as a display of knowingness that would close off experience. But irony in Australia (ironically enough) was largely no such thing. Americans often don’t understand Australian humour, relying as it does on the understatement to end all understatements. The corollary is that American writing of the 50s and 60s, when not at its best, and even then sometimes, can seem naively hopeful to readers abroad. The terrible results of this lack seem to unite ‘beat’ poetics with the current US global debacle. The American concern for individual liberty (for example) can often seem very close to far right thought at this distance (here only a thin line separates Michael Moore from his interviewee Charlton Heston). The word ‘freedom’ rings even more strangely across the Pacific where George W Bush’s rhetoric seems patently hollow. We, on the outskirts of Empire, where the ideals perish in transit, can react strangely to any writing that comes from a country still enacting the Monroe doctrine.


Most Anglophone countries don’t really rate writers very highly (unless they’re ‘celebrity writers’). We have to make do, often enough, in whatever bolt holes we can find. Whalen, despite his Reed College education, comes across as one bearer of a tradition of autodidacts. Unlike the office holders of Ron Silliman’s School of Quietude, unlike Charles Bernstein, or even, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg, Whalen was not going to be slotted comfortably into an academic setting. His mode of existence was a not uncommon if perhaps extreme version of the fate befalling all writers who don’t choose to plug into the status quo. As Lew Welch’s review of On Bears Head (Whalen’s first and only book by a big publisher) stated, its author had rarely earned the price ($17.95) of this hardcover volume per week. In the 1970s young writers in Australia at least had a third way: the Literature Board for the Poor a.k.a. the Department of Social Security.[1] In 1950s America you either had to live comfortably administering regular doses of Brooks and Warren to your students or you had to take your chances (if you had ‘credentials’ other possibilities might be offered, like the various foundation funds).

America is a strange place, aware of its mirror image but rarely aware of how it appears to others. Take an institution like Yaddo, for example. It might be possible elsewhere to think of sending a writer off to some mountain or beautiful place with enough money and supplies so that he or she could write poems. But only an American could have thought, ‘hell, why don’t we send a whole lot of them up there’. One senses that Philip Whalen, author of ‘Untied Airlines’ (‘I want out!’)[2] might have baulked had he ever been given the opportunity. The USA possesses what could be paradoxically termed ‘industrial strength individualism’. You can sense it reading the joint interview collection On Bread and Poetry where Whalen together with Gary Snyder and Lew Welch discusses poetics. Snyder and Welch often sound spookily like apparatchiks of the Boy Scout organization in their naïve fervour. Whalen is different.


Michael Rothenberg takes up the notion of the poem as a kind of ‘sensitive tracking device’, a ‘continuous nerve movie’ that Whalen had advanced as his own poetic. With writing of this kind after a while nothing ‘out there’ seems ‘accidental’ and there is a danger of the whole structure frosting over; becoming too conscious of its own art. Whalen usually manages to avoid mannerism, breaking off where you sometimes want him to continue (from the reader’s point of view it’s a bit like experiencing the frustration of a desire to turn flat images into perspectives). The problem for Rothenberg lies in his brief: presenting a diary of disintegration; a kind of ‘still life with dying poet’.

For the middle generation of American modernists (people of roughly my own age) one pitfall is a reverential tendency. These poets are the grandchildren of Pound, Williams, HD, Marianne Moore et al, and the immediate beneficiaries of Duncan, Ginsberg, O’Hara, &c. With the exception of the Language poets they are largely involved in what often seems like a kind of holding operation, neither effectively ‘avant garde’ nor stuck in reverse gear like the School of Quietude. Unlike their predecessors many of these writers have grown up in an institutionalised modernism, as many of them emanating from MFA projects as from a mythical street level. Becoming a beat alumnus these days is a little like being in a post-1990s band that wants to sound like a 1960s band. Unless you’re an analog purist like Jack White the sound of a shitty recording studio has to be manufactured (and there are plenty of 24 track studios that have gizmos that make it seem as though the little needle has really hit the red). Tom Clark once jested that many of the Language poets seemed to spend a great deal of time seriously planning the kind of work that he and his ‘New York’ confreres would put together in an afternoon’s stoned haze.

Rothenberg apes (often successfully) the style of his master. There are many moments in the book when the reader is uncertain just whose voice is speaking: is it Rothenberg himself or, through him, Whalen? There is an additional indeterminacy in the punctuation that leaves certain phrases hanging, able to belong to either the foregoing or the thereafter. This often enough saves the poetry from the finality that this sort of thing (reverence) is prone to. It’s hard for Unhurried Vision to escape its fate as a kind of Life of the Saint as aware as Rothenberg is of this probability. So aware as to parade having and eating the cake with elegance:

Inching his way down
             Hartford St.
                          “a brain and a cane”

“Zen master, cosmic wit, beat original”
“religious Falstaff”
“cranky, wacky, tender, finicky”
“Buddhist abbot, language poet, beat affiliate”
“The most formally radical of the Beat poets”

(Ginsberg warned me about using too many “buzzwords”)

                          Allen, get out of my poem!
             You’re dead and Whalen is still alive

                          Still here among us

                                                  June 23, 1999, 11:41


Some readers will probably find my reservations about the whole enterprise cantankerous (now am I trying to be a Whalen figure??). And yet I feel goodwill towards this book and wish for it health and happiness.

And yet . . .

And yet . . .

[1] Laurie Duggan is an Honorary Research Fellow . . . (a kind of upmarket version of unemployment).
[2] The kindness of strangers, Bolinas, Four Seasons, 1976.

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