Sunday, June 30, 2013

How History Was Made by A Homosexual Zen Poet and His Friends

It was strange for me to realize that the beat poet Philip Whalen was not my generation.  In fact, he was born just a few years after my father.  I remember thinking when Whalen died in 2002, Damn - I never got to meet him.   That happens to me often, I'm afraid.

Whalen's obituary was in the New York Times, because he was part of the infamous Six Gallery Reading that launched Allen Ginsberg and his poem, "Howl," and led to a marvelous trial and the downfall of civilization as we knew it.  There is an excellent documentary about all that titled "Howl."  It is available on Netflix, and no doubt elsewhere.  That film that gave me a new appreciation of how the poem grew out of Ginsberg's life and his body and his then-illegal sexuality.  Ginsberg is on the right, Whalen on the left in the photo below.
How things change, and we change.  The Six Gallery Reading was in 1955.  That year I turned thirteen.  Though I was as interested in sexuality as any normal thirteen-year-old, I had never heard the word lesbian or met a man I thought was homosexual - the word that was used then.  At that time, I didn't notice the landmark lawsuit, which must have made national news, though no doubt was handled with asbestos gloves.  Some of it could not have been quoted on TV.

Forty years later I was teaching modern American lit at Ohio State.  Working from a big anthology, which we all had to carry in those antediluvian days, I put "Howl" on the agenda because its publication, and the lawsuit that led to, were events that changed the course of American literature and life.  I hadn't read it since I was an undergrad, but heck, everything was shocking in the sixties.  Sergeant Pepper was shocking.  I feel pretty sure certain lines were not read aloud or discussed in the classroom, even then, and I know certain words were not spoken.

Fast forward to the day we were studying the poem. I sat down to reread it to prepare, and this time I was paying attention.  I was shocked.  Most English grad students wouldn't have been, but I hadn't given up trying to be normal then.  Very normal, if you know what I mean.  And I was going to have to get up there and talk about it to a bunch of 19-year-olds, who look like they're in about fifth grade when you're in your fifties.  I recall beginning with a sort of apology and explanation, and hoping nobody would go to the Dean about it.

If you want to visit that poem, you can read it here.  You can simultaneously listen to an older Ginsberg read it, and he reads well.

And life goes on, and how we change. I keep getting less respectable, but Whalen went the other way, you might say.  There he is to the right in his robes several years before his death.  He had become a Zen priest.

And here is a link to a website with a Whalen poem that is one of my favorites, "Sourdough Mountain Lookout."  It is long, too, so if you choose to read it, you could light some incense and allow yourself time.  You will find it a nice antidote to "Howl."

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