Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek: Buddhist Poems
Philip Whalen
Parallax Press: Berkeley, 1996.
68 pp., $12.00 (paper).

Philip Whalen. Courtesy Barbara Lubanski-Wenger.
Philip Whalen. Courtesy Barbara Lubanski-Wenger.

Philip Whalen is probably best known as one of the readers introduced by Kenneth Rexroth at the Six Gallery in San Francisco forty years ago, an event that launched the Beat Scene in San Francisco. Presently the abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco, Whalen’s magnificent poetry has remained largely invisible in literary America, turning up in Beat anthologies but virtually ignored by the literary mainstream.

I would nevertheless assert Whalen’s rightful place among the most vital and original poets of the past half-century. This slim volume presents a selection of overtly Buddhist poems written between 1955 and 1986, and while it is, poem by poem, a treasure trove, I couldn’t help but wish for a more generous selection.

Why, for instance, is Whalen’s marvelous poem “For Brother Antoninus” not included?
Do these leaves know as much as I? They must
Know that and more—or less. We
See each other through the glass. We bless each other
Desk and tree, a fallen world of holiness.
Blessed Francis taught the birds
All the animals understood. Who will
Pray for us who are less than stone or wood?

Written in 1963 while Whalen was immersed in Zen studies, the poem is addressed to the former William Everson, fellow poet and printer, then Brother Antoninus, Benedictine monk. Is this not a dharma talk? But then all of Whalen’s poems are Buddhist poems. How could they be otherwise? He didn’t become a roshi by dabbling in Zen practice on the weekends.

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