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SF Chronicle Obituary for Philip Whalen - 6/27/02
Philip Whalen -- co-founder
of Beat poetry
Philip Whalen, a seminal member of the Beat poets who began a San Francisco poetry renaissance in the 1950s, died Wednesday morning in San Francisco after a long illness.
Mr. Whalen, who was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 1973 and served as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco, was 78.
"He was a poet's poet," said Gary Snyder, on hearing of his friend's death. "His intelligence and skill is very subtle and very deep. There are many poets who feel in his debt."
In 1955, Mr. Whalen joined Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia and Snyder for the historic Six Gallery reading. Organized by poet Kenneth Rexroth, who was later dubbed the "godfather" of the Beats, the reading took place in a former auto repair shop at Fillmore and Union for an audience of 150.
The poets -- most of whom hadn't met before that night -- became instant celebrities. Whalen's poetry was soon published in the influential Evergreen Review and appeared in the 1959 Grove Press anthology, "New American Poetry."
Born in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 20, 1923, Mr. Whalen grew up in The Dalles on the Columbia River. He attended Reed College on the GI bill after serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II. Snyder was a classmate, and recalled that Mr. Whalen was already immersed in Asian philosophy and poetry at that time.
They exchanged letters for many years, Snyder said, "about politics, philosophy, literature, poetics, Buddhist practice and Buddhist thought -- all on a kind of fun level."
"He reminded me of Dr. Samuel Johnson. His humor was dry, witty, ironic and learned," said Snyder. "It was always very instructive."
Mr. Whalen's many books include the 1967 poetry collection "On Bear's Head";
"Canoeing up Cabarga Creek: Buddhist Poems 1955-1986"; "Enough Said: 1974- 1979"; "Heavy Breathing: Poems, 1967-1980"; "The Kindness of Strangers"; "Severance Pay"; and "Two Novels."
In recent days, while discussing his death with friends whom he thought were treating the subject too morbidly, Mr. Whalen said: "I'd like to be laid on a bed of frozen raspberries."
He is survived by a sister, Velna Whalen, of San Diego. Plans for a memorial service are pending.
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