PHILIP WHALEN

from "GOLDBERRY IS WAITING"; or, P.W.,
HIS MAGIC EDUCATION AS A POET

 

     If my friends had not helped me, I should have starved or gone, at last, to the nuthouse. They fed and clothed and housed me, arranged poetry readings for me, got my work published and reviewed, made other people buy my books, and now they faithfully write letters to me, which I answer promptly. These experiences made me realize that I didnít need money in order to write: what I needed was love and poetry and pictures and music in order to live. This knowledge not only freed me from a lot of old hangups, it also changed my feeling towards poetry and all the other arts. I saw that poetry didnít belong to me, it wasnít my province; it was older and larger and more powerful than I, and it would exist beyond my life-span. And it was, in turn, only one of the means of communicating with those worlds of imagination and vision and magical and religious knowledge which all painters and musicians and inventors and saints and shamans and lunatics and yogis and dope fiends and novelists heard and saw and "tuned in" on. Poetry was not a communication from ME to ALL THOSE OTHERS, but from the invisible magical worlds to me . . . everybody else, ALL THOSE OTHERS, "my audience, donít need what I say; they already know.
     I had been very worried about theories and philosophies and orthodoxies; I now perceived that I had had far too many; so many, that I had been separated from my own senses, my own real experience of the natural world. (It took a great deal of experimentation and study and thought to find out the true nature and function of my various senses and faculties.) The impulse to write had overthrown all my theories as well as the question of "Where does it come from?"
     People tell me that it must be very difficult to write, to be a write. I no longer argue the point with them. I can only say here that I like doing it. I also enjoy cutting and revising what Iíve written, for in the midst of those processes I often discover images and visions and ideas which I hadnít been conscious of before, and these add thickness and depth and solidity to the final draft, not simply polish alone. In the act of revision and complication and turmoil, a funky nowhere piece of writing can suddenly pick up and become an extraordinary, independent creature. It escapes from my too certain, too expert control. It frees itself not only from my grasp but also from my ego, my ambition, my megalomania . . . simultaneously, the liberation of a piece of writing liberates myself from these delusionary systems. Ideally, the writing will give the reader that same feeling of release, freedom and exaltation: a leap, a laugh, a high.
     "How long does it take you to write a poem," people often ask. "How much revising do you go through before you consider a poem finished? How many drafts?" No matter how I answer these questions, the inquirers always look disappointed afterwards. It is impossible to describe how poems begin. Some are simply imagined immediately, are "heard," quite as if I were hearing a real voice speaking the words. Sometimes I ĎHear" a poem in this way and it is a complete statement, a complete verbal or literary entity. Sometimes the same imagination provides me with single lines or with a cluster of lines which is obviously incomplete. I write them down and put them away. Maybe a few hours later Iíll "receive" more lines. Perhaps they wonít arrive until weeks or months go by. Some of my long poems took years to come, and then it took a few days or weeks in which to revise and fit all their pieces together.
     Some poems arrive as dreams. Others being from memories. Some start out of the middle of a conversation Iím involved in or words that I overhear other people speaking. An imagination of the life of some historical person may occur to me: I may suddenly suppose I understand what it felt like to be Johannes Brahms on a particular morning of his life. A landscape, a cat, a relative, a friend, a letter (or the act of answering a letter),  walking, the unexpected receipt of a new poetry magazine full of work by new young writers, the arrival of a new book of poems by a friend or somebody I donít know personally; re-reading Shakespeare or reading Emily Dickinson on the streetcar and suddenly moved to tears; shopping for vegetables, making love, looking at pictures, taking dope, sitting still and looking at whatever is happening in front of me, getting haircut, being afraid of everybody and everything, hating everybody, playing music, going to parties, visiting relatives, riding in trains, buses, taxis, steamboats, riding horses, getting drunk, dancing, praying, practicing mediation, singing, rolling on the floor, losing my temper, looking for agates, arguing, washing sox, teaching, sweeping the floor, operating this typewriter right now (bought in Berkeley 12 years ago and wrote ten books on it) which the cicadas and taxis all sing in ravening hot Japanese summer 1967 . . . all this is how to write, all this is where poems are to be found. Writing them is a delight.

[Philip Whalen. "Goldberry Is Waiting"; or, P.W., His Magic Education as a Poet. In The Poetics of The New American Poetry, Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, eds., Grove Press, 1973.]