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Jun 21
Scene and Heard
Crowded by Beauty

Crowded by BeautyThe Poet is Profound. The Poet is a Jester.

Interview with Acharya David Schneider by Valerie Lorig

written and edited by J. R. Gilness

When author David Schneider was a fledgling student of Zen, he and his cohorts celebrated the end of retreat with a picnic at the crest of a mountain. During a hike on one of these special occasions, Schneider recalls, “I started having all these great ideas, and when I got up there, I started to write them all down in my notebook.”

“David, stop writing poetry,” snapped his friend and mentor, Philip Whalen.

“I’m not writing poetry,” Schneider blatantly lied, “I’m writing to my mother.”

“‘Dear Mother,’” responded Whalen, in mock-narration, “‘I’m writing poetry.’”

Such was the wit of the late Philip Whalen.

Schneider’s latest book, Crowded by Beauty, is the first authorized biography and chronicle of Whalen’s life and poetry. Often overlooked among the pantheon of Beat Generation contemporaries like Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Whalen takes center stage during Schneider’s interview with Shambhala Times, and he is well worth the attention.

Fumbling for a delicate way of describing Whalen, Schneider begins, “He was… laaaarge–” and then more bluntly concedes: “He was fat. He was enormous! And he was hilarious!”

Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder and Lew Welch

Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder and Lew Welch

Philip Whalen had lived in Japan and observed Zen first-hand at a time when it had little exposure in America. He was a born academic, a committed contemplative, and a witty speaker. “He was physically different, vastly more educated, and had an outrageous way of expressing himself,” explains Schneider. In the fairly quiet and conservative atmosphere of the San Francisco Zen Center, Whalen regularly broke the serious tone (‘funereal’ according to Schneider) by saying and doing outrageous things – such as bellowing, “Oh fuuuck!” upon dropping his spoon in the middle of a silent ōryōki meal.

Like any great comedian, though, Whalen exercised mindful timing in his unorthodoxy. Most of the time he followed the rules, which is exactly what made the exceptions so amusing. On a whim, explains Schneider, Whalen once decided to tiptoe down the aisle at mealtime. “You’re looking at someone who’s in the high two-fifties or three-hundred pounds – quite a large fellow – tiptoeing in these robes, and it was just hilarious.”

If the sacred jester is a universal motif in world religion and folklore, then Philip Whalen might have been one of its live incarnations. His humor was like a guardrail that prevented himself – and others – from swerving into the sanctimonious or losing touch with the very purpose of the spiritual path: to be present with reality.

With his unique demeanor, Whalen had attracted a cadre of young men who would sit at the feet of the proverbial master, but Schneider wonders aloud, what were they trying to get? They weren’t studying poetry or Buddhism or Zen with him. Instead, they were following the lead of an older brother figure who made them feel comfortable making mistakes. After all, he not only committed faux pas himself, but made them with confident gusto. He filled the often-aloof silence with affection and generated a welcoming atmosphere.

David Schneider describes a unique moment in an army/navy surplus store in Santa Fe. Whalen entered wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and orange dayglo hat, with his raksu balanced over his big belly. Out of the blue, a fellow patron who appeared to come from Santa Fe’s eccentric bohemian scene approached him and said, “Sir, I don’t know what it is you do, but you do something, and I want to study it with you.” Though Schneider never found out who that stranger was or what became of him, he says it bespeaks of how magnetic Whalen could be.

Despite his avuncular attraction and extraversion, Whalen was primarily a scholar who relished his alone time. “He needed to go back and forth between high-stimulation and scholarly solitude,” says Schneider. Whalen didn’t have a wife or a life partner. Nobody had ever even seen him with a romantic interest, though Schneider reveals that Whalen had had several lovers, both male and female. “The Beats – except for Allen [Ginsberg] – were really discrete… especially the gay beats. They were not out. People were not out in the 50s and 60s,” Schneider explains.

Though an avid hiker and wildlife observer, Whalen struggled with his weight. His doctor ordered him to cut his caloric intake and monitor his eating habits, and these dietary patterns surfaced in his journals. Schneider laughs over the details that took over Whalen’s journals — the amount of cottage cheese he ate for breakfast, or how many calories were accumulated each day. It adds a human touch and is a reminder of the mundane aspects of a man whose appeal lies greatly in his relatability.

Schneider explains that he wrote Crowded by Beauty so that people would get a feeling for who Philip Whalen – the person – really was. The title, it seems, fits a profound and koan-like backstory, though in fact the anecdote behind it is far more befitting of Whalen’s persona.

David Schneider

David Schneider

“That the title was something that Philip said in a hardware store in the Castro district of San Francisco,” says Schneider. Mostly blind, and attended by writer Steve Silverman, Whalen began to feel overwhelmed by the selection of merchandise. Turning to Silverman, he quipped, “Get me out of here. I’m feeling crowded by beauty.”

Sometimes writers’ thoughts, which are so creative and productive and quick, can create a feeling of claustrophobia or crowding, says Schneider, relating the overstimulation of the hardware store to the overstimulation of one’s own ideas. Without a way to find space in between those thoughts, Beat writers like Whalen could suffer until they found cathartic release. Through his years of Zen meditation, Whalen learned to find space, and be at ease in it.

Between securing permissions, conducting interviews and doing research – Whalen’s papers, and those of his friends are mostly on the West Coast of the United States, and Schneider lives in Koln, Germany — Crowded by Beauty has been a decade in the making. With this book, Schneider has opened the window on a man who was not originally one of the “famous Beats” but who may find a posthumous place in the new generation’s pantheon.

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1 response to “ Crowded by Beauty ”
  1. Linda V. Lewis
    Jun 26, 2015

    I am so looking forward to reading this long-awaited book.
    I have always loved the poetry of Philip Whalen, especially that of the ’50’s and early ’60’s–so much so that in ’74, quite pregnant, I wanted to name my baby Whalen if it were a boy. But after a poetry reading that summer, I asked the poet, who said, “No, better to name him Charly or Edna!”–after Charles Olson or Edna St Vincent Millay. I knew his friend and mine, Edward Van Aelystyn, had named his youngest son (at least at that time) Philip after Whalen. But at birth, still somewhat fixated on the poet’s name, my husband spelled our baby’s name “Waylon”, after, good grief, Waylon Jennings!–his full name a larger pun: Waylon Hart Lewis! In any case, Philip probably would have enjoyed that much more!

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