ON BEAR'S HEAD by Philip Whalen


Email this review


Ever since Whitman, the ""barbaric yawp"" of the American spirit has attracted poets. Pound extended the aggressive and lyrical egotism of Leaves of Grass so that it would include world culture, but The Cantos, despite its mixture of European and Oriental themes, remains a distinctly indigenous achievement, as do those other experiments in Whitmanesque totality, Carlos Williams' Patterson and Charles Olson's Maximus cycle. Philip Whalen, born in 1923, continues the tradition in On Bear's Head, along, sprawling, iconoclastic, intellectually cluttered, and sensuously ""open"" series of poems, a celebration of the self, at once abject and wild, lonely and gregarious, a record of West Coast life-styles from the Beats of the Fifties to the hippies of the present day. Whalen has his own fat and frolicsome tone, his own grab bag amalgam of Zen and Pop and existential contemporaneity, yet the blithe paranoia or the buoyant self-mockery that makes Whitman so memorable is also the donnee behind practically every line or nuance in On Bear's Head. Certainly Whitman saying ""And what I assume you shall assume"" or ""I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake"" state more fulgently Whalen's character than does Whalen himself. Still, Whalen is a child of these times, so he has that anarchic and alienated temperament, that set of unrepressed but guilt-ridden experiences which only new poetry or new ""confessions"" can make known. It is a flawed work, but there are big successes (""Minor Moralia"") and small ones (""For C.""), as well as countless delights and insights.

Pub Date: May 21st, 1969
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World