Philip Whalen was born in Portland, Oregon on October 20, 1923. He roomed with future poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch‘s at Reed College in Oregon. (Shit, how come when I look back at my old college roommates all I see is one lawyer, one salesman and one eternal grad student?)
Whalen did not pursue a career in poetry, but fell into it after Snyder asked him to take part in the famous Six Gallery poetry reading in 1955. A good portrait of Whalen, Snyder’s slightly older and chubbier Zen-poet friend, appears in ‘The Dharma Bums‘ by Jack Kerouac (the character’s name is Warren Coughlin).
Like Snyder and Kerouac, Whalen took Buddhism very seriously, and also like them he found spiritual enlightenment as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Whalen published many highly respected works of poetry, as well as two novels, “You Didn’t Even Try” and “Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head”. He was ordained as a Zen monk in 1973. He suffered from severe eyesight problems in his later years. He lived as a Buddhist in San Francisco until he died on June 26, 2002.
Here’s an article about an apparently very pleasant 1964 poetry reading at San Francisco’s Longshoreman’s Hall.