‘Crowded by Beauty’ by David Schneider


From Coyote’s Journal:

Ranking one‘s friends in order belongs principally to the realm of grade-school girls, but a quick visit there might be allowed, only to note that Philip Whalen had no better friend than Gary Snyder. Whalen‘s life would have run a vastly different course had a 17-year old Snyder not first seen him from off-stage at Reed College‘s theatre, directing players in a student production, and been impressed with him. Whalen might have taken much longer to run across zen writings, for example—Snyder brought D.T. Suzuki‘s books home to their apartment when they were living together in San Francisco. Philip might never have found work in the mountains: sitting in that same Telegraph Hill apartment in the hot summer of 1952, Whalen read one of Gary‘s regular letters, this one from a Forest Service lookout on Crater Mountain in the North Cascades of Washington state. Provoked by it, and by working—“bad anytime, but especially nasty in summer in the city” —Whalen wrote back to declare, “By God, next summer, I‘m going to have a mountain of my own!” This he did; then got another mountain the following year, and spent a third summer as a forest lookout the year after that, making this by far his steadiest, most satisfying job until many years later, when he became a “professional” man of the cloth. Whalen would never have read in the Six Gallery reading had not Snyder put Philip‘s name and poems literally in front of Allen Ginsberg‘s face. Philip certainly would have floundered longer with unemployment and flirted more dangerously with out-right homelessness, had Gary not simply taken care of him whenever the two were in the same town at the same time.

They roomed together in San Francisco off and on from 1952-54 in a flat on Montgomery Street, above the city‘s North Beach district, to which they descended together nearly nightly for beer at Vesuvio and other drinking establishments. Thus Philip and Gary came to know the writers, players, merchants, philosophers, painters, filmmakers, musicians and scholars circling around the Bay Area, in the gestation phase of the San Francisco Renaissance. During this same period Snyder and Whalen began going together to the American Academy of Asian Studies, where they heard and met Alan Watts, and later also D.T. Suzuki. From among the audiences there, they got to know Claude (Ananda) Dahlenberg, who later co-founded the East-West Housei, and still later became an ordained Zen priest under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi—and they made the acquaintance of an attractive, older, elegant woman called Schändel Parks. Schändel connected them to the roaring lion of the local poetry scene, Kenneth Rexroth, taking first Gary to Rexroth‘s Friday evening literary gatherings. Other Friday evenings found Whalen and Snyder in Berkeley, for the study group with Rev. and Jane Imamura, at the Buddhist Church of America. Together the Imamuras were descended from the most important old families of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism; they displayed no arrogance, and welcomed the young men, going so far in the subsequent years as to turn their little church publication—the Berkeley Bussei—over to artist Will Petersen for a time. Snyder, Whalen, Ginsberg and Kerouac all published early poems in its pages. The benevolent Imamura family gave both Snyder and Whalen their first contact with people actually practicing Buddhism, instead of purely discussing its philosophies and traditions.

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