Philip Booth’s list of accomplishments is impressive, and his reputation is international, but he was, most of all, a humanist speaking to an individual audience, one person at a time. Although he is widely identified as a regional poet who wrote of life in a harsh, cold northern climate, Booth’s subjects cover the whole range of human experience. The powerful forces of nature and how humans relate to them play prominently in his work, but his poems also speak of other human concerns: love, sex, marriage, children, aging, poverty, death, and the mysteries of existence. In his earliest collection, Letter from a Distant Land, his poetic patterns are fairly traditional; however, later poems exhibit less attention to traditional form and sometimes an abandonment of rhyme and stanza. In all Booth’s works, the struggle of form and matter are present; his themes are of human loneliness and vulnerability set against the impersonal forces of nature. This struggle is never fully reconciled, but the poet examines the need for the coexistence of humankind and the natural world.
Letter from a Distant Land
In the sonnet “Good Friday, 1954,” which appears in Letter from a Distant Land, the number of lines and the rhyme scheme follow the traditional pattern, but the poet uses slant rhyme, with “lodged” and “judged” ending the sixth and eighth lines. The poem’s final line reveals Booth’s closeness to the New England school headed by Robert Frost and its belief in the moral function of poetry: “To spike a rumor sacrifice a man.” “The Wilding,” another early poem, issues a springtime call to love; Booth plays on the sexual suggestiveness of jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair fern. E. E. Cummings’s playfulness is echoed in “a sweet fern questionmark/ whorls green as green is today,/ and ferns ask no answer a swallow/ can’t fly.” The youthful joy and exuberance of this poem fill the reader with hope and expectation. Another early poem, “First Lesson,” instructs a daughter about trusting the father who is cradling her head in the “cup” of his hand as he gently urges her to learn to swim. Just as the swimmer learns to trust the sea, a person can learn to survive by remembering experiences that, like the sea, “will hold you.” “Chart 1203” captures the essence of sailing’s allure and challenge in saying of the sailor, “He knows the chart is not the sea.” The Atlantic coast is threatening, Booth says, only for the sailor who is not familiar with its eccentricities and relies on charts and maps alone to guide him. The sailor must have “local knowledge of shoal/ or ledge.” The poem celebrates the thrill of meeting a challenge and surviving through a combination of good luck and skill.
The volume’s title poem, “Letter from a Distant Land,” combines slant rhyme and true rhyme. The poem, a lengthy meditation about the area around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and the changes it has undergone since the nineteenth century, is written in terza rima, with long sentences and a doubly alternating rhyme scheme. The rhyme and meter are, nevertheless, so subtle, with approximate combinations such as “desk” and “risk,” that the reader hardly notices them. In this way the poem does have the flavor of a letter written from a distant land to a friend, with themes of the connectedness of writer and reader, the natural world and human values.
Weathers and Edges
In Weathers and Edges, New England voices speak with terse language and dry humor. The arrangement of the poems moves from works such as “Heart of Darkness,” which deals with large human concerns, to personal poems of private experience such as “Cleaning Out the Garage,” and then outward again to a series of sea poems set on the Maine coast. The reader of “Heart of Darkness” is struck by the short lines arranged as a column on the page: The poem itself is presented as “some sort of base/ to start out from.” The stanza arrangement in “Cleaning Out the Garage” is less lean. Filling out the page, its four stanzas move from nine to ten to eleven and finally to twelve lines, ironically accumulating lines as the garage is cleaned out and its contents diminished, and ending with an almost Frostian moral: The speaker has learned, after discarding all the “useless stuff” stored since his boyhood, “how to let go what won’t do.” “Report from the Scene,” an immediate description of the effects of severe local thunderstorms on boats moored in a Maine harbor, is arranged in eleven two-line stanzas; in it, the forces of nature seem nearly overwhelming, but two people “with reflex love” reach for each other and face the storm. The individuals watching the violent storm are an image of human vulnerability in the face of natural forces, but as the two reach out toward each other, they and the storm are able to coexist.
Several works in Available Light try to come to terms with harsh winters, the freeze of a late spring, the poet’s Puritan need to take inventory constantly, and the nearly mystical experience of a dream. “Entry,” a terse, honed poem that is skinny on the page, describes bitter cold weather that has lasted for four days, drifted snow coming in large flakes, and a “small sun.” The poet’s words “quicken,” or give life to, the silence and allow an entry for him, suggesting Booth’s fascination with the life-giving power of words. “Adding It Up” uses what light is available as the speaker’s mind begins to open up before dawn, while he lies in bed tallying his life and its concerns. As his mind opens and he meticulously counts, his body prepares for the first humorously ordinary job of the day: “cleaning up after/ an old-maid Basset in heat.” With humor the speaker looks at himself and inventories his Puritan characteristics: being sorry, worrying, counting.
Set against such straightforwardness, “Dreamscape” has a visionary quality in its carefully shaped free verse. In contrast to “Supposition with Qualification,” in which the speaker struggles with wanting to give himself up to experience, the speaker in “Dreamscape” lets the dream experience take control of the poem. The opening stanza describes the familiar road to town as the speaker has “always” known it: the steep hill, the filled-in old British canal, the spruce trees, the five houses. The certainty of “always,” however, is denied by the vision of the road in the dream. In the second stanza, beginning with the word “but,” the poet presents the road in his dream, with the left side now cleared into pasture in which “miniature bison” are kneeling. Avoiding the questioning of experience found in some of Booth’s earlier works, he neither can nor wants to explain this dreamscape. The organic process of the poem takes on a life of its own, offering a sharing of the dream’s experience and suggesting the chance that this dream experience opens up a wholly new perspective.
“How to See Deer” comments directly on the subtler theme of an earlier poem, “Shag.” “Shag” first describes the poet’s observations of seven cormorants (shags), follows with ruminations about what ornithologists say regarding their strange flights, and concludes as the poet continues to observe and to row “as if/ on vacation from knowledge.” Here Booth has tried to let the experience speak for itself, and to avoid explaining it or generalizing from it. “How to See Deer” makes a similar point, but much more overtly, in contrast to Booth’s usual practice: by advising, if one purposely sets out to see deer—or, by extension, to experience anything—that the deer will not be seen. Serendipity is a factor; however, taking “your good time,” trusting “your quick nature,” learning to listen and to observe, to “see/ what you see,” will permit one to experience joy. Perceptions and experiences cannot be forced; if, however, one is alert and receptive, one is able to participate in life.
Like Booth’s earlier works, Before Sleep is divided into parts, but they are concurrent rather than consecutive, with tightly woven interaction. These pieces are separated into poems and “Night Notes”: The forty-three poems appear on numbered pages indicated in the table of contents; the eighteen “Night Notes,” offering commentaries on the poems to which they are juxtaposed, appear between listed poem titles and are not given page numbers. The collection’s title, reminiscent of the famous Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” brings to mind the long sleep of death. The poems themselves, however, offer meditations on how to live life. There are no formal stanzaic patterns here; rhyme and even approximate rhyme are absent. Figurative language is also sparse; Booth uses mostly simple words and gives particular attention to the word “nothing,” which exists by itself, contradicting the view—held by Booth in his...
(The entire section is 3705 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Philip Booth Critical Essays. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!