Philip Booth Booth, Philip - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Booth 1925–

American poet.

Booth's stark lyrics reflect his identification and familiarity with his New England roots. While some critics praise Booth for his sensitive ear and economical structure, others show impatience with Booth's style, calling it overly conservative and imitative of other New England poetry. Booth first came to the attention of the poetry world with the publication of Letter from a Distant Land. Although succeeding volumes of his work show an increasing pessimism, Booth retains the consistently clear focus which has become his stylistic trademark.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 106 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5.)

Pearl Strachan Hurd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Letter from a Distant Land] is all quality. Urgency to communicate a fresh view of human experience, against the local background of seashore and forest, combines happily with honest recognition of a debt—a debt to earlier thinkers and writers.

None of the brash egotism here which led so many poets of the first half of the century to dangle off in space incommunicado. None of the flimsy tricks of the language juggler. Yet original and modern in diction and approach. With a sure, deft hand Philip Booth presents the essence of life as he knows it among the fauna and flora which provided Bryant and Emerson and Lowell with subject and setting.

He fits into the centuries-old tradition of poetry in the English tongue, acknowledging the tie with his predecessors in the fine title poem, a letter to Thoreau….

The admission of roots, of not being completely underived, is a comparatively new, and reassuring, note. Especially when the poem has freshness and vitality.

Pearl Strachan Hurd, "Another Prize-Winner," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1957 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), March 14, 1957, p. 7.

Peter Kane Dufault

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Booth should be encouraged; God bless him, he writes like a man. Moreover, he writes like a witty one….

To be sure, there is some chaff in ["Letter from a Distant Land"]. Some of the lines in the poem "Original Sequence," for instance, are simply bad verse…. Again, in "Green Song" … the iambic of the preceding stanzas is violated for the sake of a rhyme. The reader, or speaker, fallen flat on his face over [the] lines, may understand the choice but cannot approve it, particularly when the slightest changes would have made it work both ways.

My guess is that the poor lines are of an earlier vintage, and that so is a certain recurrent tendency to phrase-make … in places that blur the focus of the poem as a whole.

If I had more space, I would give it to the lovely lyrics, "Siasconset Song," "Instruction in the Art," and "Identification." They are the work of a poet. (p. 19)

Peter Kane Dufault, "Lyrics and Others," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XL, No. 14, April 6, 1957, pp. 18-19.

Richard V. Lindabury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Booth's ["Letter from a Distant Land"], the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1956, is in some respects a disappointing collection to have been so honored. The quality that marks a good writer's work as unmistakably his own is often lacking here. In its place is a manner that seems imitative, if not indeed imposed by some external canon of style. When Booth is most himself, however, his work is good. He writes with deep affection of the sea, farms and forests—his knowledge of the natural world giving, in such contexts, substance and intensity to his language. His title poem is addressed to Thoreau and Thoreau would have appreciated his "unmown squares of sun," his "dazzled wasps."

Richard V. Lindabury, "Old and New Styles in Poetry-Making," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), August 4, 1957, p. 4.∗

Kenneth Rexroth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Booth is to Yvor Winters as the free love of a sorority hop is to Emma Goldman. But is he real? There is nothing whatever wrong except polite irresponsibility. ["Letter from a Distant Land"] is true decorative poetry. Can poetry outside the Far East ever be just decorative? I think with us it must always be haunted by its vatic role, and so judged. Behind Mallarmé in a peculiarly distorted way we can still hear the voice of Isaiah. Behind Philip Booth we can hear only the well bred stichomythy of the poetry seminar….

[His] I.B.M. polish has a disturbingly inhuman and inhumane science-fiction quality about it.

Kenneth Rexroth, "Shape and Substance," in The New York Times (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1957, p. 47.∗

James Dickey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I read Philip Booth's Letter from a Distant Land trying as best I could to see the poems as coming from and illuminating a crucial center. There is none, however. Booth's is an American Georgian poetry, thinly descriptive, replete with easy answers, vacant, amiably bucolic. There are many attempts to feel, or at least to talk about feelings, but precision is lacking, and therefore consequence. Booth tries hard to particularize, but, though he lists many objects, none comes through with the immediate and fierce haecceitas that good poems demand and exact. Instead of being concrete, as some reviewers have claimed, Booth's verse is actually quite diffuse and vague…. Booth's writing is undiscriminating in detail and thus mechanical, and so his feelings come to seem mechanical, too, and do not even seem possible without the full support of the Mode. Someone has remarked of this book that "there is not a really bad poem in it." This says exactly the reverse of what the statement intends. The fact that the poems are all no better than acceptably good, means, sub specie aeternitatis, that they are no better than unobtrusively or damnably bad; both good and bad, in these senses, will be equally lost. It reveals also, and devastatingly, one of the most pernicious results of the influence of the New Critics: the approval of poems on principle, as it were, if they sound like the thousands of others brought out by the same poetic weather. Booth sounds enough like the other poets his age and of his time to be all of them in one; in addition, he has a strain of complacent sentimentality which I find very much not to my liking. It may be that he will turn out well; I hope so. As far as I am concerned, however, his beginning does not indicate this as a strong possibility. (pp. 69-70)

James Dickey, "Philip Booth" (1958), in his Babel to Byzantium: Poets & Poetry Now (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968, pp. 69-70.

Samuel Hazo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When I read Philip Booth's Letter from a Distant Land several years ago, I thought and still think that its title poem was a beautiful and powerful achievement. I therefore came to his new book, The Islanders, with a sense of muted expectation, and I was not disappointed. Booth is still a good craftsman with a Frost-like love for New England and New Englanders (mostly from Maine) that give him his subject matter. And he has a sense of humor that is perfectly suited to the accomplished abandon of his style; this is especially effective in "Was a Man," "Mores" and "Spit." But the real strength of this book grows out of poems like "Maine," "Boulder," "Jake's Wharf," "The Anchor," "Propellor" and a haunting poem called "Sable Island." He sees the music in things like "ships' bones," the "trick back" of a seal, an owl "hooing the cold," and he conveys this music simply, truthfully and with all the sensitivity of what Sir Philip Sidney once called a "right poet." (pp. 346-47)

Samuel Hazo, "A Clutch of Poets," in Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXV, No. 13, December 22, 1961, pp. 346-47.∗

James Dickey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Among [those] poets who have taken the risk of throwing away what reputation they have for something they may never attain, Philip Booth is one of the most interesting and admirable.

["The Islanders"] is unusual among those of the many occasional lyricists of his generation: it is a concerted attempt to theme a large body of material, to develop a consistent and working attitude about his subjects that will allow them to come through to the reader in a multi-leveled, massive way. In the main I think he succeeds quite well in an area which lesser poets—those still riding the spent wave of the Forties and the well-made poem—don't even know is there. His water-locked, rugged world of love and uncertainty and responsibility is a valuable one, and it is very much to Mr. Booth's credit that he shows us that this world, in its symbolic implications, is as real as it is in its own brute and terrifying fact. That is, I take it, the task of his kind of poet. (p. 4)

James Dickey, "Neither Maddeningly Genteel Nor Bawling," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 24, 1961, pp. 4-5.∗

Albert J. Gelpi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Booth's third book of poems ["Weathers and Edges"] will confirm all his old admirers and earn him many new ones. As the title indicates, the poems concern the weathers, internal and external, of the landsman as he gazes seaward. The developing sequence moves from land to sea, from the artificial complexities of contemporary society to the self's confrontation with its elemental destiny.

So the first poem in the book, "Choosing a Homesite," satirizes the efforts of a citizen to stake out a place of his own beyond the collectivized destructiveness of the moneyed and military powers….

But social criticism is not Mr. Booth's natural bent. His irony is more tragic than satiric....

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John Ashbery

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Booth is the archetype of the conservative younger poet. Matter and manner are derived from Robert Frost, and he has successfully reproduced Frost's wry music. "Choosing a Homesite," the first poem in Weathers and Edges, shows him at his best. Here he evokes the creeping industrialization of the American landscape in lines whose graceful, over-and-under movement keeps dipping in and out of commercial jargon.

Unfortunately, the very next poem, "Incident in Santo Domingo," is a little anthology of Booth's commonest faults, such as trying to enliven a dully reportorial passage with a few calculating vulgarities … and unnecessary coinages…. His irony is often heavy-handed…. Yet all this might be acceptable if we could feel the necessity behind the poem. It remains a set-piece, battening on the day's headlines and everybody's hatred of war. In short, what Auden has called "a poem written merely for the sake of writing some poem."…

[After] a while our attention begins to wander.

It wanders too when Mr. Booth begins talking about the weather or his beloved Maine islands merely to lure us down familiar metaphysical paths. Rare is the grain of sand in which he can't spot the world; seagulls, dories, and schools of herring are likewise windows giving on eternity, until we begin to suspect that he is in direct, hot-line communication with it. (p. 2)

John Ashbery, "Tradition and Talent," in Book Week (© Chicago Sun-Times, 1966; reprinted with permission), September 4, 1966, pp. 2, 14.∗

Joseph Bennett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Booth's Mainescapes, "Weathers and Edges," cover ground that is familiar to observers of the school of New England coastal poetry. Rocks, fishermen, dories, lobster pots, seaweed, ledges, square-dancing. One must also report, a bit ruefully, that Booth is in favor of mothers, children, babies-at-the-breast, and other such good things. With a sigh of relief at his passage through these tests of virtue, we can continue to report that the poetry is there, though sometimes hidden by masses of glacial debris. Booth is determined that we shall recognize that he is a "good guy"; he has a wife, friends, commutes in suburban traffic, is worried about the wreck of the submarine Thresher.

The poetry is there; one must simply overlook certain amateurish, self-conscious efforts. He writes of the "cider light" that "opens the deepening woods," the West Side Highway, the buck feeding in the snow of Deer Isle—these are true revelations. A homage to Henry Moore, expressed in the sculpture of sealedges, is well nigh perfect; as is his companion tribute to John Marin. Here Booth begins to earn his attitudes. They blossom with a just regionality, in a succession of remarkable power: poems of seeing, of looking….

Mr. Booth is a poised poet; it is only the attitude, never the art, which is sometimes in question. (p. 24)

Joseph Bennett, "Voices Three," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1967, pp. 22, 24.∗

Roberts W. French

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is considerable variety in Booth's Margins, perhaps inevitably, since the book is a gathering of selections from previous volumes (twenty-eight poems), as well as a collection of new poems (twenty-three)….

[Booth is] very much a poet of place…. Booth's place is the Maine coast, and he seems not at all sure that a man can find himself there or anywhere else, for the world is not so easily to be tamed and made friendly. Booth's landscapes are ominous, forbidding, and his central metaphor is, significantly, that of the tide. For what it is worth, I pass along the information that the words "tide," "tidal" or "ebb" appear in eighteen of the last thirty-eight poems, and not at all in the first thirteen. Throughout much of the book, then, the metaphor appears almost obsessive, as it should be; for Booth is much concerned with the ebb and flow of things. The opening poems stress instead the theme of waking and sleeping, but that is another sort of ebb and flow….

The great ebb and flow, of course, is that of time; it rolls in from the future and recedes into the past, and men stand for a while poised against its rhythms. The idea of margins embodies this theme precisely, for Booth is writing about people at the edge, on the borders, where the margin of life is sharply outlined against all that lies beyond. Appropriately, these poems are placed against a background of fog, snow, cold winds and the open sea. In its essentials—and Booth is concerned with nothing but essentials—the view we are given is bleak and bare; we live in a hostile universe, and that is a fact that cannot be changed, struggle as we will….

Booth's style is as unadorned as his landscapes. The lines are short; words seem to be spoken grudgingly, in taut, controlled rhythms. The structures are tightly woven, so much so that … it is difficult to find sections that will stand by themselves…. It is all there, the fog, the wind, the tide, the bleak pursuits. As the fish boats go out, so do we all. (p. 474)

Roberts W. French, "From Maine to Kentucky," in The Nation (copyright 1970 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 211, No. 15, November 9, 1970, pp. 472-74.∗

Daniel Jaffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Margins] is a "sequence of new and selected poems." It doesn't distinguish which is which except in one instance, so it's not possible to tell how many there are of each without going back to Booth's earlier books. I get the impression that he does too much reshuffling. Nevertheless, I remain an admirer. New and familiar poems loom before me like pieces of granite, solid and full of undiminished fascinations. Booth's poems seem cut from the earth or netted from the sea; they share in depths and mysteries. Poems like "Bolt," "The Day the Tide," and "The Misery of Mechanics" show man hanging on "a strip of blown sand" in the midst of a turbulence that is literal, biblical, unfathomable. Philip Booth's poems are shaped moments of balance, full of abrasions and courage, neither naïve nor foredefeated. (p. 33)

Daniel Jaffe, "A Shared Language in the Poet's Tongue," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIV, No. 14, April 3, 1971, pp. 31-33, 46.∗

Richmond Lattimore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Much of the content in Philip Booth's [Available Light] is based, we are told on the work of photographers. Black and white? I find light but little color. The verse lines are spare and taut. Subjects include Booth's familiar Maine and New Hampshire landscapes, tidal coasts and sea marshes, snowy winters and late springs; and wife and daughters and constantly the self seeking itself, eluding itself. Sometimes this reader feels like a stranger happening upon a man talking to himself over problems momentous to that man but obscure to the outsider; but still the conversation is handsome, though frequently stark. And sometimes it is all perfectly clear and still stark, as in "Household."… Three lines to the...

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James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Available Light] Philip Booth invites us to enter the world below zero in the mind, with only his words tracking the silent snow before us. It is a powerful image and a challenging call to the reader; it typifies Booth's ability to find objective details for his innermost perceptions….

Booth is a poet who has discovered the thought in things and the things in his thought….

Poetry at this level must be honest, the product of true self-knowledge…. He feels his New England Puritanism in his bones; he admits in "Adding It Up" that, lying awake in the early morning hours, he is the accountant of his life, busy with trivia and the inventory of the day's duties. Piecemeal,...

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Robert Siegel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] Available Light, Philip Booth continues to cling with fierce, controlled energy to those spare certainties that New Englanders permit themselves on the edge of the Atlantic of the soul. As in [Archibald] MacLeish, what there is for certain receives its emotional force from what is not. The sensibility here is still Puritan, still resigned to that arduous positivism of the spirit Booth revealed he shares by quoting Frost at the opening of The Islanders…. As the title of the selected poems Margins suggested, it is living on the edge (perfectly realized for Booth in his beloved Maine shore) that brings out the integrity of the spirit. On that edge what the weather leaves, a man had better...

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Dave Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Before Sleep] Philip Booth's sixth collection, continues his chiseled-style of poetry…. Booth is a poet of nature's coasts as scripts of knowledge, but [he is] skeptical of answers. He has composed his book as a loose tale of time whose core is the dialectic of death and art's revelations of resistant life…. Essentially a lyric poet, Booth has extended his songs of consolation into contemplation through a shadow-narrative meant to accomodate moments of joy, despair, change and permanence in simultaneous coexistence. The book opposes one skein of poems about the definitive scenes in a man's aging life (houses, weather, fishing, boat-building, writers, friends and loves), generally celebrative of the will to...

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Paul Breslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Philip Booth's "Before Sleep" is impressive.] Mr. Booth's new poems have the uncompromising spareness one expects from him—not minimalism so much as a principled refusal to say more than the occasion warrants. Sometimes, in his determination not to make much of little, he makes little of much—or sometimes just little of little…. (p. 14)

But most of the poems, for all their spareness, have substance enough. The poems concern, as the title suggests, the cares of middle age: the deaths of friends, the decline of one's own body, coming to terms with the inevitability of one's own death. Against these evils the poet invokes the solidity of everyday reality: his house, his marriage, his connection...

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James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Inner poetry need not cause claustrophobia, as Philip Booth has proven…. [His Before Sleep] projects the alter-ego into the figure of Odysseus, an old man returned to his tall house and faithful wife. The situation allows the poet-wanderer to ruminate on mortality and to ready himself for death…. Just as the Odyssey includes singers in its own narrative, so Booth characterizes poets like Lowell, another Odysseus come up from the sea and greeted by an old worn-out dog. Booth handles his mythopoesis with such skill that the under-thought only emerges gradually and, while remaining meaningful in themselves, particular poems complete the imaginative biography. Out of "nothing" (a word repeated often),...

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Robert Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Letter from a Distant Land] displayed mature craft, but these were green songs: poems of a son, of the turning years, of optimistic beginnings. Several times Booth significantly invoked the image of Adam. The general impression was one of light: dawn, April, promise. In the five volumes to follow, Booth's vision has been darkening. (p. 617)

All of which is preparation for Before Sleep, Booth's new and darkest book, a cycle confronting age, losses, sorrows, and emptiness. Before Sleep is a series of articles of belief in which the poet rehearses his mortality. These poems are provisions, stays against finality, as well as proofs of existence in this world. The title inevitably...

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