Philip Booth

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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."

(This entire section contains 141 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. His characteristic note is a stoic and muted lament for lost innocence and an unblinking insistence upon facing the doom that follows the loss of innocence….

This is, first and last, the sea's book, and the best poems depict individuals strong enough to reside fearlessly in themselves as they meet the sea. "Five Ways of Facing the Deep," perhaps the finest poems in the book, hail five such men, including three New England artists, Andrew Wyeth, William Thon, and John Marin.

Always against those who have sold out to the false protection of organized self-delusion are the lone and brave ones who choose the untamed as their challenge and element….

[Philip Booth,] like Melville, views nature, and especially the sea as that inscrutability in which man must trace his course if he is to contend with reality at all.

Again as with Melville, this sense of things isolates the individual in his own quandary. The titles of Mr. Booth's other books specify that, for him at least, consciousness turns us into "Islanders," and that his poems are therefore "Letters from a Distant Land."

These sad and elegaic poems are written with a terse, tight-lipped New England quality stripped of dramatics or histrionics. The images are cleanly and sharply sketched; the lines are hard-packed with sound; the diction is effective in its directness, so that seemingly flat statements resonate.

Granite-gray and granite-strong, the best of these poems have a resistant and resilient compactness which dares the sea's weathers as it mourns the sea's inescapability. No praise would probably please Mr. Booth more than for us to say of his poems, as he does of Marin's watercolors, that they are, in the strict illumination of their "dark light," "more Maine / than Maine."

Albert J. Gelpi, "Poems 'Granite-Gray and Granite-Strong'," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1966 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), September 1, 1966, p. 11.

John Ashbery

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 stanza, three syllables to the line, and the clanking monosyllables have the best of it. But the poet is not always in it. (p. 123)

Richmond Lattimore, "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 123-24.∗

James Finn Cotter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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, he longs for the whole, for the vision of the mind's eye…. (p. 215)

The price of this vision is pain. The remembered losses of boyhood are movingly pictured in the snow scene of "The Winter of the Separation" when the mother informs the child of his father's departure. "Household" and "Panic" capture the interior terror under the domestic surface, the sense of not belonging in the most ordinary setting. Booth creates the experience of fear by just suggesting it; in "Word," the source of our suffering remains nameless and is all the more poignant for that.

In poems about other poets, "Seeing Auden Off" and "The Heavy Poet" (Delmore Schwartz), Booth peers beneath the mask to give us a glimpse of the same loneliness and sorrow as the real face of inspiration. The poet teaches us, as T. S. Eliot said, "to sit still," to be inward by the mediation that becomes the meditation of the poem. (pp. 215-16)

James Finn Cotter, "Poets Inside Out and a Compleat Angler," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1976; all rights reserved), Vol. 135, No. 10, October 9, 1976, pp. 215-16.∗

Robert Siegel

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 hoard, count, and cherish…. There is plenty of counting and cherishing here in the stubbed, reticent lines, with their lists and delayed fuses of feeling—the poet's watermark. But there is also a new note of vulnerability, of the personal cost of such strict diminishment of expectations, that wavers into moments of unaccountable (and therefore suspect? mad?) joy. More accountably, it moves into gestures of love, logs sawn or words carefully hewn, that lead him to declare in Self-Portrait, "I mean nothing except what I love."

In his latest book, then, the poems move by available light, are "centrally concerned with light, with the ways in which we see, realize what we see, and are moved or refuse to be moved". At first, light is anything but friendly, an obliterating whiteness…. Paradoxically, it is in the dark, the Puritan's favorite element, that the eye begins to see…. In Photographer he reaches for the right combination of light and shadow…. [This] might well stand for the present stage of Booth's art: light throughout the book shapes the poet's vision and shows how lives deepen. There is here little desperate pressing to surfaces to keep down the underlying strata, though some of the poems are rich with a fear of "nothing" on the other side of surfaces. What is "under the words" rises to speak for … personal and collective trauma. (pp. 111-12)

[In How to See Deer Booth gives us] explicit advice on how to come to our senses, blending the cryptic directives of Frost, the waylessness of Zen consciousness, and the protective coloring of Thoreau (a continuing source of inspiration to Booth)…. (pp. 112-13)

Perhaps because of this centrifugal movement from the self, the poet has even more compassion for the solitary, the helpless loner in each of us, from the wealthy woman trapped on her teakwood yacht … to the blind, waiting for [someone to guide them]…. On the other hand, there are moments of unaccountable joy and insight …, even though they may suggest incipient madness or fever…. (p. 113)

One of the finest poems in a volume with more than its share of fine poems is Word, which discreetly points to, without naming, death: "In a flat month / in a low field / / I hit on a word / with just one / / meaning", he begins, "the word itself / would have the last / / word". The book is filled with triumphs close to this one…. [Available Light] shows that change, growth, and love are possible…. (p. 114)

Robert Siegel, "Emerson's Simile," in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. 130, No. 2, May, 1977, pp. 102-14.∗

Dave Smith

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 live with brave dignity, to a counter-thread of poems, untitled and irregularly inserted, which consider the everpresent nothing life seems.

Booth writes … [about] the flux of being and the edge of dissolution; he regards life as meaningful only when tested, named, and shaped. This labor is dramatized as the necessary courage to be, as our best answer to contingency…. Elegiac, spare, lucid, Booth always had the imagist's gift to see through the world's rock and face. But with a fictive architecture and argument added, Before Sleep rises to an emblematic depth and finality: one feels the bleak, history-ridden, yet hardy fist of New England life hurting and working on.

Dave Smith, "Poetic Equations and Natural Hymns," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), March 1, 1981, p. 6.∗

Paul Breslin

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 to other lives around him. There are several sharp observations of other people, such as the untitled dialogue about a psychiatrist's suicide, which ends with a friend's sympathetic tribute…. Not many poets could get the voices absolutely right, and yet compress so much meaning into a few colloquial words. (pp. 14, 31)

Mr. Booth's style, reticent though it is, can be very beautiful. (p. 31)

Paul Breslin, "Four Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1981, pp. 14, 31.∗

James Finn Cotter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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), the fullness of a life crystallizes, defining its own limits and shining with a light that radiates from within and from all sides…. Booth did not become a poet for nothing and we are the beneficiaries when we listen to the voice raised against the void of not-being, blessing existence, and giving thanks for life…. (pp. 286-87)

James Finn Cotter, "Outer and Inner Poetry," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 277-89.∗

Robert Phillips

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 recalls Frost's famous final couplet from "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," with its shimmerings of earthly obligations and heavenly anticipations. Which is precisely Booth's point. His work has progressed from expectation to obligation, from celebrations of life to cerebrations of life herafter.

Early Booth trafficked in nature, the sea and the air. He sometimes wrote as if the proper studies of mankind were fishing, hunting and flying. The new volume focusses particularly upon the 136-year-old family house in which the poet now lives and writes. He gives us an asymptotic phenomenology of thresholds, doorways, halls and rooms—indicative of the narrowing of focus, domestication and inwardness of the poet's later concerns. The greater world is pushed aside for nearer realities of family, history, blood, ponderations of achievements and failures. Rather than attempt to disarm us with naked "confessions," he disarms and confronts his own naked humanity. Overall there prevails a longing for ritual.

Booth's book of change and becoming is uniquely structured. Its forty-three poems are counterpointed by an interspersed sequence of poetic jottings he calls "Night Notes." These underscore the book's heavy themes in a lighter vein, and objectively dramatize the longer poems' introspection. Their brevity is extreme in Booth's canon, though he always has displayed a preference for the fragment rather than the monument. The short length is best for Booth's poems. Their long-suit is their immediacy; their rhythmic enterprise is cadences of human breath. With bright particularity of diction, Booth also finds ways to handle verse without abandoning conversation…. One reason Booth wears so well is, his language is always from living speech rather than from the dictionary. Booth is a parsimonious poet (a parsimonious person, too, apparently—writing about such practises of New England thrift as turning shirt collars and saving buttons). Not for him are the refinements and extravagances of subject and rhetoric of Hecht, Merrill, or Hollander.

Previously his pared-down language evolved until it became full of the tensions of negativity—irony, with enjambment shoring up the poems' energy. He is master of the right-hand margin, never relinquishing a line's energy until it informs its successor. (An enjambment such as "beneath the breaking wave / of summer" gives us successively a breaking ocean wave and summer's heat in one near-ideogrammatic figure.) There are fewer such startling breaks in the new book, and Booth also seems to have relinquished puns. These poems seem to seek instead new ambiguities that are exactly balanced, as in the pairing of "nowhere/better," which seems, momentarily, to imply no place, possibly no place finer, and equally, none any less dull than this. While Booth's language is plain, it also often is specialized, as in his new poems on wood-working and boat-building. Words such as "scarfing" and "rabbeting" give texture to a poem the way grain does to wood, and lend immediacy and authenticity.

Besides personal and familial losses and gains, Booth catalogues the deaths of colleagues and friends. Of all the elegies to Robert Lowell's memory, Booth's seems the most deeply felt. (pp. 617-18)

Before Sleep is a post-midlife crisis book. The protagonist has come to terms with his mortality and time's irreversibility. He is a survivor. In "Not to Tell Lies," "Words for the Room," "Recall," "Still Life," "Sorting It Out," "Generation," and the quintessential Booth poem, "Fog", the poet earns—rather than merely surrenders to—the inescapable leap into spirit. There is something here of the serenity and illumination of the late poems of Yeats and Rilke. (p. 619)

Robert Phillips, "Review of Philip Booth: 'Before Sleep'," in New England Review (copyright © 1981 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. III, No. 4, Summer, 1981, pp. 617-19.