Relations Critical Essays

Philip Booth


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When a poet publishes thirty-five years of work, he takes great risks. Even if he is a good poet, the dips and turns of literary achievement and failure can be easily and sometimes embarrassingly revealed. Not in Booth’s collection. He sails through his gradually maturing career like one of those streamlined sailing vessels that used to plow his beloved Maine coast.

His early work acknowledges his own innocence and celebrates the honor of poetry in the very act of his own modest beginning: “I risk my naked and imperfect praise.” Very shortly, his innocence comes up against his honesty, his need to validate the presumption of his creativity with the integrity of his person.

As the weight of life closes in, Booth builds on the strength of innocence and integrity in the stoical but essentially romantic vein of William Wordsworth.

Crouched hard on granite, facing a weathered sea, I breathe as slow as rock.

When Booth moves from the discovery of life’s difficulty to a confrontation with poetry, his work takes on a new innocence. There is something of a circular effect, as his poetry takes on new life in the very shadow of his firm but modest struggle with the meaning of death: I’ve only begun to see how I feel, to believe who I am, to trust what I know.

Much of Booth’s resilience comes from his courage to be simple, to polish his diction until it is almost, but never, prosaic. The limpid language is kept supple, youthful by the stately but never pompous phrasing. It is never effortless, but it is never strained either.

Perhaps the most striking quality of this collection is its quiet dignity. Booth does not whitewash the ugliness of life or duck its disappointments, but he is always fascinated by his own survival and the challenge of experience to the poet’s imagination-- and endurance.