Philip Booth’s voice is neither strident nor trendy. His first volume, Letter from a Distant Land (1956), set the perimeters for both his poetic approach and his subject matter. His poetic technique has always been characterized by reticence; his subject matter has always dealt with his personal journey, however submerged; his work has always exhibited empathy with the New England landscape and seascape and with his neighbors. Over the years Booth has not veered from the course he set for himself but he has made several discoveries along the way. The most notable additions to his original methods began with his fifth book, Available Light (1976). In this volume, Booth included his first dream poem, which he indicated represents a new source for his work. Selves, his eighth volume, continues these trends as he probes more deeply into the lives of his neighbors, the lives of the elderly in nursing homes, and his personal reaction to his own mortality.
Booth begins this volume with an introductory poem addressed to readers. “Reaching In” acknowledges that the process of making a poem is incomplete until it is read by someone. He tells the reader, “Weigh each word before you believe me.! However you read me you enter the story.” Booth’s self needs the selves of readers, and both are mysteriously and inextricably linked.
This opening poem describes his regard for his audience, and the epigraphs delineate the other subjects he is considering. Booth uses quotations from Anton Chekhov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wallace Stevens. The Chekhov quotation, from the short story “Gooseberries,” asserts that “What is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes The quotation from Hopkins begins with the line from his poem “Binsey Poplars”: “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” The lines from Stevens sum up what Booth is trying to convey in this work: “And out of what one sees and hears and out/ Of what one feels, who could have thought to make/ So many selves….”
Booth has seen and experienced Chekhov’s “terrible,” or he knows those who have; he is as acutely conscious of the beauty of the life he is living and of the natural surroundings which he loves. The terror and beauty of it all splinter him, divide him; bits of him appear in others, and he sees pieces of himself in his neighbors and family. Although he cites Chekhov and Hopkins, Booth’s philosophy comes from the democracy of Walt Whitman. While Booth admires the poetic techniques of Wallace Stevens, whom he also cites, much of his technique seems to be influenced by William Carlos Williams. Like Whitman’s, Booth’s work is inclusive; it says, as Whitman did in his “Song of Myself” “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” In technique, his most pervasive line is, like Williams’, the short line made up of only a few syllables, often only four or five. Like Williams, he insists on the rhythms of everyday speech. Unlike Williams, however, Booth uses rhyme in some poems—some end rhyme and some internal rhyme. Most of the time his rhyme is carefully hidden, a technique that reminds one of Marianne Moore’s deceptive rhymes.
Reticence, however, is the key word to describe the overwhelming element in his poetic technique. Although in the volumes since the publication of Available Light he has loosened his hold on the actual, Booth does not let emotions spill over the page. He carefully controls the shape of the poem, and like the good sailor that he is, he has studied the charts and planned the voyage. If an unknown island or idea appears, he does not reject it but, rather, uses what the sea and the Muse proffer. One major result of his reticence is that the poems are laconic, similar to the speech of Maine people about whom he writes. Booth never uses words carelessly. In this volume, not one word could be excised without changing both rhythm and meaning.
A second result is that this extreme contraction forces the poet to find precisely the right word for each place. Booth’s vocabulary seems conversational, but what appears simple on the surface is teeming with meaning underneath. In “Short Day,” the poet is trying to find a nut that will fit an engine mount stud. He finally discovers that he does not have the right size and has to go into town to get one. As he drives toward the store, he lets his imagination fly “…beyond/ loons or mallards or// islands and gives himself “leave to/ be out there, far// offshore where,/ over the labyrin-// thine waves, a seabird/ without a name// circles, her wings quieting/ to calm the sea// as she comes in/ to light.” What happens is that during an ordinary day when Booth is taking care of ordinary chores, he is lifted by his imagination as he observes the wildlife around him....
(The entire section is 1961 words.)