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Booth, Philip

BOOTH, Philip


Nationality: American. Born: Hanover, New Hampshire, 8 October 1925. Education: Dartmouth College, Hanover, A.B. 1948 (Phi Beta Kappa); Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1949. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1944–45. Family: Married Margaret Tillman in 1946; three daughters. Career: Instructor, Bowdoin College, Maine, 1949–50; assistant to the director of admissions, 1950–51, and instructor, 1954, Dartmouth College; assistant professor, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1954–61; associate professor, 1961–65, and professor of English and poet-in-residence, 1966–86, Syracuse University, New York. Taught at the University of New Hampshire Writers Conference, Durham, 1955; Spencer Memorial Lecturer, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, 1959; Tufts University Poetry Workshop, Medford, Massachusetts, 1960, 1961. Phi Beta Kappa poet, Columbia University, 1962. Awards: Bess Hokin prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1955; Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1956; Saturday Review prize, 1957; Guggenheim fellowship, 1958, 1965; Emily Clark Balch prize (Virginia Quarterly Review), 1964; National Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1967; Rockefeller fellowship, 1968; Theodore Roethke prize (Poetry Northwest), 1970; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1983; Maurice English award, 1987; Friends of Witherle Memorial Library award, 1985. Litt. D.: Colby College, Waterville, Maine, 1968. Address: 95 Main Street, Castine, Maine 04421, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Letter from a Distant Land. New York, Viking Press, 1957.

The Islanders. New York, Viking Press, 1961.

Weathers and Edges. New York, Viking Press, 1966.

Margins: A Sequence of New and Selected Poems. New York, Viking Press, 1970.

Available Light. New York, Viking Press, 1976.

Before Sleep. New York, Viking Press, 1980.

Relations: Selected Poems 1950–1985. New York, Viking Penguin, 1986.

Selves: New Poems. New York, Viking Penguin, 1990.

Pairs. New York, Penguin, 1994.

Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950–1999. New York, Viking, 1999.

Recordings: Today's Poets 4, with others, Folkways; The Cold Coast, Watershed, 1987.

Other

North by East. Boston, Impressions Workshop, 1966.

Beyond Our Fears. N.p., Georgian Trust, 1968.

Trying to Say It: Outlooks and Insights on How Poems Happen. Ann Arbor, Poets on Poetry, University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Editor, The Dark Island. Lunenberg, Vermont, Stinehour Press, 1960.

Editor, Syracuse Poems, 1965, 1970, 1973, 1978; and Syracuse Stories and Poems, 1983, Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Department of English, 5 vols., 1965–83.

*

Manuscript Collections: State University of New York, Buffalo; University of Texas, Austin; Special Collections, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Critical Studies: Three Contemporary Poets of New England by Guy Rotella, Boston, Twayne, 1983; Forty-Five Contemporary Poems: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner, White Plains, New York, Longman Publishing, 1985; interview with Rachel Berghash, American Poetry Review (Philadelphia) 18(3), 1989; "Poems after Dreams," in Dreams Are Wiser Than Men edited by Richard A. Russo, Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books, 1987; "Philip Booth, Selves" by Ron Block, in North Dakota Quarterly (University of North Dakota), 61(3), summer 1993.

*  *  *

The poetry of Philip Booth, which spans four decades, represents a mighty effort to push through the limits of language into the reality of things. Ever on the edge of reality, clinging to surfaces, he struggles with an intractable world that, though it yields itself to his manipulation, will not allow him to possess it. Frustrated by this condition, Booth hones words to form a bridge across the abyss he feels separates him from true being. For a while, during the period of the 1970s, the process seemed to be wearing him out. But in the 1980s he seemed to find the bridge that achieved the integration he was seeking.

In his early work—Letter from Distant Land, The Islanders, and Weathers and Edges—Booth forged some of the most disciplined poems of his generation, poems that are eloquent testimonials to the world he knows he must reach but one that seems ever to elude him. Indeed, in an age in which so many others are challenging society and plumbing the depths of the neurotic self, Booth is seeking metaphysical affirmation, an ontological relationship with the world. Hard, disciplined forms, short lines, and cool images carry the weight of his determined search. Booth's poems remind one of the best of the imagists, in their cool detachment in fixing nature in an image, and at the same time of the best of personal poetry in our age. Booth's poems are not an escape from personality but rather a means of establishing it.

Booth found his medium early in Letter from a Distant Land, and he then worked it and reworked it in the two succeeding volumes, The Islanders and Weathers and Edges. The poems in these volumes represent a search for an ineffable reality, a dimly grasped world of being beyond being, a sunlit world of real shapes and truth. But finding the key to that illusive world is like searching for the impossible dream, the dream behind the dream, the dream we call life but that fades to darkness and becomes nothing. The sunlit beaches, the light filtering through the trees, the hard, rocky Maine coast, the muted ancestors whose ghostlike presence can be felt in the earth and in the Booth ancestral home—all merge into a kaleidoscope of images that tumble from the poet's fertile imagination in a lifetime of searching for meaning and existence.

In the volumes Margins, Available Light, and Before Sleep, the struggle seems to wear the poet out. Progressively hard put to maintain the struggle, Booth retreats to a more and more confined space, literally his ancestral home, where in one room he assesses his struggle and seeks aid and comfort from the generations of his family that have inhabited the house. As the light dims, the desire to sleep after a lifetime of effort becomes an ever growing preoccupation. The entire volume Before Sleep carries strong indications of a fatigue so pervasive as to threaten the poet's life. Images of death and decay vie with moments of quickening, of life suddenly revealed, a truth hammered home in silent revelation. Darkness and nothingness creep in like a fog, and the poet finds himself adrift, rudderless, alone, and lost, as in "Fog";

                 I'm rowing
   where measure is lost, I'm barely moving,
   in a circle of translucence that moves with me
   without compass
                              I can't see out or up into;
   I sit facing backwards,
                                    pulling myself slowly
   toward the life I'm still trying to get at.

More dangerous still is the condition of the man described in "Narrative," who "sits all day/on the edge of nothing,/after a while he gets numb and falls in."

In the five years following the publication of Before Sleep, something remarkable must have happened to Booth that gave him a renewed sense of life and that allowed him to make a fresh start in poetry. The first six sections of his Relations: Selected Poems 1950–1985 include selections from each of his previously published volumes. The seventh section collects new poems demonstrating that he has been able to step back from the abyss, rediscover himself, and find a new joy in living. Although about half of the poems are written in the former mode (for example, "To Think," "Here, There," "A Man in Maine"), Booth breaks new ground in most of the others. No longer seeing himself as dying, he projects himself as a new man experiencing a new life. The signal for the transformation appears in the poem "Snapshot," in which Booth uses the occasion of looking at a picture of himself at a young age to assess who he is and what he has become. Playfully, he declares that he now knows "less and better" and is heavier and less easily pleased, although not tender, harder, more angry, and "more horny." In the remarkable poem "Public Broadcast" he describes a cold, wintry afternoon during which he is carrying wood into his house while listening to an opera broadcast over the radio. As he listens to a triumphal march, he fantasizes that he is part of the procession, returning home a conqueror and feeling a sense of victory he "hasn't felt in fifty years."

This sense of victory can be felt in the poems "Dreamboat" and "Cycle." In "Dreamboat" the new feeling is expressed as an escape through music, which allows him to soar "blowing solo out across the Atlantic." "Cycle" sounds a challenge of resistance to the forces that for all his life he has projected as working toward his inevitable decay and destruction. He asserts that he finds himself "miles from where he intended, years from where he has been & pumping toward a new country." The title of this engaging poem may be read as well as "full cycle" or "recycle" in relation to the poet's life. In the final poems in the volume—"Saying It," "After the Rebuilding," "Prime," "Creatures," and "Relations"—we are exposed to a profusion of images of rebirth and rebuilding, not only of the poet's life but of his poetry as well. Booth can rest in the satisfaction of having come through a lifetime of struggle to a vision of wholeness, peace, and joy.

—Richard Damashek

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