Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Quiet Voice of Beauty: Philip Booth

Poet Philip Booth, born in New Hampshire, utterly committed to his home in Maine, died last week. Here is the "hometown" obituary from the Bangor Daily News:

Poet Philip Booth dies at 81
By Alicia Anstead
Tuesday, July 03, 2007 - Bangor Daily News

Philip Booth, a poet who studied with Robert Frost and belonged to an elite literary circle in Castine, died Monday in Hanover, N.H. He was 81.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Margaret.

Booth’s poetry explored New England themes with a native son’s understanding of the landscape and coastline. The winds, fields, working people and tidal cycles are his subjects. His style is sparse and elegant, a combination of Down East economy and naturalistic rhythms.

"After work, splitting birch by the light outside his back door, a man in Maine thinks what his father told him, splitting outside this same back door," he wrote in the poem "A Man in Maine."

Although many of Booth’s poems reflected his love of the Northeast and he has been called "Maine’s clearest poetic voice," he was not exclusively thought of as a Maine poet. The genius of his work, said Paul Gray, a retired professor who grew up in Castine, is that it "makes the local place nationally available."

Booth was born on Oct. 8, 1925, in Hanover, N.H., where his father was an English professor at Dartmouth College and his mother, a native of Castine, was a housewife. The family, including one sister, Lee, spent summers in Castine, where Booth developed an early aptitude for sailing, and had a boat that, even as a young boy, he was permitted to sail alone. He was also a skilled skier.

While serving in the Air Force in World War II, he met his wife, a music student from Macon, Ga., and the two married in 1946. Booth pursued his love of poetry at Dartmouth, where he studied with Frost, and then at Columbia University, where he completed a master’s degree in English.

He and Margaret raised three daughters while he taught at Dartmouth, and then at Wellesley College in the 1950s, when his first book of poetry was published. In the 1960s, Booth joined the faculty at Syracuse University, where he founded a graduate program in creative writing.

Stephen Dunn, one of his star students at Syracuse, went on to win the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

"He was a major influence first as a teacher and then as a friend who continued to be a teacher," said Dunn, from his home in Frostburg, Md. "I know I would not have been as exacting and precise as I wished to be had it not been for him. His poetry was the outgrowth of a lived life that, in his Puritan way, constantly took stock. When his poems were good, which they were often, they resonated into all of our lives."

During Booth’s long career, he wrote a dozen books, and received Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. His work appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The American Poetry Review. He was also a Fellow of the American Academy of Poets.

In the 1980s, the Booths moved to Maine and became year-round residents at his ancestral home where five generations of his family — the Hookes — lived and where he spent summers as a boy.

Booth worked in an upstairs room with a view of Main Street and of the home of his next-door neighbor and good friend, the writer Mary McCarthy. The quartet of Booth, McCarthy, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, as well as their heady summer visitors, established a literary reputation for the village.

But of the four, only Booth wrote regularly about the area and its people. His poem "Eaton’s Boatyard," which is set in Castine, is well known by summer visitors and locals alike.

Although Booth was not born in Maine, an important distinction in some circles, his ancestry and friendly personality won him an indelible place in the hearts of community members.

"Phil is really a native son, but more importantly, the breadth of his work comes from here. It so perfectly reflects Castine, but also the region. It’s what we see around us, or what he taught us to see about this place and what we do here," said Dixie Gray, a member of the Castine Historical Society and curator of the town’s summer exhibition "Turning the Page: Writing Castine 1956-2006." Booth is featured in the show.

In 2002, three years after Booth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he and Margaret moved into an assisted living community in Hanover, where his family was with him when he died on Monday.

"Castine was the only home that I think he ever felt was his natural place," said Margaret Booth on Monday. "He always wanted to be there. He loved the straightforwardness of the people and their affection toward him."

Booth is survived by his wife, Margaret, their three daughters, Margot, of Austin, Texas; Carol, of Amherst, Mass.; and Robin of Rowe, Mass., as well as his sister, Lee, of Hartland, Vt.


I'd like to invite discussion of Booth's work here; I'll return to it myself in a few weeks, after our July 14 Alice James Books "Four Poets and a Publisher" celebration. Meanwhile, here is one of Booth's poems from a 1988 issue of POETRY:

by Philip Booth

Coastal rain, an iron sky.
Granite mainland, granite island.
It's too cold, I'm too cold,

to row across to the mainland.
The pickup needs an inspection;
I ought to row over across and

drive her to Gray for a sticker.
Let it wait. There's still time.
There's time this morning to

read the whole day, to read
the cold rain, the old sky, the who-
do-I-think-I-am. Between five

and seven, the crown of the day
no matter what weather, who can afford
less wonder. Or bear any more?

I'm in the kitchen, belonging
with what doesn't know me, so far
as I know: pots and pans that

heat up and cool, belonging by how
I feel about them, not how they
maybe feel about me. Beings who

differently breathe, we humans
contract—in and out—to expand
all our lives. Who in hell would I be

if I couldn't imagine, imagine
the range of this moment in
the spun flight, the spun life

of the planet? It's here, when
anyone pays due attention:
here now, there then in the now

where anyone opens to feel it.
Now, shaving, I long to pay back
what I owe, however much, in

the mirror, I find myself
wanting. Wanting in all
directions, across distance

measured in minutes as well
as degrees. Now, outdoors,
out under ospreys wheeling over

a tidestream, searching the shallows
for alewives, I look up with
my own hunger. Hunger. how

can I mean it, given
lives starving? I want to mean
how-can-I-not, to have

their lives at heart, stretching
not reaching as their lives
contract, while my life

is weighed with alternatives.
How can I possibly mean,
give what to whom, given

this glassy sea I cannot
see much beyond, this island
that embraces my waking: this spruce,

deermoss, this lichen, and you
in time I want far from here
to touch, the you in far different light

who is differently focused, more
or less caring or careless, while
I move under the high pitched birds

and—by long inclination—lift
myself over a dark march of ants
crossing the bedrock granite.

Copyright © Philip Booth

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