Philip Booth, a Shy Poet Rooted in New England Life, Dead at 81

by Roja Heydarpour

Philip Booth, a poet known for his explorations of existence and New England in an intense, sparse style, died on July 2 in Hanover, N.H. He was 81 and had split his time between Hanover and Castine, Me., for many years.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter Carol Booth.

Mr. Booth wrote 10 books of poetry, including “The Islanders,” “Weathers and Edges,” “Letter From a Distant Land” and “Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999.” He also wrote a book of essays about writing poetry called “Trying to Say It: Outlooks and Insights on How Poems Happen.” He received recognition and honors from many institutions, including Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

The sense of privacy that made poetry lovers appreciate Mr. Booth’s work ultimately cost him fame. He spent hours upon hours writing and revising in his room, Ms. Booth said, drawing material from deeper and deeper within his emotional landscape. He rarely traveled on book tours or did readings for large groups.

Stephen Dunn, a former student of Mr. Booth’s and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, wrote in an e-mail message after Mr. Booth’s death, “Booth’s quest was to deepen as opposed to range widely, and in that sense he was a poet of consciousness, even when his subject seemed to be the dailiness of Castine or the vagaries of sailing.”

Philip Edmund Booth was born in Hanover and spent most of his life there and in Castine, the city where his mother grew up and where he first learned to sail. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and married Margaret Tillman in 1946.

In addition to his wife, of Hanover, and his daughter Carol, of Amherst, Mass., Mr. Booth is survived by two other daughters, Margot, of Austin, Tex., and Robin, of Rowe, Mass.; and a sister, Lee Klunder, of Hartland, Vt.

He received his bachelor’s degree in English at Dartmouth, where he studied under Robert Frost, and a master’s degree in English at Columbia University. He later taught English at Bowdoin College and Wellesley College in the 1950s but spent the majority of his career at Syracuse University, where he was a professor, a poet in residence and a co-founder of the graduate program in creative writing.

In a poem called “First Lesson,” Mr. Booth wrote to a daughter:

As you float now, where I held you

and let go, remember when fear

cramps your heart what I told you:

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

***

Here is the entire poem quoted in the obit:

FIRST LESSON

Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

TALK ABOUT WALKING

Where am I going? I’m going
out, out for a walk. I don’t
know where except outside.
Outside argument, out beyond
wallpapered walls, outside
wherever it is where nobody
ever imagines. Beyond where
computers circumvent emotion,
where somebody shorted specs
for rivets for airframes on
today’s flights. I’m taking off
on my own two feet. I’m going
to clear my head, to watch
mares’-tails instead of TV,
to listen to trees and silence,
to see if I can still breathe.
I’m going to be alone with
myself, to feel how it feels
to embrace what my feet
tell my head, what wind says
in my good ear. I mean to let
myself be embraced, to let go
feeling so centripetally old.
Do I know where I’m going?
I don’t. How long or far
I have no idea. No map. I
said I was going to take
a walk. When I’ll be back
I’m not going to say.

***

And here is a poem heartbreaking in its irony, given Booth’s death from Alzheimer’s. Perhaps it was written when Booth first suspected the onset of his dementia?

LIKE A WOMAN

Like a woman
I loved, I say
words to the dark,
not to suffer.
Grown as I am,
I’m far from
immune: if I’m
in for it long
I want mind to
hold on, words in
my throat ready
to name it. Let
me keep fury
to stay against
pain; if it
is given me
to learn I mean
to know it all
the way, to bear
it like a woman.

***

Russell Astley’s critical essay on Booth in Patricia Eakin’s fine, now-defunct magazine, Frigate:

http://www.frigatezine.com/review/poetry/rpy02har.html

Booth’s page at The Academy of American Poets site:

http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/175

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Featured

Comments are closed.