The Poetry of Philip Booth and the Gift of Place

Philip Booth’s poetry is firmly rooted in New England – and specifically in Castine, Maine. Yet, it’s his meticulous understanding of that place that enables his insights to be universal. A new book, Available Light: Philip Booth and the Gift of Place by Jeanne Braham, explores his connection to Castine – and to other literary figures who spent summers there along with him, including Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Mary McCarthy – and, in doing so, underscores the breadth of his artistry.

 

It’s not surprising that among the artists whom Philip Booth greatly admired were Robert Frost, John Marin, and Eudora Welty – all of whom are closely associated with a geographic region (and in Welty’s case a specific place, Jackson, Mississippi) and yet are widely acclaimed as universal. It’s not surprising either that Frost was a major influence on Booth’s decision to become a poet.

 

As Booth recalled in an interview with the Island Journal, “I’d been mildly interested in poetry before, but not very much; about one third as much as most high school students who become poets. But here was a poet who didn’t talk like Shelley or Byron or anybody. Here was Frost saying: ‘My instep arch not only keeps the ache; it keeps the pressure of the ladder round.’ And it suddenly occurred to me that poets could tell the truth! I was hooked on that realization…”

 

As Jeanne Braham writes: “While Booth’s own experiments in poetic form and narrative voice would depart from the Frost model, his work, like that of most of the poets of his generation (especially those writing in and about New England), would always bear the imprint of Frost’s legacy: a New England landscape that is not merely ‘a setting’ but an emotional and psychological context contributing to the poem’s meaning.”

 

That’s clear in the first stanza of Booth’s “Hard Country, which also underscores his exquisite craftsmanship. It reads:

            In hard

            country each white

            house, separated

            by granite outcrop

            from each white

            house, pitches

            its roofline

            against the hard sky.

            Hand-split

            shakes, fillet

            and face plank, clap-

            board, flashing

            and lintel: every

            fit part over-

            laps from the ridge

            board on down, wind-

            tight, down

            to the sideyard back

            door, shut against

            eavesdrop.

 

In John Marin, Booth found not only another artist who shared his love of Maine but an artist who could capture the essence of Maine in totally original ways and, in doing so, reveal more than we had ever understood before. In his poem “Marin” Booth admired “the rip-tide paint that, flooding, tugs at your vitals, and is more Maine than Maine.”

 

It’s the truth about life and its essence that Booth strived to reveal in his poetry, and they were evident to him in the small town of Castine, home to five generations of the Booth family. As Booth told the Castine Patriot, “What I write is rooted in this house, this street, this town.”

 

But Philip Booth’s poetry is rooted in Castine rather than about Castine. It’s about the human condition, as experienced there – a quality that Eudora Welty would have understood completely.

 

His work was widely acclaimed – with Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Lamont Prize, the Theodore Roethke Prize, and election to the Academy of American Poets. But he rarely promoted himself or his work, preferring a quieter life in Castine.

 

It’s Booth’s life and the importance of his deep connection to Castine that are the focus of Jeanne Braham’s remarkable book. And just like Booth’s work, it invites us to think more broadly about not just the place being described but the foundational connection between place and art.

 

I had the great pleasure of knowing Philip Booth for more than 40 years – initially as the father of his daughters who were childhood friends of mine and later as a friend in adulthood. Jeanne Braham captures Philip Booth’s life and work beautifully, and Available Light not only invites a re-examination of his exquisitely crafted poems but offers a nuanced look at the role of place in exposing universal truths. Being rooted in a place is often confused with being local. In Philip Booth’s case it’s the key to appreciating the human condition through a life explored locally.

 

In his poem “First Lesson,” Booth writes of teaching his daughter to swim: 

            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.

 

What could be more universal than that?

 

The author, a friend of Philip Booth from summers spent in Castine, Maine, is a Principal in the consulting firm High Impact Partnering in New York City.

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