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(Tenured Radical)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Philip Booth, An Excellent Poet...

...has died. Here's his New York Times obituary. It quotes from the last lines of the following poem:

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.

A great poet shows you how to be sentimental without being full of rot. What saves this poem from kitsch is the tightly cerebral rhyme scheme, conveying control rather than emotional gush. What also saves it is the subtlety of its theme -- actually, its two themes, since it counsels not only a relaxed trust of the world and one's instincts, but also the courage throughout life to face things face up, fully animated and engaged...

It reminds old UD (she's read, well, a lot of poems, and is always cross-referencing...) of this poem by Yvor Winters:

At the San Francisco Airport

to my daughter, 1954

This is the terminal: the light
Gives perfect vision, false and hard;
The metal glitters, deep and bright,
Great planes are waiting in the yard-
They are already in the night.

And you are here beside me, small,
Contained and fragile, and intent
On things that I but half recall -
Yet going whither you are bent.
I am the past, and that is all.

But you and I in part are one:
The frightened brain, the nervous will,
The knowledge of what must be done,
The passion to acquire the skill
To face that which you dare not shun.

The rain of matter upon sense
Destroys me momently. The score:
There comes what will come. The expense
Is what one thought, and something more -
One's being and intelligence.

This is the terminal, the break.
Beyond this point, on lines of air,
You take the way that you must take;
And I remain in light and stare -
In light, and nothing else, awake.

Again a father launches a daughter, this time not into water but into air; again the complicated anxiety and love and advice-giving. A meditation on his own shrinking world, in contrast to the dramatically expanding world of his young daughter, darkens the Winters poem, though.

I've always loved and often quoted to myself one particular line:

The rain of matter upon sense
Destroys me momently.

This odd and highly original line comes to me in hectic urban moments. I love its awkward and ambiguous final adverb. Awkward, ambiguous, powerful and beautiful, with its echoes of momentous, and for a moment, and - I don't know - the way it expresses delicacy, debility... the whole poem imparts somehow for me the difficulty of existence.

Yet still with the theme of Booth's poem in it - the bravery to live your life fully.