Chances of Survival: Philip Booth in Conversation
PostedJanuary 01, 1989
Rachel Berghash: In your poem "First Lesson," you say to your daughter: "Lie back and the sea will hold you." I sense here a faith in something beyond oneself. You wrote this poem thirty years ago and it seems to me from later poems that you still hold to this view.
Philip Booth: I certainly have a sense of something sustaining beyond oneself; that there is something out there, whether it's the sea, or capital n Nature, or capital something else. But I think, rationally, I am both attracted to and skeptical about that possibility.
Berghash: In your poem "Sable Island" you say that "No / matter what new disasters to come, you must shape / your course into the breakers as though / it were the whole world." There's an art to surviving. What is it?
Booth: I think survival is at stake for all of us all the time. It always has been individually, and now it has become demonstrably an issue that concerns all of us. It's become a universal issue for the planet. Wherever we are we "have no choice of refuge left," and we have to think "as though / it were the whole world" to quote from "Sable Island." Not that it's a new feeling that I'm first to express; it's as old as John Donne’s "no man is an island, ... every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." But I strongly feel that every poem, every work of art, everything that is well done, well made, well said, generously given, adds to our chances of survival by making the world and our lives more habitable.
Berghash: Will this be a stage of flourishing rather than surviving? I see surviving as a first stage, and flourishing as a stage beyond it.
Booth: Sure, I think so. I think that my poem "Saying It" reaches toward something like that, in "trying / to say the joy," which is certainly the flourishing or flowering aspect of one's life. I do agree with that very much, as possibility.
Berghash: I'm interested in your poem "To Chekhov," where you tell him: " ... you / will be there, waiting, / to tell me where I've been." How do identify with Chekhov, and what did you discover when you read him?
Booth: I can't remember when I first read him, but I do return to him over and over again. One of the remarkable things about a book, whether it's a book of short stories or a book of poems or whatever book it may be, is that it is there for you to go back to over and over again. And I find myself, as many people do, becoming more and more of a re-reader. Not because I've read everything that's brave and beautiful and new, or brave and beautiful and old, but because I want the reassurance of the book being there to resustain me, reinvigorate me, literally offer me a kind of recreation by its very being. And I think that Chekhov particularly—though I like a great number of the Russian writers—seems to get to the essence of human experience marvelously rapidly, with total illusion of casualness, in story after story after story. The variety of experience in those stories is as great as anything I can think of. I know that some people feel that his stories tend to be depressive. I don't feel that, perhaps because I in some senses have a kind of dark view of the world myself. I was very serious in printing, as a headnote to the poem, for some reason I don't now remember and probably don't want to remember, that there was a November before I wrote that poem when I realized I could not read anybody but Chekhov. I tried to read other writers I had read before, and no one seemed to interest me as much.
Berghash: Is reading him also helpful in practical terms?
Booth: Sure, I go back to saying what I strongly feel: that any good writing makes the world more habitable; and that can be, as you said a moment ago, at the level of survival, or at the level of flourishing.
Berghash: Do you see art as instructive?
Booth: I think implicitly it is. I certainly do not consider it to be merely ornamental, but I don't think it's explicitly instructive, or wants to be so. If it is occasionally explicit, as in my poem "First Lesson," it is for me far more metaphorical than literal. There the instruction resonates with all the hopes that one might have for a young daughter and it involves a good deal of fiction as well. I myself was not teaching her to swim. I was watching a young woman, perhaps eighteen or twenty years old, teach her to swim in a village swimming program, in a little town in Vermont one summer, and I noticed the instructress's hand cupping my daughter's head. I realized then how often I had done that, whether when holding her as a baby or putting her up on my shoulder. Obviously such headholding may be part of making love, and I realized how she was moving toward that age. The fiction is between a father and daughter, the instruction is explicit, but metaphorical. If there is instruction in art, it is best when implicit, perhaps even subliminal, I would say.
Berghash: Will the poet hope that his/her art will be instructive even if the original intention is not so?
Booth: Possibly, sure. A woman who had been a nun, remarkably enough, told me about ten years ago that she had been swept by the currents off Jones Beach beyond the lifeguards, and as she lay there trying to recover herself, she said to herself a part of my poem over and over again: "lie back and the sea will hold you." I was just immensely touched by that.
Berghash: I can see that. I am struck by that poem because it has a religious note to it. And the fact that a nun was saved remembering it does not surprise me at all.
Booth: She might have found better prayers to guide her, but I'm glad she remembered the poem too.
Berghash: You have been living in close proximity to nature. Does nature have a healing function for you?
Booth: It does. But I don't think I can or want to define that in programmatic terms. I don't think I'm a programmatic person in any way. If I'm concerned about nature I'm concerned with the immediacy of it, and in its own restorative powers.
Berghash: In your poem "The Gate" you say " ...returned / from this field's large history / into the world of small wars." Does nature restore the injuries inflicted on us when we live in the world?
Berghash: You've spent most of your life in Maine, and your family has been living in the same house for five generations. What are the implications of being so rooted?
Booth: My mother's family has been here in this town since 1797. I suppose that I am fundamentally Thoreauvian in that rooted instinct, even as Thoreau said he had travelled much in Concord. I'm not a very good traveller. I like to know every aspect of my locality, wherever it is. When I lived in New York for a year I would often take the subway from Times Square up to Columbia University. And it bothered me very much that even though I followed the green or red lights (whichever they were then) to get the subway from Times Square to the university, it seemed to me when I sat in the subway that it took off backwards, because I thought I was facing north. I was making a wrong turn in my head. And I was even so curious as to take a compass with me once to find out where I was making that wrong turn in my head. Of course there was too much metal underground and I couldn't find where true north was anyway. I tell this only as an indication of how surely I like to know where I am. Only when I in some sense feel that I know where I am, am I able to look down into as well as to look out toward.
Berghash: Socrates didn't travel at all; he stayed in Athens all his life.
Booth: We're talking pretty big names now.
Berghash: I would like for you to tell us more about what it's like to be rooted.
Booth: I'm serious when I say in my poem "Before Sleep" that almost all my mother's ancestors—my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great, and so on—are buried in the cemetery here. In the November of the year I often go and look at their graves and see their names and the years carved on them. It gives me a very pleasant and not at all morbid sense of the relations, the relationships, that one has with a place. Here, the cemetery gives as good a view of the harbor as one can imagine, and one can think of the women in the family watching out for their husbands' ships to come in. That's an easy association to make. And the fact that the harbor looks now exactly as it did topographically when they were here more than a hundred years ago pleases me immensely. It gives me a deeper insight, literally, into the harbor and whatever my own resonances with my ancestors' experiences may be. I don't like in the casual sense "to make a thing" of it. I do make poems of it, but it seems to me that nobody should, or wants to make the claim, "I was here first, you were here second" or whatever; that's straight out of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and it is terrible. But the sense of rootedness and place is for me a way of feeling —to go back to what you said may be the religious aspect of my work—the holiness of a place.
Berghash: You probably get to know it better each time; it's like going back to Chekhov.
Booth: Absolutely. The title of my recent book is Relations: Selected Poems 1950-1985. I have no worry at all about the fact that I've dealt with some of the same subjects over and over in, I hope, varying perspectives, various lights if you will, to transfer the metaphor into painting. Cézanne—to speak in a different breath again—painted "Mont Sainte-Victoire" any number of times, and each of those paintings is different, and each of them casts light on the other.
Berghash: Is there an evolution in your view in regard to the place?
Booth: I think so, but I don't know what it is. I can't name it outside the way the poems themselves try to come to terms with it, whatever it is. It isn't a conscious reaching for evolution on my part. Every poem is in itself separate. I think I've only once written a poem to be part of a book, an explicit part of a particular book. But I've always had more poems, most previously printed in journals, than I needed for a book; so that I've selected in almost every book those poems which seemed to center around some particular concern that was there for me to understand only after I'd written the majority of the poems, and was able to look at them all as a prospective book. I feel very much that way about Relations. I could have selected other poems, most of them I suppose lesser poems, and arrived at a considerably different book; so that the poems that I have selected in this so to speak big book, as compared to the individual books, make a larger kind of gestalt. If I pull one poem out the whole book changes, or if I add another the whole book changes, not very much, but in ways at least discernible to me.
Berghash: Could you talk about the reason behind entitling your book Relations?
Booth: I mean 'relations' in all senses, in the sense of the interrelationship of poem with poem, and the sequence of a given book's poems with the sequence of another book's poems. I mean relations in the sense of relating a story, an implied narrative, as in the poem "To Chekhov" or any number of the other poems. But I also mean it most of all in terms of the relations that one has humanly to his people and his place, as those circles, even in the perhaps very circumscribed realm in which I live, represent concentric rings moving out, becoming, I hope, ever wider. I don't think of myself as a localist in the sense of being provincial, in saying that this is the way it is in this place. I think this is the way it is with being human in most places, in all places, at least within a certain frame of time and of geography. Obviously it isn't the same in Sardinia or Zanzibar, and I have, with Thoreau, been disinclined "to count the cats in Zanzibar," so I can't tell about that.
Berghash: Of course if you probe into the nature of one place you are going to have a universal application.
Booth: That is my hope and certainly that has become, as I've become aware of it, part of my aesthetic. I don't think that I'm a Maine, M-A-I-N-E poet, any more than Fairfield Porter is a Maine, M-A-I-N-E painter.
Berghash: My impression from reading your poetry is that you are not. Your poems have a universal ring to them. The issues are certainly universal. In your later poems you have been more determined to probe into the nature of being, which I see as part of the evolution in your work. Is there anything else that accounts for that evolution, except for going back and looking at what is it to be?
Booth: No, I agree with you. I think that that is probably what you are calling the evolutionary process involves for me now—large and small questions about the meaning of being. What does it mean to be able to ask what does it mean to be? I think I'm inherently fascinated by that kind of basically philosophical question, although I find philosophy very difficult to read and am very poor at reading it. Certain images from philosophers like Jaspers and Husserl strike me, and I've made use of them in various poems. Where I've made use of them I hope I've paid my debt to them, and I hope at the same time that what I've done with them has become my own. They have simply been catalytic agents, not so much for what I've thought, but more for how I've felt.
Berghash: In a good number of your later poems you talk about the meaning of nothing. You say that it is "an acute presence of absence," as against the "raw beauty of being." When I read this I understood it as a way of being which is egoless, and therefore more integrated with oneself and the world.
Booth: It does seem to me that ego can become part of a kind of universal ego. Not that the self is submerging its ego to become part of that whole, but that the presence of the ego in the self can become part of a larger "raw beauty of being," to pick up the line you just quoted. I am tempted to extend this and say that such integration strengthens the so-to-speak ego of the whole. That is a fair enough extension of let's say psychoanalytic theory, although I don't often think in terms of the theory. It is much more an intuitive sense that I have. I think it's Masefield who says in a poem, maybe it's in "Dauber," "The days that make us happy make us wise." That comes back to your sense of there being something beyond survival, something in the fruition of one's feeling, the flowering that is itself a wisdom which is sustaining. And its name is joy.
Berghash: Is joy something you attain easily or with difficulty?
Booth: I don't think that one can search for joy, or buy joy, or take out a map and draw a straight line toward joy. I think that there is a great deal of serendipity involved. It often happens when one least expects it. Not necessarily when one least expects it, but not necessarily when one is looking for it. A poem of mine called "How to See Deer" says that if you go out looking for deer you do not see deer. In his story "The Bear" Faulkner uses that point when he writes about the young boy going out into deep woods in the deep South trying to search for an almost mythical bear. But he doesn't see the bear until he casts away his gun and puts away his compass. I saw a deer last night not half a mile from where we are sitting now in your house. It might have come down from the reservoir at the top of the peninsula and run over your lawn for all I know; but for me the deer was a joy to which one could make oneself available as one makes oneself available to the possibility of a poem. If you think about nothing but boats, or if you think about nothing but houses, or if you think about nothing but (in a man's case) women, or (in a woman's case) perhaps men, it's pretty hard to arrive at the kind of joy that you imagine you are searching for.
Berghash: I had a teacher, Dr. P. G. McLean, a psychiatrist and philosopher, who said that the aim of life is to live and die without regret, and that living and dying with joy is one kind of regret-free living and dying. It seems to me that joy is hard to attain.
Booth: Yes it does seem so to me. I think that there is a sense where each of us may have a certain background—yours may be Old Testament and mine may be New England Puritan, but I think they are conjoined very deeply beyond any such distinction—which tends us toward a view of life that is perhaps similar. And even Freud's was similar in that sense that he did not expect one to be universally healthy after a course of psychoanalysis. But I think we are talking about tapping into our roots—quite beyond any particular psychoanalytic theory. Even as Jung believed there was a universal unconscious, not merely a subconscious, to which we would all be open if we could.
Berghash: I think that there is a distinction between joy and happiness. One of the ways to feel joy is to transcend circumstances. Whereas to be happy you would have to have had an upbringing under pretty lucky circumstances, and that's uncommon.
Booth: And to be continually happy is impossible.
Berghash: I am reminded of your poem "Adding it Up," where you say: "I'm Puritan to the bone, down to / the marrow and then some: / if I'm not sorry I worry, / if I can't worry I count." Could you tell us more about the kind of impositions or self-impositions that Puritanism entails?
Booth: I come literally from families that were basically Puritan on both sides, my father's and my mother's. I was brought up in rather strict Victorian conventions to the extent that I was in many ways inhibited early on in ways that I tried to work out, as many boys do, through sports, and so on. It wasn't until I was perhaps in my thirties that I felt fundamentally—no, I don't suppose ever fundamentally—mostly free of those inhibitions, those imposed elements of superego.
Berghash: In your poem "Watch" you say: "There is no end to the lies / we devise to live by .." and in your poem "Not to Tell Lies" you say: "...he has gathered himself / in order not / to tell lies." Is this determination part of getting older?
Booth: I think that only after you've grown well beyond your majority of twenty-one do you begin to see how many lies you have at various times in your life devised for yourself. So I suppose you are right that it is a matter of age, although not necessarily a matter of becoming wiser with age, unless there is some wisdom in trying not to tell lies. But that doesn't mean for me, in these poems or in any art, not telling fictions, because I think that the fictions can be truer than true. Some of the images in both the poems you mentioned, particularly in "Not to Tell Lies," although they derive from my so-to-speak autobiographical experiences, are fictions. The images are not fictionalized in the sense that I merely transpose purple to green or uncle to aunt. The fictions of poetry are at their best, as Wallace Stevens very well knew, acts of imagination, and they come from a much deeper source then merely transposing one fact from another in order to avoid a libel suit.
Berghash: In your poem "Eaton's Boatyard" you say: "to forget for good / all the old year's losses, / save for / what needs be retrieved." It's a wonderful piece of teaching. Are the losses that need to be retrieved in life or in art, or in both?
Booth: I'd like to correct your question. You said "that need to be retrieved," and although the poem is full of infinitives there isn't one in that particular place. My slight yearning is to feel that whatever is to be retrieved has some life of its own that wants to be retrieved; that the word, like the part that is being searched for in the boatyard, almost wants at a certain point to make itself available to the poet, if he is only open enough to let it come at him. That's only answering a very small part of your question, because I do mean that losses must be to a certain extent forgotten if one is to move beyond them. But again the poem says: "to forget for good / all the old year's losses...," and I'd emphasize that "for good" is out there in an end of a line where it means to me (in the prosody of this particular poem) that forgetting "for good" is different than forgetting "for bad" reasons. Certain things need be forgotten, if you will, both in a poem and obviously in our lives if we are to get on with what we must write, or what we must do, or how we must live. But I think that nothing is ever totally forgotten. We only push some things deeper than others, and they too may present themselves, or we may be able to retrieve them when we need them.
Berghash: I think of retrieving in the sense of restoring or making reparation.
Booth: Yes. I think that what you are calling reparation is a way of redeeming whatever relationship is involved, whether it's a relationship of a boatbuilder with his wood, or whether it's a relationship of a poet with a bad line in a poem that he can redeem somehow, not by forgetting that it is bad but bringing variants or revisions back into consciousness by way of a different route of some sort. What that route is depends on the wrong turn the line originally took.
Berghash: And I am thinking in terms of an interpersonal relationship where we have damaged someone and we are making reparation.
Booth: Yes, of course. Although that seems to me to be in some way at a different level psychologically as well as morally, or sociomorally. It can sometimes be merely a matter of good manners, or it can be of large social morality. I have to think of it on both a larger and smaller scale of life and of art.
Berghash: I am talking about genuine making reparation that would be creative. In physiology it would be the process in which a broken bone is healed.
Booth: I understand. The word reparation isn't very much in my vocabulary. Obviously for some damages there can be no reparation.
Berghash: Right. Where the thing is dead. In that case one can make vicarious reparation, in a relationship or in art perhaps. Correct me if I am wrong: you might write a bad poem and you can't do anything about it. And the next thing you do is write a good poem.
Booth: But I don't think that happens consciously, the way one can be conscious about the injustice one has done to someone else, and consciously try to do something about it. If I write a poem that I soon feel is bad, I don't go out on a damage control mission to write a next poem in order to repair the first. I have to think otherwise about it. I have to try to forget the bad for good. And, in a different sense, try to make good on what comes next.
Originally appeared in The American Poetry Review, Volume 18, no. 3 (May/June 1989). Reprinted with permission of the Estate of Philip E. Booth.