Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Poetry Corner


First Lesson by Philip Booth

By Norah Christianson

A father is giving a swimming lesson to his daughter, but (he is a poet, after all) he is speaking in metaphor. He is really telling her how to survive in her life, which is “a long thrash to your island” or her destination, her destiny.  He tells her to “lie out on the stream and look high at the gulls”—to observe the world. “A dead-man’s float is face down”—if you only look down, if you do not look outside of yourself to see the world and its beauty, you are as if dead to life.

He tells her “remember when fear cramps your heart” to “lie gently…lie back, and the sea will hold you.”  The “sea” is whatever sustains you. The sea is the universe, or the sea is Life itself, or the sea is the spirits of your ancestors, or the sea is those you love who love you, or the sea is your God. (I am reminded of the AA slogan “Let go and let God.” In Alcoholic Anonymous, AA members are allowed, actually encouraged, to have their own concept of a god.)  We struggle, we thrash around, we get ourselves in terrible states of fear and anxiety, when what we should do is just be still, rest, lie back, let go, and wait. Things will change. Things always change. And the sea (universe, ancestral spirits, Life, God, love) will hold you.


First Lesson

Philip Booth   1925 – 2007


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.



Philip Booth was an American poet and educator. After serving in WW II, he spent most of his time living in Castine, Maine in a house that has been handed down through his family for five generations.  Booth’s poetry—its clarity and spare language–is rather puritan, like the austerity of his ideas.  He writes to be understood, not to impress with fancy words or incomprehensible sentences. I love Booth’s poetry.


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