Monday, March 30, 2009

Charles Simic in Defense of Lyric Poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, which begins on Wednesday, here's a fascinating meditation on the power of lyric poetry from Charles Simic's new collection of essays, The Renegade: Writings on Poetry and a Few Other Things:

Epic poetry is dead and dramatic poetry is moribund, but lyric poems continue to be written by both serious poets and teenagers in love. While its ancient origins are said to be songs composed for an occasion of celebration or mourning, the lyric has long since evolved into an expression of personal experience rather than of collective feelings. In his well-known denunciation of poetry in the Republic, Plato found use for hymns to the gods and eulogies to civic leaders, but singled out the lyric for being particularly self-indulgent and false in depicting reality. Stripped of musical accompaniment and plaintive tunes that could charm the listener, such poems not only showed their complete absence of ideas, but were harmful to those who seek truth. Plato was suspicious of the imagination. If he had not been, he would have realized that ideas in the way philosophers usually approach them have little to do with poems whose main concern is with using feelings to find what is authentic.

The more subjective and candid the poems were, the more dangerous they appeared to those who made it their business to worry about the moral uplift of their fellow citizens. Scandal is most likely the reason the lyric poem has been so successful over the centuries. To scribble, knowing that one's secret thoughts and language are disapproved of by everyone from one's parents to one's clergymen, is a delicious feeling. Every form of tyranny has taken a dim view of such irreverence. The main public use of the first-person pronoun that authoritarians approve of is the one extracted through forced confessions of heretics and enemies of the state. This much has always been true: if you want to get in trouble with whatever language police is in force, write verses about what you really feel and think.

Of course, there's much more to the lyric than risky subject matter. There's the ineffable something that makes poetry poetry, the sensation that every word has suddenly begun to mean much more than it usually does. Lyric poems require an exquisite ear on the part of the poet, an ability to weigh the exact amount of silence necessary between words and images in order to make them rich with meaning. The shorter such poems are, the harder they are to write. We know from experience the impact a line of poetry can have, the miraculous way in which two selves unknown to each other until that very moment come to share not only an understanding but a single imaginative space. In no time at all, cultural and historical differences are abolished and a poem written almost three thousand years ago comes to life on a page. Nowhere else in literature does one find the experience of living in the moment so vividly rendered as in lyric poetry. Despite seemingly infinite odds, somebody's private sentiments continue to enthrall generations of future readers. And yet, every time we read a poem, this is more or less what happens.

(This excerpt, from the essay, "The Life of Ruins," was originally published in the New York Review of Books in 2006.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

George Braziller Acquires Water Cooler

Dear Readers,

In response to a recent David Godine blogspot post regarding water coolers, I am pleased to announce that George Braziller Publishers, too, has acquired one of these indispensible appliances. Ultimately, I can only echo Godine blogger Jessica O'Neill's sentiments about office life before and after water-cooler installation, and I encourage you to review her anecdotes; but I would like to add that the hot water spigots to which she refers are as useful for making instant oatmeal and possibly (the thought just occurred to me) soup-in-a-cup as they are for making tea.

While old-guard book publishing houses struggle to adapt in an age of Kindle, free internet content, and improved print-on-demand technologies, we must all look to innovators like Ms. O'Neill—cultural workers willing to take risks, roll up their sleeves, and make the tough decisions necessary to keeping their publishing houses in stride with modern developments. Let the water-cooler stand as a symbol of our collective duty to look outside antiquated delivery methods (rusty pipes, bound books) to see the potential of recent innovations (inverted jugs and, yes, digital readers). After all, it is not how we produce and deliver our books that matters, but that we continue to deliver them.

Best regards,

Maxwell Heller

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Will Barnet's Sketchbook

Will Barnet, one of the most prolific and widely exhibited living American painters, turns 98 in May, and in celebration of this event we're publishing Will Barnet: A Sketchbook, 1932-1934, which collects sketches from Barnet's formative years that have never before been exhibited or published.

Library Journal reviews A Sketchbook in its latest issue:
Eight decades of American artist Barnet's work have reflected trends from social realism to abstract formalism in prints, drawing, and paintings. Published here is a recently uncovered collection of sketches figurative in their style. Vibrant yet precise, these were executed en plein air in the early 1930s while Barnet was a student at the Art Students League in Manhattan. The drawings evoke the life and vitality of city dwellers in summertime, enjoying New York's Central Park as a communal backyard.
Check back later as we post some selected images from this beautiful new book.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Charles Simic and Silk Underwear

Charles Simic's new collection of essays, The Renegade: Writings on Poetry and a Few Other Things hits book stands in April. Catch a sneak peek with this excerpt from his essay, "The Life of Images," originally published in the Harvard Review in 2003:

In one of Berenice Abbott's photographs of the Lower East Side, I recall a store sign advertising Silk Underwear. Underneath, there was the additional information about "reasonable prices for peddlers." How interesting, I thought. Did someone carry a suitcase full of ladies' underwear and try to peddle them on some street corner further uptown? Or did he ring doorbells in apartment buildings and offer them to housewives? I imagine the underwear came in many different sizes so he may have had to carry two suitcases. The peddler was most likely an immigrant and had difficulty making himself understood. What he wanted was for the lady of the house to feel how soft the silk was but she either did not understand him or she had other reasons for hesitating. She wore a house robe, her hair was loose as if she just got out of bed, so she was embarrassed to touch the undies draped over his extended hand. Then she finally did touch them.

(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library's Digital Collection)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yasmina Reza is Profiled in the New Yorker

This week's issue of the New Yorker includes a "Life in Letters" feature on Yasmina Reza, author of the Tony Award-winning Art and Hammerklavier, available in hardcover from George Braziller.

The article quotes liberally from Hammerklavier, Reza's "memoir in fragments," which provides insight into her life and upbringing "in a terse, dreamy present tense."

Reza's new play, "God of Carnage," is now on Broadway.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Buchi Emecheta to be Published in Turkish and Korean

Buchi Emecheta, one of the most prolific and significant voices in modern African literature, will soon be published in Turkish and Korean.

New Human, a progressive Turkish publishing house, will translate Emecheta's The Slave Girl, and Korean publisher Bestun will be printing Korean editions of The Bride Price and The Joys of Motherhood. Check out the English editions of these bestselling books from George Braziller.