The “theft” of this collection’s title lurks on every page, luring faith to doubt, love to loss, and appearance to illusion. Yet these poems never lapse into hopelessness. Even where failure and tragedy precede human understanding, Petty Theft suggests the possibility of sustenance and recompense. Both confident and questioning, this debut collection announces Friedman as an important new voice in American poetry.
Petty Theft is the eighteenth winner of the annual New Criterion Poetry Prize. The New Criterion is recognized as one of the foremost contemporary venues for poetry that pays close attention to form. Building upon its commitment to serious poetry, The New Criterion established this annual prize in 2000.
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The New Criterion Poetry Prize has considerably strengthened its already impressive poetry list with Nicholas Friedman’s brilliant, beautifully crafted first book, Petty Theft. As the political life of the nation descends further into lies and doublespeak, there is a poet in California who remembers the art of poetry, practices it superbly, and so, like Keats, is able to offer us the music of Truth “proved upon our pulses.” And when we come away from poems like “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” surprised and a little puzzled by its very rare sort of verbal precision, the suitable analogy is near at hand.
—B. H. Fairchild
Nicholas Friedman’s debut collection honors the understated but persistent preference of this series for “poems that pay close attention to form.” To form, rather than to forms: the latter may harden into dogmatic utterances, but a poet’s attention to form itself quickens, as when the poet transforms the judicial commonplace of his title, Petty Theft, into a compelling exploration, in poem after poem, of value, of sincerity, of authenticity and convention. His figure for the poet is the busker, the street-corner magician whose performance leaves his audience with a satisfied grin on their faces and with a dollar or two floating toward his upturned hat as “He turns the dove back to a handkerchief—/ then, grinning, disappears.” Mr. Friedman has given us a first book of exceptional achievement.
These poems have a dark wit combined with a light touch in craft that will hold the reader’s attention. The images and emblems that move through these poems suggest a world where magic might occur but seldom prevails and where the only stay against time is accurate and musical language, which is certainly to be found in this work.