The Cinch Review

Clive James on Samuel Menashe

I’ve written in this space on the great American poet Samuel Menashe, on one or two occasions. In the latest edition of the magazine Poetry, the erudite Ozzie (long transplanted to Britain) Clive James has some reflections on his work, as part of an essay titled “A Deeper Consideration.”

All Menashe’s poems give the sense of having been constructed out of the basic stuff of memory, a hard substratum where what once happened has been so deeply pondered that all individual feeling has been squeezed out and only universal feeling is left. The process gives us a hint that the act of construction might be part of the necessary pressure: if the thing was not so carefully built, the final compacting of the idea could not have been attained. There could be no version of a Menashe poem that was free from the restrictions of technique, because without the technique the train of thought would not be there. Even when he writes without obvious rhyme, he has weighed the balance of every syllable; when he uses near rhymes, the modulations are exquisite; and a solid rhyme never comes pat, but is always hallowed by its own necessity.

Indeed.

On a personal note, I’ve found that both the brevity and religiosity of Menashe’s poems makes some of them rather ideal for use as reflective “graces” before meals. One I’ve grown to like in that role, for instance, is titled Whose Name I Know. Menashe is Jewish, and the special sacredness of the name of the LORD from the Hebrew Bible is the inescapable and imponderably resonant context here.

WHOSE NAME I KNOW

You whose name I know

As well as my own

You whose name I know

But not to tell

You whose name I know

Yet do not say

Even to myself—

You whose name I know

Know that I came

Here to name you

Whose name I know

Published in Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems (American Poets Project).