A few years ago, at the age of eighty, Samuel Menashe became the first recipient of the “Neglected Masters Award” from The Poetry Foundation.
And a master he is, without much doubt. I suppose that almost any worthy contemporary poet might qualify to be described as “neglected,” at least relatively speaking. After all, in these modern times when our entertainment comes buzzing down wires at the speed of light directly into our veins and our neurons, even to slow down sufficiently to pick up and read a book of poetry is to flirt with a possibly fatal whiplash injury.
Nonetheless, Samuel Menashe’s work has a kind of quiet power that can cut through even the noise and confusion of this over-stimulated world, and I think that to neglect his poetry is to neglect one of those gifts of Providence that is surely intended to ease the road down which our modern human souls struggle. His best work is at once accessible and profound, possessing both instantaneous charm and innumerable layers of meaning which reflect and glitter anew upon each fresh reading.
Among the things of which Samuel Menashe is the master is the short poem. The 19th century poet and critic Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That no doubt applies to most poems and to much else in life. However, although Menashe is known to revise and even further pare his own poetry, it is very difficult for any reader to look at one of his fantastically concise and intense poems and consider it anything other than a perfectly balanced and finished work.
Take this poem as an example (published in the book and at this link):
Salt and Pepper
Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
That is, I think, an astounding and poignant — yet restrained — evocation of age and of the aging man himself. It lifts up the gifts that aging brings along with it, and subtly pleads the case for treasuring the aged (I am a sage) while not denying but instead subversively confronting the decay of the body: Sprinkled, shaking. And it does this and more while at the same time gently and humorously interweaving all of those images of seasoning and spice, and all in an absolute total of just twenty-four words.
Readers of poetry are probably not in the habit of thinking what better words a poet could have used. However, even if you were so inclined, where could you consider altering even a syllable of that poem? It is at once rigidly economical and yet perfectly soft to the tongue. To move even a few letters, it would seem, might bring the whole thing tumbling to the floor like a stack of soup cans in a supermarket.
Indeed, in his introduction to this collection, the learned editor Christopher Ricks zeros in on things that can be seen going on in Menashe’s poetry even at the level of the individual letter, and I think that is not necessarily a ridiculous thing to do. He takes as his example a two-line work of Menashe’s:
A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout
See how the word pot pours itself out into “poured out.” See how, fulfilled but not done with, the word is poured forth again: pot living again within “spout.” But these are not the only fulfillments: how fluidly “out” is taken up, without damage or distortion, effortlessly, within “spout.” Not just le mot juste but la lettre juste. For Menashe (mindful that he is grateful to Britain for first publishing a book of his, as it had done for Robert Frost) has pointed out that his is precisely an American poem. British English, in adopting the spelling “fulfils,” would forfeit the full acknowledgment of the word “fills” that American English proffers so calmly in “fulfills.”
Talk about a close reading. It cannot get much closer than that, and yet, the poetry can bear it.
As Ricks indicates, Samuel Menashe is an American poet who writes American poetry. He lives in New York City, by all accounts a simple existence (almost absurdly apt for the neglected poet) in the same old tiny walk-up apartment he has occupied for many decades. The personality and physicality of his living space makes an appearance at times in his poems, as do occasional meditations on city scenes.
Menashe is also a Jewish man. Dana Gioia (himself a poet) has written well on how this manifests itself in his poetry:
It is impossible to discuss Menashe’s poetry without remarking on its Jewishness. His imagery, tone, and mythology is drawn from the poets of the Old Testament. “The Shrine Whose Shape I am” is one of the finest poems on Jewish identity ever written in English. It is also a poem that shows the rich multiplicity that typifies Menashe’s language. The poem defines Jewishness simultaneously in mystical and biological terms. “Breathed in flesh by shameless love,” the speaker was torn from his parents’ bodies, and his body contains the history of his people. “There is no Jerusalem but this” means, among other things, that his Jewishness is not found in a geographical place but in himself. His body is the lost temple (“the shrine”) of his people, his bones the hills of Zion. This sonorous poem may seem difficult at first, but once the reader grasps the central metaphor, its complex message becomes immediately tangible.
If Menashe’s spiritual roots are Hebrew, the soil that nourishes them is the English language. His Old Testament is preeminently the King James Version, and among his sacred poets there is not only David, Isaiah, and Solomon, but also Blake, and even perhaps Dylan Thomas. (He also frequently alludes the Gospels.) His range of allusion is narrow but extraordinarily deep. The Bible permeates his poetry, but he uses it in ways that most readers will immediately understand.
God is effectively omnipresent in Menashe’s poetry, while seemingly never named. I think that the reader nevertheless is aware of which name (or names) would be applied to this God if such intimacy were to be indulged. One of his poems even alludes to the existence of those names without using them, in a rare overt address:
O Many Named Beloved
Listen to my praise
Various as the seasons
Different as the days
All my treasons cease
When I see your face
(Then again, the reader might question if it is the poet himself addressing God here, or if he is rather evoking a hymn of praise which he hears the creation singing to its Creator. And then, the foretelling of treasons to cease when once at last that face is seen …)
A reader may find praise of that Many Named Beloved between the lines and the letters of so many of Menashe’s tiny, concentrated works. You might say that some of the poems resemble abbreviated psalms written by a so much more sly and discreet psalmist. Yet, that humble praise for the Creator and thankfulness for the gift of life which permeates the poetry does not preclude intense and painful meditations on loss and on mourning, and an underlying deep and even melancholy yearning. Neither does it preclude humor and indeed mischievousness. One of my favorite poems by Samuel Menashe is the following one, with which I close this self-evidently enthused and unreservedly positive review:
Owe, do not own
What you can borrow
Live on each loan
Why not be in debt
To one who can give
You whatever you need
It is good to abet
Another’s good deed
This book is published by the Library of America and can be purchased at the link below:
Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems (American Poets Project)
Rating: Ten out of ten lead pipes.
It’s a lead-pipe cinch!
Addendum: Watch a short interview segment with Samuel Menashe below.
Samuel Menashe (from Life is IMMENSE) from Neil Astley on Vimeo.
An expanded edition of the book can now be purchased, along with the DVD from which the above clip is taken, at this link: New and Selected Poems (Book & DVD)