US poet who lived for the here and now
Samuel Menashe:NEW YORK-BASED poet Samuel Menashe died peacefully in his sleep on Monday aged 85 – less than a month shy of his 86th birthday.
Born in the city in 1925, the son of immigrant and persecuted Ukrainian Jews, his parents were literate in at least three languages.Menashe said Yiddish was his mother tongue by a hair, then English, French and later Spanish.
During the second World War he served in the US infantry and saw action in France, the Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge) and in Germany. He was one of six in a company of 190 men who had not been killed, wounded or taken prisoner at the war’s end.
He later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he wrote an acclaimed doctoral thesis which examined the awareness – religious or mystical – which is the source of poetry, Essai sur l’Expérience Poétique (Étude Introspective), based on a total assent to what Baudelaire said: “In certain supernatural states of the soul the most ordinary scene becomes its own symbol.”
After Paris he returned to New York, where he soon resigned his formal teaching job and became a “private citizen” living a frugal existence in a tiny flat in lower Manhattan that he occupied as a bachelor for over 50 years until last year. He spent his days writing in the morning and flâneur-ing in the afternoons, invariably in Central Park, which he called his living room, visiting bookshops and libraries. Evenings were spent at literary events or at the cinema.
He also made frequent visits to Europe and was very fond of Ireland, where he felt appreciated and had many friends and advocates. Early on in his career, Austin Clarke singled out Menashe’s first book The Many Named Belovedfor praise and went on to broadcast some of his poems. Derek Mahon’s review of Menashe’s Collected Poemsin 1986 brought considerable attention to Menashe’s work here.
More recently, Brian Lynch favourably reviewed his entire opus, and all of these reviews appeared in The Irish Times. Mahon also contributed a further essay to Poetry Ireland Review, where Menashe occasionally published new work.
Menashe was a genius of the short poem and rarely wrote poems longer than four or six lines, employing strict rhyming patterns, often punning cleverly and etymologically. He left the bare number of signals required to make connections with other texts, relying on everyday speech – as he believed it was full of unnoticed rhyme –
I knead the dough
Whose oven you stoke
We consume each loaf
Wrapped in smoke
Menashe was a superb reader of his own work – he committed all his poems to memory, along with those of his favourite poets, among them Gerald Manley Hopkins. He enunciated each syllable, often making tiny poems sound much more substantial than they appeared. Given the brevity of the texts, he often repeated the poems or introduced a single-line refrain.
He read in Ireland at the Cúirt festival in 1997 and frequently during his visits here. For a “solitary”, Menashe was incredibly social and good company: he would recite poems anywhere, often in restaurants – he always dined out – and had no difficulty introducing himself to strangers.
He appeared to have met a lot of people, including, for instance, Paul Celan in Paris and Robert Graves in Majorca, who conferred upon him the title “true poet”. Graves in turn had been “conferred” by Thomas Hardy, and Menashe enjoyed telling of this apostolic succession. He was thoughtful in his friendships and constantly wrote letters, invariably including poems.
It was a comfort to him in his last decade that he lived long enough to witness a wave of interest and appreciation of his work on both sides of the Atlantic. He had always had a small but critically appreciative audience, particularly in Ireland and the UK, but seemed ignored or marginalised in the US until relatively recently, when he became the inaugural winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters Award (2004).
The prize paid tribute to his excellence as a poet and made reparation for the years in which his achievements were overlooked. A volume, New and Selected Poemsedited by Christopher Ricks, was published in the US, where for years he had not been able to find a publisher. More recently, Bloodaxe published an expanded issue of the book in the UK.
Many reasons for his neglect in the US have been suggested, not least the fact he lived a bohemian life in an age of academic institutionalism. He rejected work as a teacher, editor or critic, the well-worn paths to literary visibility.
Menashe’s perfection of the short poem, or “minute cathedrals” as one critic called them, may have appeared as rejection of the characteristically expansive long line in American poetry, and his often anti-confessional, religious and formal poems may have been at odds with current trends. Menashe was also a poet who expressed joy of the here and now:
A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout
This was perhaps informed by his experience of war. He once remarked on his return that he couldn’t understand how people could make plans: “I was amazed that they could talk of that future, next summer. As a result [of war], I lived in the day. For the first few years after the war, each day was the last day. And then it changed. Each day was the only day.”
Sheets entangle him
Naked on his bed
Like a toppled mast
Slack sails bedeck
At sea, no ballast
For that even keel
He cannot keep –
No steering wheel
As he falls asleep
Samuel Menashe: born September 16th, 1925; died August 22nd, 2011