This short essay by Samuel Menashe was first published in Metre in 2000, and was reprinted as one of the introductory pieces to his New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2009). This photograph of Samuel Menashe, in his later years, was taken by Martin Duffy during a visit to the west coast of Ireland. Yesterday's tribute to Samuel Menashe (1925-2011) includes more material on his life and work, including photographs, poems and a video.
Of late, that old man’s expression “in my day” surfaces when I look back at my life. In my day I knew of no poetry workshop except for one in Iowa – not that I ever thought of attending it. After World War II, I was in Paris under the G.I. Bill. I had been an infantryman in France, Belgium – the Battle of the Bulge – and Germany. At twenty-two I had a glamorous image of myself as a writer. Since I was fluent in French and Spanish, I would be a foreign correspondent, but at the Paris office of The New York Herald Tribune, I was told that hundreds knew these languages. Serbo-Croatian was needed.
I never expected to meet a poet, let alone become one. Poets were dead immortals, some of whose poems I knew by heart. I was writing short stories evoking my childhood or the War. One night in February 1949, I woke up in the middle of the night and there was the first line of a poem, entirely unforeseen. Had someone told me when I went to bed that night that this would happen, I would not have believed it. It was not that I did not “give myself permission” to be a poet – to use a phrase now prevalent. I just did not aspire to that exalted state. Moreover, how can one decide to be a poet? Here is my first poem, never published:
All my life when I woke up at night
There was darkness in a room
And quickly I must sleep…
Now I have found a bed beneath a window –
No purpose in this place –
By an unpatterned hazard of neglect, and yet
In its crossing of my ordinary fate
It is among stars that I awake
In 1950 I presented a thesis at the Sorbonne called Un essai sur l’éxperience poetique (étude introspective). By poetic experience, I meant that awareness which is the source of poetry. I had been a biochemistry major before enlisting. Although I was well read for my age, the only literary influences on my work so far as I can tell were the short poems of William Blake and the English translation of the Hebrew Bible. “The still small voice” of Elijah was my article of faith.
Upon my return from France, I looked into little and literary magazines, but I found nothing in them that corresponded to what I was doing. Although a few poems were accepted – the first by The Yale Review – I could not find a publisher for a book. Kathleen Raine came to mind because she was a Blake scholar. Thanks to her, my first book was published in London in 1961. She wrote the Foreword. Despite favorable reviews by Donald Davie, P.N. Furbank and others, I still could not find a publisher in New York, my native city, until 1971. October House was a small firm, few people knew the name. In London I was published by the well-known Victor Gollancz Ltd.
Those who approve of my poems call them economical or concise; the others dismiss them as slight. When the Beat poets “made the scene,” I heard the pious platitude that it was good for poetry, but it was not good for my poetry. If confessional poetry was to the fore, I had nothing to offer its devotees. The only award or grant ever given to me was for a war story I wrote when I was thirty. Nevertheless, how many poets still alive were praised by Austin Clarke in The Irish Times (1961), where Derek Mahon reviewed my poems in 1987? My good fortune in England and Ireland seems miraculous to me. Although I was published by Penguin UK in 1996, I could not find a publisher in New York for my next book.
When I read a good short story I feel like an addict must feel when he gets a fix, but my poems do not tell stories. I never wrote a sonnet, yet in a way the poems are formal and they rhyme. Rhyme seems natural to me. There is a lot of rhyme, unnoticed, in ordinary speech.
At my age, more than ever, one thinks of death. Of course, as a survivor of an infantry company, I was marked by death for life when I was nineteen. In the first years after the war, I thought each day was the last day. I was amazed by the aplomb of those who spoke of what they would do next summer. Later, each day was the only day. Usually, I could give the day its due, live in the present, but I had no foresight for a future. Perhaps it is why I am still in the flat to which I moved when I was thirty-one years old:
At a Standstill
That statue, that cast
Of my solitude
Has found its niche
In this kitchen
Where I do not eat
Where the bathtub stands
Upon cat feet—
I did not advance
I cannot retreat