Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Samuel Menashe: 'Giving the Day Its Due'

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

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Samuel Menashe (1925-2011)

Photo: Samuel Menashe (1970) by Richard M. Gummere

We are very sad to report the death of the American poet Samuel Menashe. He died on Monday night (22nd August), peacefully, in his sleep. He was frail and weak but lucid until the end. There will be a quick burial service following Jewish custom and a larger memorial service most likely in October at the New York Public Library.

Samuel Menashe was born in New York City in 1925, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He served in the US infantry during the Second World War, and afterwards studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. He returned to New York in the 1950s where, apart from frequent sojourns in Britain, Ireland and Europe, he lived in a tiny "cold water" apartment until a year and a half before his death – at the age of 85 – in 2011.

He was first published in Britain, thanks to Kathleen Raine, in 1961, before he achieved any recognition in America, where he remained a marginal figure over five decades. In 1996 a selection of his work was published in the Penguin Modern Poets series. In 2004 he became the first winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters Award, a prize that both paid tribute to his excellence and made reparation for the years in which his achievements were overlooked. Don Share has just published an obituary on the Poetry Foundation's website.

His New and Selected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks, was published by the Library of America in 2005. An expanded edition, published with Life Is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe, a film on DVD by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009.

Samuel Menashe’s poetry has a mysterious simplicity, a spiritual intensity and a lingering emotional force. For over 50 years he practised his art of ‘compression and crystallisation’ (in Derek Mahon’s phrase) in poems that are brief in form but profound in their engagement with ultimate questions. As Stephen Spender wrote, Menashe ‘compresses thought into language intense and clear as diamonds’.

Intensely musical and rigorously constructed, Menashe’s work stands apart in its solitary meditative power, but it is equally a poetry of the everyday. The humblest of objects, the minutest of natural forms, here become powerfully suggestive, and even the shortest of the poems are spacious in the perspectives they open.

Dana Gioia wrote that ‘Menashe is essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed. Nearly every poem he has ever published radiates a heightened religious awareness.’ Reviewing the Bloodaxe edition in The Guardian (full review via this link), Clive Wilmer wrote:

These are religious poems. They are, in particular, the poems of a Jew, not a Hebrew speaker, but one whose holy book is the King James Version of the Jewish Bible. They are not doctrinally Jewish, nor are they exclusive in their sense of holiness. They are imbued with a sense that - in the words of William Blake, a poet who looms large in Menashe's pantheon - 'Everything that lives is holy'.

This video is an excerpt from Life is IMMENSE: visiting Samuel Menashe, a film by Pamela Robertson-Pearce included on a DVD with the Bloodaxe edition. This features a visit to Menashe (with Neil Astley) in the tiny New York apartment where he lived from the 1950s until 2009. Even in his 80s, Menashe still knew all his poems by heart, and between engaging digressions on poetry, life and death, he recites numerous examples with engaging humour, warmth and zest. The poems included in this clip are 'Daily Bread', 'Family Silver', 'Night Music (pizzicato)', 'Improvidence' (now suddenly a highly topical poem!) and 'Voyage':

Daily Bread

I knead the dough
Whose oven you stoke
We consume each loaf
Wrapped in smoke


Family Silver

That spoon fell out
Of my mother’s mouth
Before I was born,
But I was endowed
With a tuning fork


Night Music

Why am I so fond
Of the double bass
Of bull frogs
(Or do I hear the prongs
Of a tuning fork,
Not a bull fiddle)
In perfect accord—
To one another
Across this pond
How does each frog know
He is not his brother
Which frog to follow
Who was his mother
(Or is it a jew’s harp
I hear in the dark?)



Owe, do not own
What you can borrow
Live on each loan
Forget tomorrow
Why not be in debt
To one who can give
You whatever you need
It is good to abet
Another’s good deed



Water opens without end
At the bow of the ship
Rising to descend
Away from it

Days become one
I am who I was



Samuel Menashe with his father, New York City, 1920s.

Samuel Menashe experienced the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 as a runner for the US infantry.

Picture taken after the war.

Samuel Menashe, in his later years, during a visit to the west coast of Ireland. Photo: Martin Duffy.

Samuel Menashe in Ireland, writing one of his short poems in the sand: 'Pity us / By the sea / On the sands / So briefly'. Photo: Martin Duffy.

Samuel Menashe at the grave of W.B. Yeats at Drumcliff near Sligo in Ireland. The epitaph on Yeats's headstone is taken from the last lines of his poem 'Under Ben Bulben': 'Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death. / Horseman, pass by!' Photo: Martin Duffy.