The Poetic Life of Samuel Menashe

August 10, 2022 | 1 5 min read

Samuel Menashe, who died 11 years ago this month, lived most of his life in a three-room railroad flat on Greenwich Village’s Thompson Street. He was reluctant to call himself a poet, though if accused, he wouldn’t deny it. In 2003, at the age of 79 and after decades of toiling in relative obscurity, he was awarded the Poetry Foundation’s first-ever “Neglected Masters Award.” This all-too-fitting capstone cemented Menashe’s legacy as a poet of unambiguously astonishing power who, several honors and admirers aside, was famous most of all for not being famous.

Looking for a thread of silver lining, it might be tempting to pigeonhole Menashe as a poet’s poet—he had many celebrated champions, among them Donald Davie, Stephen Spender, Danielle Chapman, Dana Gioia, and, perhaps most meaningful for Menashe, Austin Clarke, who praised Menashe’s work in the Irish Times and even recited some of it on the radio. Menashe’s most crucial ally was probably the poet Kathleen Raine, who helped him find a London publisher for his first collection and contributed its forward. But to say that Menashe had any major impact on his peers or the generations that succeeded them would be a stretch. When, as an experiment, I googled “influenced by Samuel Menashe,” it took .57 seconds to return exactly zero results.

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In the introduction to his 2005 self-titled collection, Menashe writes, “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.” Echoing these sentiments, Don Share, another notable admirer, wrote upon Menashe’s death, “In our time of poetry movements, schools, coteries, and communities, Samuel Menashe was singular and self-sufficient.”

Share’s observation has a more positive spin than Menashe’s own, though one can’t help but wonder if Menashe’s singularity didn’t perhaps necessitate his self-sufficiency. There is no doubt strength in numbers and, counterintuitive as it may seem, being part of a movement can actually help an artist to stand out. The creator who goes it alone might garner interest and admiration, but it can be harder to determine their overall relevance, which to a critic means it’s harder to justify writing about them. In fact, even some of the most visionary and fearlessly independent artists like Picasso and Dylan were at least partially associated with larger movements (in their cases, cubism and folk, respectively), even as they clearly dominated them. Davie perhaps put it best when he wrote, “One trouble is that [Menashe’s] poems are as far from being traditional as they are from being in the fashion, or in any of the several fashions that have come and gone, whether in British or American poetry, over the last twenty-five or for that matter one hundred years.” Being consistently out of fashion is hardly a recipe for recognition, let alone financial comfort.

Would Menashe then have been better off if he’d tried to attach himself to a more “fashionable” movement? Could he have ingratiated himself, for example, with the Beats? This seems unlikely. While the spirituality in Menashe’s work would surely have resonated with the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac, those poets’ energy, exuberance, and expansiveness, not to mention their legendary subversiveness, could not be more different than Menashe’s dignified, finely chiseled poems.

How about the confessional poets then? There is plenty of autobiography in Menashe’s poetry, but its minimalism and enigmatic nature puts him at odds with that movement, as well. As Danielle Chapman notes, Menashe “doesn’t dredge through memories or parade us through his bedroom, and, except as the archetypal mother, father, or friend, he rarely makes mention of specific people or places.” When he does dig into his roots, however, the results are marvelous:

My father drummed darkness
Through the underbrush
Until lightning struck
I take after him
Clouds crowd the sky
Around me as I run
Downhill on a high—
I am my mother’s son
Born long ago
In the storm’s eye

What about the New York School? “No, they won’t have me,” Menashe said of the city’s famed poetry scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. It doesn’t seem a good fit anyhow: While poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbury wrote charmingly and inventively about their struggles to put words on the page, and about the form itself, their work is worlds apart from Menashe’s spare approach to the same subject matter:

The 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

coverNone of this is to say that Menashe’s work exists in a vacuum. In a wonderful video interview from 2009, we are treated to a shot of some of the books that clutter his shelf, which include Shakespearean sonnets and collections from Blake, Frost, and Yeats. In interviews, Menashe would frequently cite the influence of Blake and of English translations of the Hebrew Bible. The latter might raise the question of whether Menashe could be thought of as a Jewish poet—a valid proposition. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, his first language was Yiddish, and Jewish themes pervade his work. His first American collection was called No Jerusalem But This, whose title poem “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am” contains these lines:

There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the Prophets and Blake
And like David I bless myself
With all my might

At times, he is unabashedly spiritual and some of his poems could almost pass for psalms:

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

However, “Jewish poet” is an exceptionally broad category, and if some of his themes may overlap with modern Hebrew poets like Yehuda Amichai and Hayyim Nachman Bialik, there is also something distinctly American about his cadence. And unlike modern Yiddish writers like I.B. Singer or the masterful Chaim Grade, Menashe experienced and wrote about World War II through the lens of having been a U.S. soldier rather than a Holocaust survivor. He took part in the famous Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, and his wartime experiences suffuse his work, even as they’re often veiled in mystery:

Do not scrutinize
A secret wound—
Avert your eyes—
Nothing’s to be done
Where darkness lies
No light can come

Menashe is similarly ill-suited to be grouped in with the so-called “Deep Image” poets who gained prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The rich, vivid language of poets like Gallway Kinnell, James Wright, and Diane Wakoski is replaced in Menashe’s poetry by a far simpler, sparer vocabulary. His minimalism is in fact part of what makes his work so intimidating: he wields so much power with so few tools.

I wonder if Menashe ever felt tempted to adjust his poetry in order to better fit in—perhaps, but then he would have been a different poet. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, many creators have been all too willing to compromise their work by allowing forces beyond pure, unadulterated self-expression to impact its creation. Samuel Menashe, it seems, never made such a bargain.

In his later years, Menashe sometimes seemed rueful about his lack of recognition, even as he marveled over his long overdue accolades and the legacy they granted to his work. In a 2005 interview with Adam Travis of the Poetry Foundation, he said that his had been “the opposite of a life buttressed by grants and having a publisher and going to him every few years with new poems. Each time I’ve had to start from scratch.” When asked if there were any merits to obscurity, his reply could not have been more emphatic: “NO! No, no, no, no, no! You want your work to be read. Obscurity means you’re not read.”

Even if Menashe’s underappreciation has on some level come to define him, is that really so terrible? In my own brief but fateful encounters with Menashe over the years, I never once thought of him as unsuccessful. Watching him recite his poetry in his regal, Jimmy Stewart-like voice before a loving crowd at the Bowery Poetry Club was nothing short of magical. Success can take many forms and can mean different things depending on the artist or the medium. Samuel Menashe focused on the work rather than the scene, lived frugally and modestly and achieved his much-deserved recognition just in time to get some satisfaction and no small measure of bemusement out of it. There’s a purity to the way he led his artistic life, a charm and grace. You might very well call it poetry.

is the author, most recently, of The Return (St. Martin's Press). He teaches creative writing at Pace University.

One comment:

  1. How delightful to see Samuel (“I never Nick a name”) warmly remembered. A quite prickly and occasionally bitter fellow, who was nonetheless unfailingly (literally!) kind and generous with his time and his encouragement. He was definitely possessed of a strange purity rarely seen unspoiled.

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