Sam Menashe’s poetic diamonds

Sam Menashe has died. Poet minimalist, he fashioned jewel-like verse as small as four brief lines, rhyme and sense interlocking like a Chinese box.

He lived like a poet, also. Amid a society where poets find refuge and succour in universities and writing conferences and from foundations and publishers he walked alone, often to be found sitting on a bench in Central Park holding forth, reciting his verse with aplomb, his clothes a little grubby and age finally creasing his handsome features without much thinning his mane of silver hair. We took portrait shots of him once for some project of his, perhaps a book, but they are lost at the moment inside some defunct drive.

After years of professional neglect he finally published a second book or two, thanks to the Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Master award in 2004. But why not more earlier? Why were his diamonds ignored, falling like pearls before swine?

Was it because he was something of a giant ego who lacked interest in others, even those who could give him membership in the club? Certainly one felt that his interest in others was minimal, because he seemed driven to confine most conversation to himself and his ideas, and declaim his verse in rotund tongue at a moment’s notice.

But literary talent never seems to be anything else in our experience. And his verse was fit for reciting any time over chitchat


For what I did

And did not do

And do without

In my old age

Rue, not rage

Against that night

We go into,

Sets me straight

On what to do

Before I die–

Sit in the shade,

Look at the sky.

We challenge you to find any work of his which was not honed to perfection, bracelets of jewels of language and insight.

Here’s his Guardian obituary , nicely done.

Samuel Menashe obituary
Poet whose intense and concise works were like psalms

By Daniel Thomas Moran, Friday 26 August 2011 07.15 EDT

The poet Samuel Menashe, who has died aged 85, was perhaps the last of the great generation of New York bohemian writers. Through a career of nearly 60 years, he traced a path that was his alone; academics and critics, unable to draw decided comparison to any of his contemporaries, were forced to reach back to the likes of Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Blake.

Samuel himself resisted labels entirely and would say only that his poems were “concise”. He once recounted to me, with some delight, that on a visit to his parents in the 1950s, in the early stages of his writing, he told his mother that he had been busy working on a poem that he had read to her the previous week. She asked, “How much shorter is it?” Some years later, Stephen Spender declared that Samuel “can compress an attitude to life that has an immense history into three lines with language intense and clear as diamonds”. The poet Derek Mahon said that Samuel practised the art of “compression and crystallisation”.

He understood that, like all of us, he was the sum of his experiences, the ones which inspired and the ones which haunted. Here, for example, is Cargo, written for the poet Rachel Hadas:

Old wounds leave good hollows

Where one who goes can hold

Himself in ghostly embraces

Of former powers and graces

Whose domain no strife mars–

I am made whole by my scars

For whatever now displaces

Follows all that once was

And without loss stows

Me into my own spaces

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Samuel was raised in the borough of Queens by his Russian immigrant parents. In 1943 he left Queens College for Fort Benning, Georgia, joining the second world war war effort as an infantryman. He saw action in many places, including the Battle of the Bulge, which he always insisted be referred to it by its proper name, “The Von Rundstedt Offensive”. He nearly never spoke about the war, even to friends.

At the war’s end, he returned on the GI bill to finish his degree at Queens College and then enrolled at the Sorbonne, in Paris, where he earned his PhD in 1950. He returned to New York, where he took a few short-lived teaching jobs, including one at CW Post College. He told me that he was forced to quit for passing all of his students, who faced conscription to the war in Korea if they could not pass their classes. It was Samuel’s experiences in war which most informed his philosophy, simply to live each day as if it were the last. He never married and had no children.

Samuel’s first poem came to him in a dream and he began to wonder about poetry. He said that he “had never met a poet and never dreamed of being a poet. Poets were dead immortals.” But he continued to find his voice in poems and, after not being able to find a willing book publisher in America, he returned to Europe, making the acquaintance of the poet Kathleen Raine. She became an early champion of his work and brought it to the attention of Victor Gollancz, who published Samuel’s The Many Named Beloved in 1961.

When Samuel travelled to Majorca in the 1950s, to find Robert Graves and show him his work, Graves told him, “Young man, you are a true poet” – something that Graves reported had been said to him by Thomas Hardy. Samuel published several collections and was roundly praised by some of the finest minds in poetry, including Donald Davie, PN Furbank, Hugh Kenner, Denis Donoghue and Billy Collins. The poet Dana Gioia has stated: “The public career of Samuel Menashe demonstrates how a serious poet of singular talent, power and originality can be utterly ignored in our literary culture.”

Samuel was never known to have expressed a doubt about his own work. Living and writing for some 50 years in a walk-up tenement in Greenwich Village, he sat at a modest window-facing desk until the sun rose beyond the rooftops across Thompson Street, when he headed out into the streets, and eventually to Central Park, where he walked and met with friends until darkness fell.

The recognition he so craved was always just beyond reach until 2004, when he was awarded the first Neglected Masters award by the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. This carried with it a prize of $50,000 along with the publication of his New and Selected Poems by the Library of America, their first volume by a living poet. In his remarkable introduction to the book, Christopher Ricks wrote: “His still small voice carries. It carries weight. The poems, in the terms with which Dr Samuel Johnson honoured a 17th-century master who is now neglected (Sir John Denham), ‘convey much meaning in few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk’.”

Samuel was in love with language and all the subtle meanings he found in various words and idioms. They were the toys he played with, and it would delight him to juxtapose them to create deeper meanings, adorned by remarkably complex, effective and inventive patterns of rhyme and rhythm. Later in his life, he spent much time reflecting on the nature of his own mortality. His poems were often like psalms. Here is Rue:

For what I did

And did not do

And do without

In my old age

Rue, not rage

Against that night

We go into,

Sets me straight

On what to do

Before I die–

Sit in the shade,

Look at the sky

Samuel’s life was a lesson in resoluteness and indefatigable tenacity. His poems were simply the steadfast expressions of a man deeply in love with living.

• Samuel Menashe Weisberg, poet, born 16 September 1925; died 22 August 2011

Here is his Economist obit , which as the single comment has it, is a work of art, inspired, surely, by its subject:

UNTIL 2009, if you had wandered past 75 Thompson Street in SoHo, in New York City, you might have glimpsed a face at an upstairs window. It was an aristocratic face, with a shock of white hair, and it surmounted—according to the season—a chunky-knit sweater or a white Byronic shirt. This was the first clue that out of sight, level with the window sill, was a writing desk, and that at this desk, on sheets of unruled paper in blue felt-tip pen, Samuel Menashe was writing poems.

Inklings sans ink

Cling to the dry

Point of the pen

Whose stem I mouth

Not knowing when

The truth will out.

They were very short poems. Many were only four lines long. He began with more, but then worked to make them as concise as possible. They were honed down to the essence, sculpted like stones. He left them on scraps of paper all over the apartment.

A flock of little boats

Tethered to the shore

Drifts in still water

Prows dip, nibbling

Others were not so good. And some, he thought, were no more than sighs, like the one he once wrote on the sand of an Irish beach for the tide to take away.

Pity us

Beside the sea

On the sands

So briefly

There were rhyme schemes in his work, but usually just the sort that cropped up in ordinary speech. He liked plumbing the throwaway phrases of everyday life: “on the level”, “come to grief”, “at my wits’ end”. The influences on him, he supposed, were mostly Blake, Shakespeare and the King James Bible (though he was Jewish, he did not know Hebrew). He called his poems psalms and sonnets, though he never consciously wrote in either form. Instead, sitting at his desk, he pared and pared.

The hollow of morning

Holds my soul still

As water in a jar

When he told his mother he was working on a poem he had shown her, she would ask: “How much shorter is it?” But then it was she who, years ago, had told him to consider the beauty of a tree in its bareness, not its leaves.

He wrote several poems about lying under trees, gazing at the light and shade.

Branches spoke

This cupola

Whose leaf inlay

Keeps the sun at bay

Most of those trees were in Central Park. He walked there in the afternoons, reciting to himself and memorising, until he could watch the sinking sun igniting the windows of the city. He was a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn to parents in the dry-cleaning business, and he had lived alone in his cold-water apartment up five flights (“these stone steps/bevelled by feet”) since he was 31. The paint was peeling, and books were piled everywhere: on window sills, on top of cupboards. “Hard covers melt/Welcome the sun…”

His kitchen contained a claw-foot bath, a stove and a table. He heated up his breakfast Quick Oats there, but otherwise ate at Homer’s Diner (“There’s no place like Homer’s”). Shadowing the French poets he was fond of (he had studied at the Sorbonne after his wartime infantry service, and could quote Baudelaire at length) he was a flâneur des boulevards, mostly at night. He would glance into the park,

As armed trees frisk a windfall

Down paths that lampposts light

Fingering the skull

He had never intended to become a poet. His major was in biochemistry. But then he had woken up in the middle of the night, in Paris in 1949, with a line in his head:

All my life when I woke up at night

And that was that. The next 62 years were spent on poetry. To him his works seemed man-sized, populating his apartment, continually demanding a smoothing here, a chiselling there. To change “the crinkled leaf of spring” to “spring’s crinkled leaf” was a massive decision. Each word weighed heavy, and when he came to recite them (knowing them all by heart) they filled his mouth, sonorous and huge.

A pot poured out

Fulfills its spout

There was no money in it, of course. He had to teach a bit, or work on cruise ships. The literary magazines took a few of his poems. He struggled to get published anywhere, though Kathleen Raine and Stephen Spender took a shine to him in the 1960s, and Penguin published him in 1996. He would shift Ted Hughes along in Border’s, to give himself room on the shelf. The big established American poets seemed to him like medieval abbots visiting each other, while he remained a hermit outside the walls. He worked with a hand propping his head, feeling his skull as a memento mori.

Alone in my lair

With one bone to pick

And no time to spare

The critical world, in so far as it noticed, was divided about him. His poems were either crystalline and profound, or slight and banal. Whichever was true, he laboured on. In 2004 America’s Poetry Foundation gave him its first Neglected Masters Award. He said he deserved it, and so he did: the unresting representative of thousands of other dogged and neglected poets, scribbling and dreaming at their windows in all the cities of the world.

Here is the New York Times effort, a touch less appreciative:

Samuel Menashe, New York Poet of Short Verse, Dies at 85

Samuel Menashe, a Greenwich Village poet whose jewel-like, gnomic short verse won him an ardent following in Britain and belated recognition in the United States when the Poetry Foundation gave him its first Neglected Masters Award in 2004, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was complications of heart disease, Nicholas Birns, a literary critic and friend, said.

Mr. Menashe (pronounced men-AHSH) specialized in very short, often unpunctuated poems of less than 10 lines, with a religious or metaphysical bent. The British scholar P. N. Furbank called them “perfect little mechanisms, minute cathedrals.”

In “The Niche,” included in his 2000 collection “The Niche Narrows,” Mr. Menashe limited himself to four lines:

The niche narrows

Hones one thin

Until his bones

Disclose him

Although his poems appeared with some regularity in journals like Partisan Review and The New Yorker, he wrote and lived as a bohemian, and throughout his career encountered difficulties in finding a book publisher.

His first poetry collections appeared in Britain, where poets like Kathleen Raine and Donald Davie championed his cause, and his work was included in the influential series Penguin Modern Poets. It was Ms. Raine, a poet and critic at Cambridge University, who brought his work to the attention of Victor Gollancz, who published “The Many Named Beloved” in 1961.

In 1971, “No Jerusalem but This,” a collection of poems on Jewish themes, became his first book to be published in the United States. Stephen Spender wrote in The New York Review of Books that nothing was more remarkable about Mr. Menashe than “the fact that his poetry goes so little remarked.”

“Here is a poet who compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds.”

Samuel Menashe Weisberg was born on Sept. 16, 1925, in Brooklyn and grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, where his father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, ran a laundry and dry-cleaning business.

He enrolled in Queens College but left in 1943 to enlist in the Army. As an infantryman with the 87th Division, he fought his way through France, Belgium and Germany. In a single day during the Battle of the Bulge, all but 29 members of his company of 190 men were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

“When I came back, I heard people talking about what they were going to do next summer,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I was amazed that they could talk of that future, next summer. As a result, 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.”

He returned to Queens College but left without taking a degree and sailed to France, where he earned a degree at the Sorbonne in 1950.

He began his writing career with stories drawn from his childhood and his wartime experiences, but he instinctively found his way to poetry. “One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and a poem started,” he told National Public Radio in 2006.

His first poem was published in The Yale Review in 1956, the year he moved into his apartment on Thompson Street, where he lived until entering an assisted-living institution in 2010. He leaves no immediate survivors.

Although he taught literature at Bard and C. W. Post College for short periods in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Menashe remained largely outside the academic world, the usual support system for American poets. Instead, he worked a motley assortment of pickup jobs: tour guide on Gray Line buses, French tutor, lecturer on cruise ships.

“Most editors do not read poetry,” he told the reference work Contemporary Authors in 1984. “The poetry editor is almost invariably the house poet or a person who is working with the interlocking directorate of establishment poets. Government censorship could not be more effective, but here you can’t be sent to Siberia — you are just kept out of print.”

His poetry collections included “Fringe of Fire” (1973), “To Open” (1974) and “Collected Poems,” which the National Poetry Foundation published in 1986. After he received the Neglected Masters Award, the Library of America published the collection “Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems” in 2005, with an introduction by Christopher Ricks, another of his British admirers.

Mr. Menashe regarded the attention with appreciation but without excess humility. “When one gets what one deserves, it’s a wonderful thing,” he said on receiving the Poetry Foundation Prize and the $50,000 check that accompanied it.

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