Pepper – Brief Poems by Samuel Menashe

MenasheSamuel Menashe (1925-2011) was born on September 16, 1925, in New York City. the son of immigrant and persecuted Ukrainian Jews. He once said Yiddish was his mother tongue by a hair, then English, French and later Spanish. During World War II he served as an infantryman in France, Belgium, and Germany. After the “Battle of the Bulge” ,  all but 29 members of his company of 190 men were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The experience of war had a deep impression on him, both as a poet and as a man: “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.”

After the war, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he wrote a thesis which examined the awareness – religious or mystical – which is the source of poetry. After Paris he returned to New York, where he  became a “private citizen” living, as Donald Davie put it, “alone and frugally”  in his cold-water apartment up five flights (“these stone steps/bevelled by feet”) in Greenwich Village that he occupied as a bachelor for over 50 years with a 39-dollar rent, having as company poetry – and a grapefruit tree (easier to take care of, he said, than a dog).   The paint was peeling, and books were piled everywhere: on window sills, on top of cupboards. (“Hard covers melt/Welcome the sun…”) He spent his days writing in the morning and being a flâneur des boulevards 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.

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. “Those who approve of my poems call them economical or concise; the others dismiss them as slight.”  They were honed down to the essence, sculpted like stones. He left them on scraps of paper all over his apartment. 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

He was a superb reader of his own work – he committed all his poems to memory. He enunciated each syllable, often making these brief poems sound much more substantial than they appeared. Given the brevity of the texts, he often repeated the poems, as can be seen in the videos linked to in the VIDEO LINKS below.

In 2004, he received the inaugural Neglected Masters Award from The Poetry Foundation. This carried with it a prize of $50,000 along with the publication of his New and Selected Poems edited by Christopher Ricks and published by the Library of America, their first volume by a living poet. That volume appeared in 2005 on the occasion of the poet’s 80th birthday.  A revised edition, with ten additional poems, was published in 2008. Bloodaxe Books in the UK published the volume (which also contained a DVD film about the poet’s life and work) in 2009.

Samuel Menashe died in his sleep in New York on August 22, 2011, at the age of 85.

 

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Brief Poems by Samuel Menashe

The Annunciation

She bows her head
Submissive, yet
Her downcast glance
Asks the angel, “Why,
For this romance,
Do I qualify?”

***

Beachhead

The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds

***

White hair does not weigh

more than the black
which it displaces—
Upon any fine day
I jump these traces

***

Salt and Pepper

Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

***

The Niche

The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Disclose him

***

Here

Ghost I house
In this old flat—
Your outpost—
My aftermath

 

From Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, by Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks, copyright © 1971, 1973, 1986, 2004, 2005 by Samuel Menashe. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y., http://www.loa.org. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Brief Untitled Poems by Samuel Menashe

Pity us
Beside the sea
On the sands
So briefly

***

Leah bribed Jacob
With mandrake roots
To make him
Lie with her

Take my poems

***

O Lady lonely as a stone-
Even here moss has grown

***

A flock of little boats
Tethered to the shore
Drifts in still water
Prows dip, nibbling

***

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout

***

The sea staves
Concave waves

 

From Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, by Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks, copyright © 1971, 1973, 1986, 2004, 2005 by Samuel Menashe. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y., http://www.loa.org. All rights reserved.

 

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CRITICAL COMMENTS ON THE POEMS

One trouble is that his 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.

Donald Davie (1970)

***

His scale is … very small, but he can compress an attitude to life that has an immense history into three lines.

Here is a poet who compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds…

Stephen Spender

***

…his poems have to be compact and close because only in that way can English words – any English word, if the right tight context be found for it – show up as worshipful, as having a wisdom and an emotional force beyond what we can bring out of it when we make it serve our usual occasions.

Donald Davie (1986)

***

Menashe is essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed. Nearly every poem he has ever published radiates a heightened religious awareness. His central themes are the unavoidable concerns of religious poetry—the tension between the soul and body, past and present, time and eternity. Like David in the Psalms, his poems are alternately joyous and elegiac. Even his poetic technique—which so strikingly combines imagist compression with traditional rhyme—focuses words into mystical symbols of perception.

He is the most physical poet imaginable. (Note how often he writes about his own body.) But he is a poet who can only understand physical reality in relation to the metaphysical.

Dana Gioia

***

One reason why the critics have written so little about Menashe is that he is simply too little for them. But to be little isn’t simple, and to be simple isn’t little either. The poems are massively concise: the shortest is five words long, the longest 91 words short.

Brian Lynch

***

His still small voice carries. It carries weight.

One of the many aspects in which the poems are entirely without snobbery is their delighting in commonplaces. Within these personable poems, a rueful resilience attends upon clichés.

These are short poems that are not – the critics have rightly insisted – epigrams exactly, or (rather) are exactly not epigrams. A different kind of wit is at work. Or aphorisms, really. A different kind of wisdom is at work.

Christopher Ricks

***

Menashe is a curious and meticulous writer — the poems here are no longer than a page, most have very short lines, they’re either unpunctuated or very carefully and lightly punctuated, and they rely on tricky rhyme and assonance schemes to carry observations that Ricks describes as “apophthegms” and a nonprofessor might call “proverbs.”

Each poem reads as if it’s been handblown, filled with an exactly measured dose of Wisdom and then polished 9,000 times by the world’s most precisely folded chamois.

David Orr

***

In a poem by Menashe, an awful lot goes on in a short space, and it might seem like cherrystone scrimshaw at first. But so does a little poem by Emily Dickinson, until you look harder. Menashe is in her tradition, packing sound together to shed light.

Clive James

***

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’.

Clive Wilmer

 

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LINKS

Clive James and his interesting, astute comments on Samuel Menashe.

Clive Wilmer reviews Samuel Menashe in The Guardian.

Dana Gioia on the poetry of Samuel Menashe.

Adam Travis interviews Samuel Menashe in 2005.

A review  by Danielle Chapman of  a Samuel Menashe collection.

An obituary in the Irish Times.

A Bloodaxe Books eulogy by Nicholas Birns.

A Bloodaxe Books set of tributes to Samuel Menashe and an essay he wrote.

The Bloodaxe Blogs page on Samuel Menashe.

Order his poetry in Europe from Bloodaxe Books.

Order his poetry in the USA from Library of America.

Order his poetry in America from Amazon.

 

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VIDEO LINKS

Samuel Menashe reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, September 13th 2007.

Samuel Menashe reading his poetry at the 25th Anniversary celebration of Mobius, The Poetry Magazine, October 27, 2007

An extract from the Pamela Robinson-Pearce film about Samuel Menashe Life is IMMENSE (2009).

Samuel Menashe reading at New York Public Library, April 10th 2010.

Samuel, The Concise Poet, a brief WYNC film about this resident of Greenwich Village.

 

Menashe

 

From Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, by Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks, copyright © 1971, 1973, 1986, 2004, 2005 by Samuel Menashe. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y., http://www.loa.org. All rights reserved.

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