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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Poet Samuel Menashe turns 85 today: “Every word has to count”

Samuel Menashe writes concise poems. Sometimes just three or five lines, rarely more than twelve. He’s been doing this for more than fifty years. “Sometimes a poem may go through decades until I finally get the word that makes the poem.” Today is his eighty-fifth birthday.

Menashe wasn’t always a poet. As he describes it: “One night in February 1949 [he was 25], I woke up in the middle of the night and there was the first line of a poem, entirely unforeseen.” Menashe published his first poem in The Yale Review seven years later and found that, while he could get published in poetry magazines, landing an American publisher eluded him. British poets, however, immediately took to his work. No sooner had he shown his work to poet Kathleen Raine and other British poets than he had a publisher. No Jerusalem But This was published in the UK in 1961 and several other books followed.

In 2005 the Poetry Foundation honored Menashe with its first Neglected Masters Award, which came with a $50,000 prize and a book contract: Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems was published by The Library of America in its American Poets Project series in 2005.

In his introduction to New and Selected Poems editor and poet Christopher Ricks tries to find the most fitting term for the kind of poems Menashe writes:
These are short poems that are not . . . 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. Yet these are poems that do belong within wisdom literature, that of the Psalms, say, or of Blake’s shorter poems.
“Wisdom literature” seems apt for a poet who likes to face difficult questions in as few words as possible, as he does in “Autobiography”:
Who is mother
Of more than one
Is not the same
As the mother
Of an only son
Who never became
Anyone’s father—
Still only a son
As an old man—
What I have not done
Made me who I am.
Menashe writes his poems to be read and no one reads his poems better than Menashe. As poet Donald Davie has written:
The one and only style of reading that I know of, which forces the reader to attend to each and every syllable in what he hears, is the reading-style of Samuel Menashe.

The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Disclose him

Hearing Menashe read [this]—eleven words, fourteen syllables—is to understand what it means in practice for a poet to compose by the syllable. The voice is enviably rich in timbre and resonance, but what matters is that it is exactly controlled.... Hearing it read by Menashe is an experience unlike any other known to me; when the poem has been performed, one has the illusion (and perhaps it isn’t illusory after all) of having heard a very long poem indeed, and a very elaborate one.
Reviewing New and Selected Poems in Poetry Review, David Morley admired “Samuel Menashe’s integrity of perception, his self-possessed seriousness, and the precise, often playful awareness of the importance of space—space as another means for stating, imparting, whispering.” (Listen to Menashe read several of his poems. )

Last year Menashe was filmed in the Greenwich Village walkup he has lived in for the past fifty years for the NPR series, “Know Your Neighbor.”

Related LOA works: Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems

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