"I Am Where I Go": The Poetry of Samuel Menashe

By Birns, Nicholas | Hollins Critic, April 2003 | Go to article overview

"I Am Where I Go": The Poetry of Samuel Menashe


Birns, Nicholas, Hollins Critic


It has been remarked more than once that the letters of Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins can be seen as frames for their poems, surrounding abstract and often forbidding verse with a more easily apprehensible sense of lived experience. I recalled these remarks when having dinner with Samuel Menashe in September 2002. Menashe, now in his late seventies, has been writing and publishing poetry for fifty years. I had known of his work since the mid-1980s, finding out about it through perusing British periodicals no doubt like many of his American readers (given that he has always been better known in London than in his native New York) and, in all probability, running across a commendation of his work in a review, and knowing immediately this was work I would read and admire. I had written a couple of brief articles on his work for reference books in the early 1990s, but, somewhat like Menashe himself, when young, thinking that only people who were dead were poets, I did not think of contacting the poet himself to assist me in my efforts, even though I knew he lived some fifteen blocks away from me in downtown New York. It was only last fall when, introduced by the critic Irving Malin, I finally saw Menashe plain.

I was immediately conscious of how much actually talking to Menashe added to my appreciation of his poems. Not that they cannot stand on their own, nor that the remote reader, in a time and place far from here, will not be able to find them enjoyable and resonant. Indeed, this last conjecture may well be especially true. But one immediately had the sense of a background that added dimension to the blank space on the page surrounding the short poems that Menashe tends to produce. In talking about his recent volume of new and selected poems, The Niche Narrows (Talisman House, 2000), as well as showing me fifteen or so new poems, some of which appear in this issue of The Hollins Critic, Menashe ranged extensively over his life, career, and, as Cleanth Brooks once said of Faulkner, "prejudices, predilections, and firm beliefs". This article will attempt to give some sense of this conversation, along with providing some close readings for Menashe's poems, attempts to render into understood words the terse, simple, but often implicatively bottomless language that the poet provides.

The situation of even the most successful artist is marginal, and always has been; even the most laureled writer probably needs all the support he or she can get. Menashe has never suffered from lack of prominent supporters. He has long had advocates in England, including Kathleen Raine, P. N. Furbank (who recently wrote a very positive review of Menashe in Partisan Review), and the late Donald Davie (whose championship is most likely the source for my having initially heard of Menashe). Recently, his work has appeared in the Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker as well as in the seventh volume of the prominent British series Penguin Modern Poets. In 2001, he read at the Library of Congress along with Kay Ryan, a younger poet whose work possesses a--fortuitous--kinship with that of Menashe. Both the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, and the newly appointed chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, have been backers of Menashe's work. If you really follow poetry, are a real connoisseur and not just a dilettante, there is at least an even chance you will at least know the name of Samuel Menashe. But Menashe is still unquestionably neglected. He has not received the fellowships, grants, and awards he should have, other than an award in the late 1950s from the Longview Foundation (for the one war story he wrote, not his poetry) and, considering he lives very near to several prominent universities, libraries, and performance venues, he is asked to give readings all too seldom, all the more a shame as his readings are memorable ones. Neither the explanation that Menashe's material is too idiosyncratic, or some very concrete explanation that he failed to network with the right people and so on is fully adequate to explain his obscurity. …

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