A Bohemian Poet Seen in Rare Spotlight

Poetry

By David Kaufmann

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 12, 2006.
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New and Selected Poems

By Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks

Library of America, 191 pages, $20.

* * *

Samuel Menashe might well be the most recognized unrecognized American poet of the past 40 years. Although his first book appeared in England in 1961, he was not able to find an American publisher for another decade. To this day, the British admire him while most Americans have never heard of him.

Menashe’s “New and Selected Poems,” published by the Library of America in conjunction with The Poetry Foundation’s first Neglected Masters Award, could change all that. The book contains a handsome choice of his work along with a generous helping of those British reviews, as well as an introduction by Christopher Ricks. (There is also a brief essay by the poet himself.) It clearly invites us to ask how it could be that Menashe has been ignored in the United States for so long.

There are two obvious reasons for Menashe’s relative obscurity. A native New Yorker (born in 1925) with a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, Menashe has chosen to live a rather bohemian life, plugged into neither the academy nor the publishing and literary worlds. He also writes very short poems made up of very short lines, and we live in an era that is suspicious of such brevity. More important, though, Menashe’s poetry is essentially very foreign. We should take seriously the fact that his first language was Yiddish and that he was schooled in France. His sensibility is epigrammatic and French, while his metaphysics are transcendent and Jewish. On top of that, he shows an alien’s abiding fascination with the sheer peculiarity of American speech.

A number of Menashe’s crystalline poems capture little moments of perception. Others try to redeem clichés by taking them literally. Menashe’s method and something of his madness can be seen in a poem like “Spur of the Moment”:

His head rears back

Cresting upon his neck

His uplifted legs prance

As he champs at the bit

The unbridled rider sits

With reins in hand

Astride this dance

He is saddled with

To do something “on the spur of the moment” is to do something spontaneously. Through the word “spur,” the expression bears some distant relation to horseback riding, and Menashe exploits this relation by imagining a little equestrian scene. The description that starts the poem is really not all that interesting — the prancing horse champing at the bit is very predictable. The poem’s special kick comes with the adjective “unbridled” to describe not the horse, which would indeed be wearing a bridle, but the rider. While the rider is by definition unbridled, he seems to have absolutely no control over his mount. He is indeed “saddled” with a dance he can only endure. His freedom is spurious and his spontaneity — our spontaneity — is just a mask for compulsion.

A nice point. Perhaps too nice, in the residual sense of “over delicate” or “fastidious.” (Like Dickinson, whose sense of rhyme Menashe deliberately echoes, Menashe forces us to return to the dictionary.) There is, of course, something a bit precious about honing such precisions and playing on such inversions. And there is also something risky. Menashe’s poetry constantly performs a high-wire act. One false move, one misplaced cadence, and the poem fails. What is more, his aperçus can sometimes come off as just a little too cute: “A pot poured out/Fulfills its spout.” The fulcrum of this poem,

quoted here in its entirety is, of course, the verb “fulfill.” The pot is only empty because the spout has performed its function, a function it could only perform by being fully filled for a moment or two. This is all quite witty, but flirts a little closely with what used to be called “light verse.”

This flirtation is inevitable, because Menashe’s is the muse of epigrams. Like his classical and neoclassical forebears, the poet seeks to match compactness with wit. His perceptions about perception do not tarry with the specific but mostly point to generalized, if understated, moral conclusions. So even when Menashe is describing a rural scene, his poetry is really a kind of wisdom literature, like the Book of Proverbs on the one hand and the maxims of that hearty cynic La Rochefoucault on the other. Everything in his work, including the dashes of existentialism (“I am where I go”), is basically instructional. The teachings, though, can be rather subversive, as in “Improvidence,” where he tells us to “live on each loan” and “forget tomorrow” because “It is good to abet/Another’s good deed.”

The pastoral touches in Menashe’s poetry are therefore something of a tease. For the past two centuries, the Anglo American tradition of poetry has used nature as a vehicle for investigating perception and memory. Though Menashe is fascinated by the senses and by his environment (in both town and country, he appears to be an indefatigable walker), he has largely avoided nature poetry. In part we can ascribe this reluctance to his genre of choice. The epigram is a social form; it is about people in their complicated and contradictory relations with themselves and with others. More important, though, we can ascribe it to his religion.

Nature poetry always stands in danger of falling into full-blown pantheism, the belief that God is everywhere and in everything. For a Jew, this is arrant paganism, as Menashe quips in “Pagan Poem.” Here, the beloved he addresses appears to be as much the God of the “Song of Songs” as any human lover: “I would break all vows/That bind me to your bed/If I could make out/With one pine instead.” Biblical and talmudic Judaism defines itself against all such kinds of tree hugging, and Menashe is careful to distance himself, however jokingly, from it, as well.

Menashe can write a rather straightforward, even Orthodox, religious poem, such as “Hallelujah”:

Eyes open to praise

The play of light

Upon the ceiling—

While still abed raise

The roof this morning

Rejoice as you please

Your Maker who made

This day while you slept,

Who gives grace and ease,

Whose promise is kept.

Those final rhymes are not the sole source of pleasure here, although they do underline the odd surprise that comes from the repetitious certainty of each new day. Because Menashe does not punctuate the first half of the poem, its grammar takes an interestingly odd twist. It is not clear whether “open” is an adjective or a verb. It is therefore not clear whether the eyes that are addressed and that are supposed to raise the roof (albeit silently) are told to please God or to make Him rejoice. Of course, this grammatical ambiguity makes the poem’s whole point. It underlines the fine interplay of joy between the creature whose waking turns into an unreflective blessing and the Creator who is blessed.

Menashe’s ability to praise even our Exile (which is “always/Green with hope,” he writes in “Promised Land”) comes from a sense of what must be done to keep faith while living in the world: “Zion ground down must become marrow/Thus in my bones I am the King’s son.” Thus the poet himself becomes, as the title would have it, “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am.” The cost of erecting and maintaining this shrine is history itself, and thus all the losses that time entails. In a poem about his mother’s death, Menashe tells us that nothing less than bones are mortar for the walls of Jerusalem — not the empirical city itself, but the spiritual city of Jewish continuity and dream.

Nevertheless, Menashe tends to avoid sublimities. His most visionary religious poetry appears in the middle of the book and thus is flanked — and to a certain extent outflanked — by his other, sublunary poems. Perhaps this is a sign of limitation. Perhaps it betrays a kind of sanity. After all, epigrams are not prophecy. They tell us about getting by and concern themselves with present, not future, things. In the end, it might be Menashe’s unperturbed worldliness — his poetic savoir-faire — that makes him seem so out of phase. Some of the British poets and critics whose positive accounts of Menashe are included here would like to make him into a kind of Jewish wild child, a real naif. But as the evidence of “New and Selected Poems” clearly attests, Menashe’s work is the product of great care and much art. These spare little lyrics produce a sound we do not often hear, even in the polymorphous hubbub of contemporary American poetry. It is a tone that, because of its paradoxical nature — its sophisticated simplicity, its glancing directness — remains very hard to place.






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