For most of his adult life the poet Samuel Menashe lived in a tiny New York apartment, perched on the top floor, accessible only by a narrow, spiraling flight of stairs. It seemed, in a way, the physical embodiment of his writing life. Even if you knew he was there, it took effort to reach him.
For almost five decades Menashe existed on the margins of American letters. His first book, The Many Named Beloved, was published a continent away in Britain in 1961, and despite a forward written by Kathleen Raine, he quickly disappeared for another decade. His second book, No Jerusalem But This (1971), was again published in Britain and promised to raise him from obscurity when it came to the attention of Donald Davie and Stephen Spender. Davie’s characteristically distilled perception of Menashe as a religious poet is one that has largely remained to this day. What he called Menashe’s “liturgical and devotional intent” was one “directed to releasing the worshipful potentialities of language.” Spender, on the other hand, saw him more narrowly as “a poet of entirely Jewish consciousness”. He wasn’t. Not nearly. Menashe’s poems were too open, too generous to be tied to one particular creed:
Taut with longing
You must become
The god you sought—
The only one
The poems bow to no orthodoxy; Menashe’s tentative soundings were so unique, so individual, they could be viewed as neither tradition nor fashion, and Davie even hinted at this as a cause of his neglect.
Though isolated and largely ignored, Menashe showed remarkable resilience. His art became even more refined; change meant polish and perfection. It would take his inclusion in Penguin’s Modern Poets series in 1996 for us to recognize him as a poet of weight not bulk, capable of talking across continents and cultures.
In 2004, when Menash was almost 80, The Poetry Foundation bestowed on him the inaugural Neglected Masters Award. It may have been late in the day for Menashe, but in honoring him The Library of America (2005) made a large body of his poetry available, introducing his work to several generations of new readers. This was followed in Britain by his New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2009), issued together with Pamela Robertson-Pearce’s tender DVD film Life is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe.
It was typical of Samuel Menashe, that he should slip away, quietly in his sleep on the evening of August 22, 2011, at a time when he was becoming most visible. But we have his poems, as Stephen Spender wrote, “intense and clear as diamonds.” They were minute and his output restrained and measured. He was, in Derek Mahon’s phrase, a master of “compression and crystallization.” We could never mistake him for anyone else.
There is never an end to loss, or hope
I give up the ghost for which I grope
Over and over again saying Amen
To all that does or does not happen—
The eternal event is now, not when