Thursday, September 30, 2010

Poet of Few Lines, Fewer Words

The struggle is against too many words!
~ Samuel Menashe, New York Poet

Samuel Menashe is a poet of as few words as possible. Some of his work is no more than two lines long and six or seven words total, and even then, to listen to Menashe, something probably could be cut.

What's astounding, when you read or hear the poetry, is how well it works, how sonorous it can be, and how intimate, how the few lines can mean more than a surface read might prompt, if you're willing to settle in with the images and consider how the words follow each other and what's named and what's not.

Look at some of the arresting imagery he crafts in a line or two: "armed trees frisk a windfall" (from "Autumn"), "Ribs ripple skin/ Up to the nipples...." (from "Mirror Image"), "Your eyes are spikes" (from "At Cross Purposes"), "... I sit/... Wintering with snow...." (from "The Dead of Winter").

There's humor in some of Menashe's poems, plays on words (see, for example, "Salt and Pepper"), a sense of delight, and plenty of allusions and metaphors. Poet and critic Dana Gioia describes Menashe as "essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed." Take as my examples of this description the poems "oracle", "transfusion", and "the offering", included with three others here, or any one in this series of poems collectively titled "Eyes Open to Praise". 

Menashe, who published his first book, The Many Named Beloved in 1961, received in 2004 the Poetry Foundation's first Neglected Masters Award. He is the first living poet to have a collection of his work, Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems (2005), published by The Library of America. (The collection was cited by Contemporary Poetry Review as Best Book of Contemporary Poetry in 2005.) Menashe's The Niche Narrows: New and Selected Poems (Talisman House Publishers) was published in 2000.

If you know little about Menashe or his poetry, the following video, made for WNCY's "Know Your Neighbor: Samuel, The Concise Poet", is a charming introduction. It shows the poet, completely at home in the New York City apartment he's occupied for decades, as a great memorizer of his own words and as a "reader" who knows just how to deliver a line. 

Here's the brief backstory on the Know Your Neighbor feature:

Know Your Neighbor: When David Met Samuel from wnyc culture on Vimeo.

The following video is an excerpt from Life is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe, a documentary produced by Pamela Robertson-Pearce. The film is available on DVD only with a purchase of the 2009 Bloodaxe Books UK edition of Samuel Menashe: New & Selected Poems.

Samuel Menashe (from Life is IMMENSE) from Neil Astley on Vimeo.


Article: "Poet Samuel Menashe Turns 85 Today: 'Every word has to count'", Reader's Almanac (The Library of America), September 16, 2010

Article: "The Amazing Samuel Menashe", April 3, 2010

Article: "A 'Neglected' Master", The New York Times, March 19, 2006

Article: "Poetry and Synthesis: The Art of Samuel Menashe", Twentieth Century Literature 42:2, 1996

Article: "The Shrine Whose Shape I Am: The Poetry of Samuel Menashe", The Jewish Daily Forward, September 25, 2009 (The author, Jake Marmer, says of reading Menashe's poems, "... my pangs of hunger transformed into hunger of a more fitting transcendental kind. The poetry becomes an appetizer, nourishing the mind little, yet teasing and drawing me further into the internal recesses of the unhinged mythical imagination.")

Essay and Review: "No Small Feat", Poetry Daily, 2008

"A Portrait of the Poet Samuel Menashe", Podcast at Poetry Foundation

"Interview: Samuel Menashe", February 2005, Poetry Foundation (This is a wonderful interview.)

Interview: "Samuel Menashe: A Poet Gets His Due", NPR, November 5, 2006

"Poem of the Week: Twilight by Samuel Menashe", Guardian, February 15, 2010

Review of Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, The Cinch Review, February 25, 2009

Review of Samuel Menashe's The Niche Narrows, "I Did Not Advance, I Cannot Retreat", Poetry Foundation

Samuel Menashe Reading at the New York Public Library, April 10, 2010 (Video)

Samuel Menashe Reading His Poetry, Poetry Archive Recordings 

Samuel Menashe Poems at Poetry Foundation (This list is substantial enough to provide a good sense of the range and depth and subjects of Menashe's poems. There are many others accessible online.)

The Samuel Menashe Society on FaceBook


Hannah Stephenson said...

So heartening. I love his writing.

S. Etole said...

His conciseness is captivating ...

A. Jay Adler said...

Maureen, I cannot say how I value this poet, this person, very special and rich, living in that small Manhattan apartment all these years, a hidden treasure. And the city is full of these little or unknown stories.

Kathleen Overby said...

I am so glad you showcased him. He appeals to me. His sparse and pointed word crafting? Oh, if only I could learn how. What a treasure.