Saturday, 26 November 2011

Samuel Who?: A Poetic Embarassment

A regular reader of the London “Guardian”, I was astonished to find in the August 23rd edition an Obit for one 85 year old American poet Samuel Menashe, who won the Poetry Foundation’s 2004 Neglected Masters Award ($50,000). Who, he? Imagine the panic of having taught poetry for over sixty years and never even heard the name! It turns out I was not the only lyric ignoramus.

Dana Gioia, arguably the best (only good?) appointment of George W. Bush, as director of the National Endowment of the Arts, 2003-2009 commented: "The public career of Samuel Menashe demonstrates how a serious poet of singular talent , power and originality can be utterly ignored in our literary culture.” And Stephen Spender declaimed in the New York Review of Books (1971) that there was nothing more remarkable than “the fact that his poetry goes so little remarked.”

Sam was not humble about the $50G’s awarded in 2004. “When one gets what one deserves, it’s a wonderful thing.” But he was less positive in an interview with “Contemporary Authors” in 1984. He complained that “the poetry editor is invariably the house poet or a person who is working with the interlocking directorate of established poets. . .”

He growled that you weren’t sent to Siberia (his parents were Russian Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn), but that “you are just kept out of print.” The British poet Kathleen Raines helped him get his first book published—in Great Britain, by a major publisher, Victor Gollancz in 1961, at age 36. A minor American firm, October House, published him ten years later. He sought out Robert Graves in Mallorca, who exclaimed,”Young man,you are a true poet,” the greeting Thomas Hardy made a generation earlier! But except for brief stints at Bard College and C.W.Post College, he was shut out of the creative writing faculties that now dominate the genre.

But his troubles started after one year at Queens College, He joined the Army at 17, and was soon in the infantry fighting the Battle of the Bulge. All but 29 of his company of 190 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. When he returned to America, his mates all spoke of what they would do next summer. “I was amazed that they could talk of next summer. As a result I lived in the day.

For the first next few years, it was the last day. Then it changed. It was the only day.” NYTimes 8/23/11. C.W.Post College fired him for passing all his students eligible for the Korean Draft! He took odd jobs as a Gray Line guide, a French tutor, a lecturer on cruise ships. He sold his first poem to the Yale Review in 1956, moved into a Thompson Street walk up and stayed there till the day he died.

But let him continue his own story, poetically.


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.
Or, Biographer
By my steadfast prose
The dead I ghost write
Shed shadows that shine
With hindsight, hearsay—
The last word is mine.

For what I did
And did not do
And do without
In my old age
Rue, not rage
Against that night
We go into,
Sets me straight
On what to do
Before I die—
Sit in the shade,
Look at the sky

Salt and Pepper
Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout
(NO TITLE! Think about it, the cryptic poems his careless readers scorned.)
I think I like most his bird poems. Here’s a few to round off your visit:

Lust puffs up
The Peacock—
Taut tail strut
Fan of fire—
Shakes a Sire

The Sandpiper

The Sandpiper
Scampers over sand
As breakers disband

Each wave undergoes
The bead of his eye
He pecks what it tows
Keeps himself dry

Sudden Shadow
Crow I scorn you
Caw everywhere
You’ll not subdue
This blue air

One imaginative idea in "Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems" edited by Christopher Hicks (Broad Axe Books,2008), with DVD by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, was to include a DVD of the poet reading. This film is a flop, but such DVD’s should become standard in poetry published. Praise for a good try.

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