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Samuel Menashe, 1925-2011.
We are sad to learn that Poetry contributor and recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters Award, Samuel Menashe, died peacefully in his sleep on the night of August 22, 2011. Sam was a longtime friend to so many of us, who will miss the phone calls, faxes, and handwritten letters though which he liked to share his latest poems.
I first met Sam when, several years ago, I invited him to give a reading at Harvard. In the frequent conversations that ensued, Sam – feeling his age – was worried that something might happen to him before he got to do the reading; we joked about it. When the night of the event arrived at last, Sam seemed vigorous and hale, much to my relief. But only a few moments into his reading, to everyone’s horror and my complete disbelief – he collapsed. Fortunately, doctors like to go to Harvard poetry readings, and the police and an ambulance arrived right away. Sam had only fainted, but of course we were extremely worried about him. The two doctors and I tried to convince him to go straight to the hospital, but he refused. He was determined to finish the reading, which he did; and when we feted him nervously at the Faculty Club he glowed with pride. Yet that is not the most memorable part of the occasion. Those who saw Sam read will know that he recited his work from memory, that he looked leonine, that he was, both on and off the podium (and this is no euphemism), a perfect gentleman: a mensch. And so my most cherished memory from the evening consists of a small thing that occurred shortly after the reading resumed. A very young child was among the listeners, softly chewing a few Cheerios as she sat beside to her poetry-loving parents. At one point, somebody shifted noisily in a chair to chastise the family with a sharp look. But Sam demurred from this correction, expressing his keen pleasure in having the child present. Later, on the flyleaf of her parents’ copy of his selected poems, Sam improvised and inscribed a poem – which he insisted, later, on revising right in the book.
Sam had a remarkable memory for poems, but much else besides. He often recalled the kinds of compliments and slights a poet is bound to have received over the course of a long life’s work; he had certain reasons for ruefulness, true, but also a magisterial kind of modesty – or better, a keen sense of proportion – that prevented him from truly relishing praise for his accomplishments, which he seemed both to expect and to be surprised by. In our time of poetry movements, schools, coteries, and communities, Samuel Menashe was singular and self-sufficient. For over a half-century, he lived alone in a three-room apartment in New York with a 39-dollar rent, having as company poetry – and a grapefruit tree (easier to take care of, he said, than a dog).
Austerity and economy were the hallmark of Sam’s life as well as his poems, which almost always consist of a handful of lines. When he read them aloud, he would sometimes recite them twice; this was effective because a single poem of his will usually have more impact than a poem by someone else at several times the length. Like Dickinson’s, Menashe’s poems are brief but very seldom simple, and might take years to unfold fully in the reader’s mind. In introducing his work, the critic Christopher Ricks said: “His still small voice carries.” We must now add that his voice, though stilled, still carries.
You can read more about Sam here; I’ll end with a poem from the April 2004 issue of Poetry by which he wanted to be remembered.
Ghost I houseIn this old flat—Your outpost—My aftermath