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MENASHE, SAMUEL (1925- ) Samuel
Menashe was largely unknown in America for most of the 20th century. His short, meditative poems draw heavily on the roots of words, and he has likened them to mathematical problems best solved with economy and precision. While he has been compared to the imagists and to Emily Dickinson, he once wrote, "I never thought of anything I read—either on my own or in school—as a literary model" (234). He has not written criticism, taught poetry, or edited, and his influence has been limited, though he has drawn praise from several prominent critics, including Donald Davie, Hugh Kenner, and Stephen Spender. For most of his career, his reputation has remained greatest in England.
Menashe was born in New York City and learned Yiddish and English by the age of three. In 1943 he trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, and fought in France, Belgium, and Germany during World War II. Under the G.I. Bill, he attended the Sorbonne and received his doctorate at age 24, completing his thesis, in French, on the religious and mystical origins of poetry. His first book, The Many Named Beloved, was published in London in 1961. His poems were included in Penguin Modern Poets, Volume 7 (1966), and his other books are No Jerusalem But This (1971), To Open (1974), Collected Poems (1986), and The Niche Narrows: New and Selected Poems (2000). In 1999 he was one of 21 poets featured in the PBS broadcast Fooling with Words.
His spare style has been influenced by the Bible, and his poems are religious but not dogmatic. His main themes are the relationship between the spiritual and the material and between the eternal and the fleeting. As Donald Davie has written, Menashe speaks "at a linguistic and cultural crossroads" (108), where his intersecting concerns are English, French, American, and Jewish. In "My Mothers Grave" (1971), he describes Jerusalem as having a wall made of skeletons ("Bones / Are mortar") and a street held together by dust. Both the speaker and the city thus share bereavement and exile.
Barry Ahearn has commented that Menashe "finds in everyday scenes the materials for extended vision" (297), and he often accomplishes this through the use of rhyme, emphasizing not only the sounds but the physical relationships between words, as would a verbal ideogram. In "The Niche Narrows" (2000), possibly Menashe's ars poetica, he describes a scene of paring away toward the essential, where one becomes gradually thinner "Until his bones / Disclose him." As with most of his work, the tone here is a synthesis of celebration and elegy.
Menashe's poems ask for revelation in the physical world. His prayerful deployment of concrete language always calls into question the primal meanings of words, challenging the reader to suspend ordinary association.
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