The Eulogizer: Poet Samuel Menashe

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Samuel Menashe, 85, poet

Samuel Menashe, whose jewel-like, gnomic poetry, often on Jewish themes, brought him widespread accolades only in his last years despite a lifetime of writing, died Aug. 22 at 85 in New York.

Menashe gained fame in literary circles only seven years ago, when the Poetry Foundation gave him its first Neglected Masters Award, which included printing a prestigious collection of his work and a $50,000 cash prize,  in 2004. He had been more widely known in England and Europe, where his work had been published in noted collections, such as Penguin Modern Poets. British scholar P. N. Furbank called Menashe’s poems, “perfect little mechanisms, minute cathedrals.”

It is the Jewishness of his work that has been remarked upon by many critics, including poet and critic Dana Gioia, who wrote recently: “It is impossible to discuss Menashe’s poetry without remarking on its Jewishness. His imagery, tone, and mythology is drawn from the poets of the Old Testament.

Gioia said Menashe’s poem, "The Shrine Whose Shape I Am," “is one of the finest poems on Jewish identity ever written in English…that shows the rich multiplicity that typifies Menashe’s language.”

Here is “The Shrine”  in its brief but powerful brevity:

The shrine whose shape I am
Has a fringe of fire
Flames skirt my skin
 
There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the Prophets and Blake
And like David I bless myself
With all my might
 
I know many hills were holy once
But now in the level lands to live
Zion ground down must become marrow
Thus in my bones I am the King’s son
And through death’s domain I go
Making my own procession
 
My angels are dark
They are slaves in the market
But I see how beautiful they are

The line “There is no Jerusalem but this” was the title of Menashe’s first book of poems published in the U.S., in 1971, and verses from it have also been used as the libretto of the musical composition, “No Jerusalem But This,” a Divertimento for Brass, by composer Otto Luening. Listen to selections from it here and here.

One critic wrote of Menashe that his “work has a kind of quiet power that can cut through even the noise and confusion of this over-stimulated world, and I think that to neglect his poetry is to neglect one of those gifts of Providence that is surely intended to ease the road down which our modern human souls struggle. His best work is at once accessible and profound, possessing both instantaneous charm and innumerable layers of meaning which reflect and glitter anew upon each fresh reading.”

He was born Samuel Menashe Weisberg in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. In World War II, he survived brutal combat, including the Battle of the Bulge, which affected his worldview forever: “For the first few years after the war, each day was the last day. And then it changed. Each day was the only day,” he said in 2003.

He attended Queens College before and after World War II but finished his college education at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950. Despite some time spent teaching at colleges, Menashe never was part of the university-affiliated world of academic poetry and worked odd jobs for decades while he wrote. 

He published his first poem in 1956, when he moved into a small lower Manhattan apartment he lived in until 2010. The Forward’s Jake Marmer offered both an appreciation of Menashe and described the poet’s small environment. 

Menashe never married and left no immediate survivors.

 

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