Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

"I Am The King's Son":
On the Poetry of Samuel Menashe

This essay was written for a special issue of Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem, featuring work by Samuel Menashe.

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. There are, of course, several reasons for Menashe's continuing obscurity. He has lived a bohemian life in an age of academic institutionalism. He has not worked as a teacher, editor, or critic—the common paths to literary visibility. But the major cause of his obscurity, I suspect, is strictly literary. Menashe has devoted his entire poetic career to perfecting the short poem—not the conventional short poem of 20-40 lines beloved of magazine editors, but the very short poem. As anyone surveying his Collected Poems (1986) will discover, few of his poems are longer than ten lines.

Menashe has not been without his defenders. Almost from the beginning his poems have attracted the attention of some well-known writers. Kathleen Raine, Stephen Spender, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Donald Davie, P.N. Furbank, Calvin Bedient, and Hugh Kenner have all written appreciatively of his work. The diversity of taste represented by those writers testifies to the wide appeal of Menashe's poems, but it also suggests why their advocacy has proved so ineffective. In the political world of contemporary poetry, it is better to be championed consistently by one literary school than by one critic from each school. Ironically for an American poet, most of his notice has come from England, and almost none from his native metropolis of New York City. Although Menashe almost never appears in American anthologies, his work has earned a place abroad in the influential Penguin Modern Poets series.

Menashe is essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed. Nearly every poem he has ever published radiates a heightened religious awareness. His central themes are the unavoidable concerns of religious poetry—the tension between the soul and body, past and present, time and eternity. Like David in the Psalms, his poems are alternately joyous and elegiac. Even his poetic technique—which so strikingly combines imagist compression with traditional rhyme—focuses words into mystical symbols of perception. A reader senses that Menashe's rhymes exist not only for musical effect but also to freeze two or more words in time and hold them perpetually in spiritual or intellectual harmony. (Likewise, his short, dense lines slow down the rhythm to encourage the reader to linger on each word.) Consider the rhymes in this section of "The Bare Tree":

Root of my soul
Split the stone
Which holds you—
Be overthrown
Tomb I own

Those two final, unpunctutated lines (only seven syllables long) characterizes Menashe's style—not merely compressed and evocative, but talismanic, visionary, and symbolic. He is the most physical poet imaginable. (Note how often he writes about his own body.) But he is a poet who can only understand physical reality in relation to the metaphysical.

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. "The Shrine Whose Shape I am" is one of the finest poems on Jewish identity ever written in English. It is also a poem that shows the rich multiplicity that typifies Menashe's language. The poem defines Jewishness simultaneously in mystical and biological terms. "Breathed in flesh by shameless love," the speaker was torn from his parents' bodies, and his body contains the history of his people. "There is no Jerusalem but this" means, among other things, that his Jewishness is not found in a geographical place but in himself. His body is the lost temple ("the shrine") of his people, his bones the hills of Zion. This sonorous poem may seem difficult at first, but once the reader grasps the central metaphor, its complex message becomes immediately tangible.

If Menashe's spiritual roots are Hebrew, the soil that nourishes them is the English language. His Old Testament is preeminently the King James Version, and among his sacred poets there is not only David, Isaiah, and Solomon, but also Blake, and even perhaps Dylan Thomas. (He also frequently alludes the Gospels.) His range of allusion is narrow but extraordinarily deep. The Bible permeates his poetry, but he uses it in ways that most readers will immediately understand.

So many fine poets are neglected today that it is futile to lament Menashe's marginality. One notes the injustice and moves on. Better to celebrate the occasion at hand. This special feature in the premier issue of Tundra surveys Menashe's unique contribution to the contemporary short poem. When you read these poems, breathe them in slowly. They will reward the effort.