May 2013

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

The Bad Luck of Samuel Menashe

No question in criticism is more mysterious than the question of why one writer receives quick recognition and another doesn't -- either at all or until after enduring long obscurity. This was on my mind while I recently reread one of my favorite poets, Samuel Menashe. Why, I wondered, was such a good writer so obscure? Many answers are possible. His use of rhyme, his brevity, his piety, his standing outside academia -- all of these might have deprived him of disciples, and thus of readers.

But I'd like to suggest a different answer that in turn suggests something about the writing life. Menashe was obscure because of bad luck. He actually did nothing wrong, nothing we should blame him for; he wrote very well, so well that strains of his poetry return to me all the time without invitation. He did gain many admirers, including eminent critics like Clive James and Christopher Ricks. But Menashe didn't have the right kind of luck, the mystical sine qua non without which good writing fails to result in a good career.

On its surface, his life seemed defined by how poor he was -- poor not only because he never earned very much money, having held down a regular job only rarely, but also because his earnest devotion to his poetry resulted in very little attention, even in comparison to other poets of his time and place.

He was born to Russian Jewish parents in America; at nineteen, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge before earning a PhD from the Sorbonne. As if balancing out the awful eventfulness of his life thus far, he became obscure for many years as he pursued a career in poetry.

His first book found a publisher in England only; he was already in his mid-thirties, the middle of the journey of his life, according to Dante. Another ten years would have to pass before a New York publisher took him on. To be excluded from one's home country is a fate usually reserved for political dissidents who have upset the state censors; here, a free press and free market did the work.

Included with Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems is a DVD of camcorder footage: Menashe being interviewed in his New York apartment. The bathtub is in the kitchen. Even by bachelor standards, the place is an incredible mess. Menashe slouches in a tailgate chair and looks worn. Menashe never married or had children. He lived in this apartment for over fifty years.

Then, on the cusp of his eightieth birthday, he received notice that his poems would be published in the Library of America as a part of a "Neglected Masters Award" administered by the Poetry Foundation. The Library of America, that country-club Parnassus where Henry James sits all day in the sun drawing fine distinctions!

It was enough to restore one's faith in publishing -- almost. Considering this ending, I was reminded of Jean Rhys's comment upon receiving a similar honor similarly late in life: "It has come too late." To read about Menashe's life is to become bitter on his behalf. He died in a nursing home in 2011.

It would have been tempting for a man as impoverished as Menashe to fill his poems with excess, and thus assert himself. But self-assertion, it's clear from the work, was never Menashe's chief motive. This poem presents his aesthetic:

In my coat I sit
At the window sill
Wintering with snow
That did not melt
It fell long ago
At night, by stealth
I was where I am
When the snow began

Almost all his poems read like this. Few poets have stayed as loyal as Menashe was to his particular style. (Then again, few poets have ever created a particular style.) He never gave in to the temptation to write in a big way. A blocked writer might assume that voluminous composition could never be bad, just like an involuntarily celibate person might assume that sex as such could never get tiresome, although both assumptions are false. The problem of writing too much has actually been present even, or especially, in great writers. Maugham compared writing to drinking, in that it was an easy habit to form and a hard one to break. In Dickens, Naipaul perceived a man who drugged himself with work. Menashe always refused the lure of a cheap fruitfulness:

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

This poem is called "Salt and Pepper." It's easy to anticipate, and even to agree with, the criticism that this kind of poetry elicits. Brevity makes readers uneasy, whatever they might say. Most readers require a degree of sincerity in their reading material, and a simple way for a writer to prove that he means what he writes is to write at length. From this we get the widespread fascination with "the world's longest novel" or "the most difficult novel." A piece of writing that advertises the difficulty of its composition will never arouse the suspicion that the author was trying to make a quick buck. But a Menashe poem, on first glance, looks like it could have taken a minute to write, unless (we hesitate) it took a decade.

Another trait of his poems that may not appeal is their reliance on puns and clichés. "Salt and pepper" would seem to be the least poetic way to describe aging; it's a phrase from the mouth of a dull man reassuring himself that his going gray is an achievement and not a sign of decay. Menashe's choice of this cliché might not have been masterful; his use of it, however, was genius. The poem is a dramatic monologue, an obtuse denial of death and the reality of what it means to be old. It's with the very last word, "shaking," that the speaker makes his accidental pun. A salt shaker shakes; so does an old man. A pun is the lowest form of humor because it's the bluntest. (This is why we groan at them.) Here, the memento mori lands like a punch to the gut. The joke's on us.

That word -- "shaking" -- also exhibits the poetic talent that vanished over the course of the twentieth century more rapidly than any other: a sense of timing. Yeats said that a poem comes right with a click like a closing box. In a few short lines, Menashe could both build the box and snap it shut; scan a mediocre book of poems and you'll find that most of your disappointment comes from the poet's inability to (changing the metaphor) hit the sweet spot of the tennis racket, or to do it with enough force. Many poets, you begin to suspect, don't even know that exists.

Looking across
The water we are
Startled by a star --
It is not dark yet
The sun has just set
Looking across
The water we are
Alone as that star
That startled us,
And as far

In times when certain science journalists persist in telling us that the question Why is there something rather than nothing? has little meaning or importance, it's hard not to be grateful for a poem that can pose the question indelibly, and in only thirty-six words. To be clanged like a bell, rather than to receive the "takeaway" beloved by journalists, is the reason we read poetry.

I began by saying that Menashe lacked a good career mostly because he lacked luck. But, in a sense, his entire work is a rejection of the values that make a good career seem valuable. The focus on the old themes of death, transience, nature, and God indicated a mind that knew that literature needs a better motive than reputation. (As a Coetzee character says, "Books are not immortal. The entire globe on which we stand is going to be sucked into the sun and burnt to a cinder.") Actually, Menashe told us what his motive was: he had no motive. Or, no rational one. He tells us that when he was twenty-three, he went to sleep one night never having written a poem; in the middle of the night, he woke up and began writing in verse. He might as well have been describing the transformations of puberty.

This is perfectly consistent with the history of art. As an old bohemian tells Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage: "The only reason that one paints is that one can't help it. It's a function like any of the other functions of the body, only comparatively few people have got it." Menashe came down with it and never rid himself of it.

It's comforting to see that, despite the many kinds of poverty, Menashe seemed like a happy man; he loved his poems, took delight in reciting them (not as rude as it sounds since his poems were so short), and even in writing them with his finger in beach sand. In a detail that I keep thinking of, he explained that he loved to sleep because his dreams were like "going to the movies." I could tell in the video that he was saying it without a trace of irony; no one who takes that much pleasure in their involuntary imagination could be truly unhappy, not in their marrow.