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Now and then a poet whose work has been largely ignored in his or her own time is rediscovered and installed in the canon. This was the case with Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, to give but two noteworthy examples, though it is also true that both seem to have courted neglect as much as it was bestowed upon them. Some poets become famous almost for the mere fact of having been neglected; they are rediscovered over and over again by admiring readers who are determined not to let their legacies die. Such is the happy fate of poets as divergent as Mina Loy, Weldon Kees, and Basil Bunting. Others suffer neglect and never recover. They vanish into forgotten anthologies or languish on the back shelves of libraries as the very pages on which their poems are printed begin to disintegrate.
A recent case in point of rediscovery involves the work of Samuel Menashe, much of which has just been reissued by the Library of America as a volume in its American Poets Project series. In fact, Menashe is the winner of the first “Neglected Masters Award,” established by the Poetry Foundation, which carries a cash prize of $50,000, a nice round sum for a poet to receive today by any measure. Moreover, each American Poets Project volume is introduced respectfully by a distinguished poet or critic, in this case Christopher Ricks, the Warren Professor of the Humanities and co-director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University. It appears, then, that Menashe’s long dark night of neglect is over. The new book ought to go a long way toward reestablishing his work, if not in the greater culture, then at least in the minds and hearts of those who care about poetry. But how did Menashe’s neglect come about in the first place? If he is as accomplished and important as this new wave of serious attention suggests he is, how is it possible that his work has gone uncelebrated for so long?
To begin at the beginning: Menashe was born in New York City in 1925, which places him squarely in the generation that produced such outstanding American poets as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, James Merrill, Denise Levertov, A.R. Ammons, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, Gerald Stern, Robert Creeley, Carolyn Kizer, and Donald Justice. After serving in the Second World War, where he saw combat in France, Belgium, and Germany, Menashe stayed in Europe to study in London and later at the Sorbonne. Unable to find a publisher in the United States for his first book, The Many Named Beloved, Menashe turned to the British publisher Victor Gollancz Ltd., which specialized in fine literature and popular fiction, including science fiction, and which was the first to publish such authors as George Orwell, Daphne du Maurier, and Kingsley Amis. Gollancz published The Many Named Beloved in 1961. With positive reviews by Robert Graves, Austin Clarke, and others, it seemed that Menashe was on his way to poetic notoriety. But, strangely, after this first taste of success, nothing. He continued to write, certainly: over the years he produced several collections, including To Open in 1970, No Jerusalem But This in 1971, Fringe of Fire in 1973, and even a Collected Poems in 1986, published by the National Poetry Foundation, which suggests that someone was tracking his progress, though readers and reviewers remained largely unresponsive. Then Menashe stopped publishing until 2000, when another collection of new and selected poems, The Niche Narrows, arrived.
How to account for Menashe’s long eclipse, that 40-some-odd-year period during which his poems were virtually abandoned by critics and readers alike? Even a preliminary glance at the work in the current volume will begin to suggest an answer, if we keep in mind what was going on in American poetry at the time. That is to say, remember the list of his contemporaries, whose work was gaining prominence even as Menashe’s was slipping away. Now consider “Enlightenment,” a poem that exhibits many hallmarks of his style:
He walked in awe
In awe of light
At nightfall, not at dawn
Whatever he saw
Receding from sight
In the sky’s afterglow
Was what he wanted
To see, to know
Not a bad poem overall, but the brusque, high-stepping iambics; the use of dimeter—not seen much in any period of poetry in English; the fairly regular rhyme; the retention of capital letters at the beginning of each verse; the syntactical integrity of the lines (only a single enjambment); the oracular tone (compared to the intimate, confessional tone of most lyrics at the time); the moral or philosophical weightiness of the thought; the extreme brevity; the ceremoniousness of style; the slightly cryptic, even gnomic, suggestiveness of the last two lines: these combine to separate the piece from much of what was being written after the Second World War. The one concession made to contemporary poetics is the relative lack of punctuation, which another member of Menashe’s generation, W.S. Merwin, was to make not only suitable, but practically conventional from the 1960s onward.
A poem such as “Enlightenment” must have seemed somewhat peculiar and awkward to a generation just discovering the deep image, South American magical realism, “found” poetry, “concrete” poetry, “naked” poetry, and so on, while all the time engaging in further formal and technical experiments of every kind. How must Menashe’s poetry have struck the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets, the Confessionalists, and those of the New York School? And how could such truncated meters, deeply imbued with a biblical Romanticism, have drawn the attention of the elegant formalist masters, such as Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, whose work was more expansive and thoroughly modern in subject and tone?
To explain Menashe’s neglect it is not enough to say that he broke from the pack and forged his own style. Everyone was forging his or her own style, and there was a plethora of packs, not one, from which to break free. Nor does it suffice to say that Menashe ran counter to his time. Rather, the answer has to do with the particular way Menashe ran counter to his time—not through innovation, but through his refusal or inability to accept the onset of the new and to participate in its making.
But there is another facet to Menashe’s neglect over the past 40 or 50 years, one that is made clear in a cogent and detailed essay by Barry Ahearn, entitled “Poetry and Synthesis: the Art of Samuel Menashe.” Considering one of Menashe’s untitled early poems—
A flock of little boats
Tethered to the shore
Drifts in still water . . .
Prows dip, nibbling
—Ahearn performs a brilliant close reading, perhaps the closest reading possible. He deconstructs this poem as though laying out, one by one, the miniature springs and gears of a tiny watch:
This poem’s components are managed impeccably. The poem divides into two; lines 1 and 2 posit a stasis, lines 3 and 4 a dynamic. This effect arises from the disposition of nouns and verbs. Nouns in the first two lines (“flock,” “boats,” “shore”) outnumber those in the last two (“water,” “prows”). In contrast, verbs (“drifts,” “dip”) are pushed to the last two lines, along with the participle (“nibbling”). Furthermore, the stresses fall on the monosyllabic nouns ending lines 1 and 2, but the more fluid lines 3 and 4 end with trochees. This establishes a distinction between firm stress on stable materials (boats, shore) and the wavering stress on liquid (water) and process (nibbling). In terms of imagery, the poem successfully masquerades as a pastoral scene—but on water. With “flock” we are invited to see the little boats as so many aquatic sheep. . . . The act of observation itself is a covert subject of the poem. It gradually moves to a closer inspection of the scene, with attention shifting from the flock to the prows. This closer inspection of a particular part of the scene coincides with the narrowing in the number of syllables per line: 6, 5, 5, 4.
Menashe, then, writes with a jeweler’s loupe, attending to every syllable. This is a lapidary art, but at whom, exactly, is such poetry aimed? The general reading audience, the scholar, the connoisseur, the professional critic? There is, of course, much to be admired in the deft, minuscule perfections of such an art. But other poets—all good poets, in fact—craft poems at the syllabic level. For most, however, this is only part of the story, part of the greater context and overall structure of the poem, not its chief focus or achievement. It would be difficult, I think, for poems so narrow in their virtues (if we may echo what Menashe seems to admit by the title The Niche Narrows) ever to find themselves at the center of mainstream literature, any more than cloisonné, filigree, or the Fabergé egg could ever establish themselves at the center of mainstream art.
This radical compression, this subtlety of technique—wonderful as it is—must contribute to the general neglect of Menashe’s work. Ahearn remarks, “Menashe can afford to remove a good deal from his poems, because he leaves the bare number of signals required for us to make connections to other texts. Reading his poetry, therefore, becomes an exercise in sensing how much lurks at the edge of the words.” “Exercise” is the key word here—and it is an exercise, I believe, that most readers would be unwilling to participate in. How much effort can they be expected to make before they give up and go home, breathing heavily? Others have suspected the same; as Ricks points out, “Donald Davie even worried that Menashe’s tendency to condense when revising would make it harder for him to acquire a readership.”
Harder, but not impossible. Those who love Menashe’s work and are willing to make the effort—including not only Ahearn and Ricks but also Stephen Spender, Derek Mahon, and, more recently, Rachael Hadas and Dana Gioia—all write glowingly of Menashe’s ability to atomize language and thought in order to produce poems that are not only fiercely condensed but belong to the world’s long tradition of wisdom literature.
When Ahearn reflects on the question of Menashe’s neglect his answers are somewhat different from mine and, I think, more cynical. He notes that Menashe lacks an academic post and membership in a recognizable school of poetry and concludes that he “seems to have paid the price for being rigorously individual.” This oversimplifies the case and smacks of the bitterness of ongoing literary wars. Who could have been more individual than E.E. Cummings in his time, or Emily Dickinson in hers? And who is quirkier today, more adamantly himself, than Bill Knott, or more linguistically driven than Heather McHugh? Furthermore, there are successful poets who have never held a proper academic post (they may have taught smatteringly) or edited an important literary magazine—Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg come to mind. Not everyone is a literary opportunist, though many are. Too many, perhaps, for the culture’s good.
Still, those who revere Menashe insist on his status as a maverick and on the unsurpassed artistry of his poems. Their praise is specific and unabashedly full. In his introduction to the present volume, Christopher Ricks sounds much like other Menashe exegetes, extolling the craftsmanship and the atomic level of attention it takes to really appreciate what he is doing, not only syllable by syllable, but letter by letter. This is poetry brought to the vanishing point of language. How much, at first glance, might a person be able to make out of the following poem?
A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout
Reading it, one might take it to be only a step away from “An apple a day / keeps the doctor away,” or, slightly more portentous, the old Puritan saw, “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all.” But, Ricks contends, Menashe is no mere aphorist (just as Ahearn contends that, while Menashe owes a debt to Imagism, he “moves beyond” it). Ricks describes this as a “minimalist’s maxim,” and goes on:
The poem fulfills itself, just so. How perfectly the verb “fulfills” fulfills the promise of a generous thought. A promise, a mission, an obligation, a nature: these are the kinds of things that it is possible and desirable to fulfill . . . But where exactly does it emanate from, this sense that the poem, too, is no less full for being so happy to give itself entirely away? . . . When attending to Menashe’s poems [Donald] Davie found himself descending the scale of units, from verse-line to word to foot to syllable . . . Why not then to the very letter? For Menashe has something of Lucretius’s cosmic comic pleasure in the thought that the atoms that constitute all that is physical are also the letters that constitute all that is verbal: elementa. Menashe’s art pours together the elementary and the elemental. See how the word pot pours itself out into “poured out.” See how, fulfilled but not done with, the word is poured forth again: pot living again within “spout.”
Ingenious? No doubt. It takes a focused, alert mind to ferret out such minutiae. But Ricks is not through:
But these are not the only fulfillments: how fluidly “out” is taken up, without damage or distortion, effortlessly within “spout.” Not just le mot juste, but la lettre juste. For Menashe (mindful that he is grateful to Britain for first publishing a book of his, as it had done for Robert Frost) has pointed out that his is precisely an American poem. British English, in adopting the spelling “fulfils,” would forfeit the full acknowledgment of the word “fills” that American English proffers so calmly in “fulfills.”
It is often difficult to distinguish Menashe’s brilliance from that of his critics. Certainly his deftness and his uncanny wit compel our respect. But can a poet, any poet, consistently demand such ravenous attention to detail and still expect his or her work to have the kind of wide-ranging appeal it takes to win and hold a large audience over time? I am not suggesting that a poet ought to pander to the lowest common denominator of taste. But if Menashe’s admirers are to be believed, the difficulty involved in appreciating his work is of another order altogether. It is difficulty doubled by concentration, imagination packed into a matchbox. Difficulty has always been an issue in modern poetry, of course. From the very beginning there have been accusations of impenetrableness and obscurity. But there is a vast difference between the expansive, generous allusiveness of The Waste Land and the pressurized complexity of much of Menashe’s work. This is the poem as microchip, as Rubik’s Cube.
Once we move away from the minutiae of Menashe’s technique, however, we see other features that might appeal to a broader range of readers: muted lyricism, depth of perception, precise diction, occasional wit, shapeliness of form, and a strong sense of the spiritual. At times Menashe sounds like a card-carrying Imagist (see “A flock of little boats” above), writing poems of intense clarity and metaphorical suggestiveness that might have found their way into representative anthologies at the beginning of the Modernist Era. The following poem, “Beachhead,” pointedly demonstrates this connection:
The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds
Except for the rather heavy rhythm and near rhyme, these lines present us with something easy to grasp and, at the same time, resonant with elusive meanings. The title itself points in two directions: toward the violence and uproar of a marine assault and toward the helmet now lying on the beach, domed and suggestive of the head that once filled it. The two actions of the poem are contradictory but balanced. The tide of life, history, and time ebbs, pulling the helmet toward it even as the sand sucks it down.
An even closer parallel exists between one of the earliest and most famous Imagist poems, by T.E. Hulme, and one by Menashe, both titled “Autumn.” First, Menashe’s:
I walk outside the stone wall
Looking into the park at night
As armed trees frisk a windfall
Down paths that lampposts light
A touch of cold in the autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Putting aside the formalism of Menashe’s poem—iambic trimeter this time—and the obvious difference between the two settings (Hulme’s London in 1909 is positively innocent compared to New York’s Central Park at night over a half century later), the two poems share a sense of exclusion, of peering into a closed space where nature might be observed in a striking and secret way. Hulme’s hedge becomes Menashe’s wall, his trees now “armed” like policemen, frisking the leaves falling through cones of electric light. “Armed,” of course, refers literally to the boughs looming above the park’s deserted paths, but it suggests the officer’s weapons as well. Hulme’s short poem, which must have seemed radically condensed at the time, is almost verbose compared to Menashe’s laconic quatrain, and it is certainly more whimsical. For Menashe, words and phrases often have to perform double duty, pulling both ways, as the image of the helmet in “Beachhead” pulls both ways.
But while such tensions occur frequently in Menashe’s work, investing many of his poems with rich emotional complexity, psychological depth and imaginative scope tend to take a backseat to his considerable technical virtuosity. And because readers, as a rule, prefer the former, I suspect that Menashe will continue to fall into neglect, only to be rediscovered by coteries of critics and readers every few decades or so, only to fall back into neglect when his poems again fail to reach a wider audience, and so on. Certainly, his work deserves notice, but it is so specialized, so attuned to its particular obsessions, that it may never establish itself solidly in the canon. Poets like him—and like Kees, Loy, or Bunting—exist in a twilit historical space, a limbo between renown and oblivion. It is an immortality of sorts, but a frustrating niche to inhabit.
Kurt Brown is the founding director of the Aspen Writer's Conference, now in its 30th year, and the author of Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, and Fables of the Ark. His fourth poetry collection, Future Ship, will be published later this year.
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