Poetry in Motion: Well-deserved praise for a well-deserved award

Ruth Lilly, granddaughter of the founder of Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company, has wanted more than anything to be a poet, and she's tried her hand at the art throughout the years. But she soon discovered that she didn't have the talent necessary. Rather than becoming bitter and stewing over her shortcomings, she decided to give of her inheritance to one of poetry's great foundational enterprises, tiny little Poetry magazine, founded in Chicago back in 1912 by Harriet Monroe. It still emanates from the Windy City every month.

The multimillion-dollar award was bestowed in 2003, and since then Poetry magazine has used the money in some of the wisest and most beneficent of ways. Among them has been a number of generous prizes, many bearing Ruth Lilly's name, given to both established and emerging poets. In addition, Poetry was revamped to bring it fully into the 21st century. A portion of the money was also used to create the Poetry Foundation, which, according to its Web site, is "committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience."

The foundation has also created one of the most important awards to issue from Lilly's beneficent donation – the Neglected Masters Award. The prize of $50,000 "brings to the reading public renewed critical attention to the work of an under-recognized, significant American poet. If not previously published or [no] longer in print, the works of Neglected Masters are published in collaboration with the Library of America."

The first two of these Neglected Masters are Billy Collins and Samuel Menashe. Collins strikes me as a sweet, uncomplicated poet with an accessible voice, but not much more than that. Since the bestowal of the award, he seems to have been a bit overpraised.

As for Menashe, he is the real thing, and interested readers will doubtless consider him a find. According to the foundation's Web site, he was born in New York City in 1925, and has lived in the same West Village apartment for close to five decades. He went through infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga., and served in World War II, surviving the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. He then earned a bachelor's degree at Queen's College in 1947 and a Doctorate d'Université at the Sorbonne in 1950.

Menashe's first collection, The Many Named Beloved, with an introduction by Kathleen Raine, was rejected by several American houses before being published by Victor Gollancz in England in 1961. No Jerusalem but This appeared in 1971, followed by Fringe of Fire in 1973. Viking brought out To Open in 1974, and his Collected Poems appeared from the University of Maine in 1986. He was included in the Penguin Modern Poets anthology in 1996. The Niche Narrows was released by Talisman House in 2000. Menashe's poems have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, Harper's and The Yale Review, among others.

As part of the Neglected Masters award, the Library of America has published Menashe's New and Selected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks, who also provides an expansive and detailed introduction that puts the poet's life and work into perspective for the reader.

An Artistic Progression

Just perusing the book gives you the quick impression that Menashe followed an artistic progression unlike any other American poet of the last 50 years or so. He has practiced the art of compression until it glows with elegance and wit throughout an age that has been known more for baleful confessions or poetic pyrotechnics.

In America, he's been all but ignored by the critics, no matter the number of his publications or the worth of the journals where his work's appeared.

Things were much different in England. As the British poet and critic Donald Davie has written of Menashe in 1970: " … his poems are as far from being traditional as they are from being in the fashion, or in any of the several fashions that have come and gone, whether in British or American poetry, over the last 25 or for that matter 100 years. When Menashe himself is asked what tradition he thinks he is writing in, he is embarrassed and bewildered. Partly the question baffles him because the terms in which he thinks of his writing, and of writing by others, are not literary at all but as it were liturgical. And in the second place his linguistic situation is peculiar: his native tongue was Yiddish, though he was speaking English by the time he was 5, and French (a language which ever since has meant much to him) by the time he was 11."

You can point to any number of examples throughout the book that speak to Menashe's particular style, but Davie perhaps chooses one – a later poem – that is highly indicative. It's called "The Niche":

The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Disclose him

In explicating the poem, Davie writes: "For here the two chains of intertwined assonance ('niche, thin, until, his, him' spliced into 'narrows, hones, bones, disclose') only point up a surprising rhyme as it were in sense as well as sound; 'disclose,' the one word in the poem whose first syllable chimes with the 'his' sequence as its second does with 'bones,' has a meaning that is itself 'disclosed' (unclosed, opened up) as the poem unfolds or flowers towards it. And of course it is all true; the meaning of the word is disclosed to us as we narrow it down."

And in a later commentary, Davie noted: "This, a complete poem, is not the sort of thing that usually came to us under the banner of Projective Verse. But hearing Menashe read it – 11 words, 14 syllables – is to understand what it means in practice for a poet to compose by the syllable. The voice is enviably rich in timbre and resonance, but what matters is that it is exactly controlled. To get this poem over to an audience, bringing out how every syllable is irreplaceable in sound as well as sense, means slowing down the delivery of each sound far beyond what we are used to.

Yet the accomplishment of Menashe as a reader is that he holds fast, through all these necessary retardations, to the shape of a conversational utterance, of something one might say, of (as Wordsworth said) 'a man talking to men.' Hearing it read by Menashe is an experience unlike any other known to me; when the poem has been performed, one has the illusion (and perhaps it isn't illusory after all) of having heard a very long poem indeed, and a very elaborate one."

Samuel Menashe is unlike any other poet, American or otherwise, that I am aware of. Sometimes, especially in his earlier poems, he is merely clever, though it is always a brilliant cleverness, that catches you unawares, as in the following:

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout

But more often he is suggestive along with being brilliant, his words both alliterative and resonant of far greater depths than the few words spread on the page might suggest.


gives wood its grain
Dreams knot the wood

There are many more examples of this diamond-hard compression in this wonderful compilation (the book, published as part of the Library of America's American Poets Project, is a splendidly compressed object in itself).

Rarely has a poetry prize gone to a writer more deserving of close attention – and praise.



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