hide captionMenashe's poems are generally brief. Once he told his mother he had worked on a poem since showing it to her. She responded, "How much shorter is it?" Scroll down to read selections.
Menashe's poems are generally brief. Once he told his mother he had worked on a poem since showing it to her. She responded, "How much shorter is it?" Scroll down to read selections.
For 50 years, New York poet Samuel Menashe toiled away at his art in relative obscurity. He lived in a Greenwich Village walk-up with a bathtub in the kitchen, and eked out a living as French tutor. Then one day, fate intervened. The Chicago-based Poetry Foundation decided to honor him with its first Neglected Masters Award, a prize that came with a $50,000 check.
"I never intended to be a poet or wanted to be a poet," Menashe says.
Early in his career, he wrote prose attached to his experiences an infantryman in Europe.
"One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and a poem started," he says.
His first published poem appeared in 1956, in the Yale Review. A London publisher accepted his first book, but it took Menashe 10 years to get an American publisher.
"I have been out of the network of poet-professors who've been all over the country. By the kind of poetry I write and not being a part of the establishment, I've paid a price for that, I guess," Menashe says.
Now, invitations to give readings flow in, and he's the toast of the New York literary parties where he once was snubbed.
Menashe's pithy poems are like tiny Zen meditations. Short? He prefers to call them "concise."
At 81, Menashe still lives in a fifth-floor walk-up. If he had it all to do again, he says, he would have started a family instead of remaining a bachelor.
He writes every day from a desk at a window that catches the sunlight.
"They're obviously the last poems of my long life, which I hope will continue for a year or two, or maybe five," he says.
Poems from Samuel Menashe
The Shrine Whose Shape I Am
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
At a Standstill
That statue, that cast
Of my solitude
Has found its niche
In this kitchen
Where I do not eat
Where the bathtub stands
Upon cat feet —
I did not advance
I cannot retreat
From Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems. Copyright Samuel Menashe, reprinted with permission from the Library of America.