JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Little more than a year ago, few people in the literary establishment would have recognized the name of poet Samuel Menashe. But Menashe recently became the first living American poet to have his collected works published by the prestigious Library of America. He joins the ranks of such iconic poets as Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. He also received the first-ever Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation in Chicago.
Samuel Menashe is 81 years old. Judy Valente reports that how Menashe came to receive such literary acclaim after decades of neglect is a tale of poetic justice.
JUDY VALENTE: 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.
Mr. SAMUEL MENASHE (Poet): I never intended to be a poet or wanted to be a poet, but I was under the GI Bill in Paris after the war. I'd been an infantryman in Europe, and I was writing memoirs or short stories which were like memoirs of the war, or my childhood. And then one night I woke up in the middle of the night and a poem started.
VALENTE: His first published poem appeared in the prestigious Yale Review in 1956. A London publisher accepted his first book, but then...
Mr. MENASHE: It took me 10 years after I got back, in 1961, from London to get an American publisher. I've been out of the network of poet-professors, so I've paid both by the kind of poetry I write and not being part of that establishment. I've - well, I've paid a price for that, I guess.
VALENTE: The kind of short, pithy poems Menashe writes are a far cry from much of contemporary poetry. For one thing, they rhyme. His poems are more like tiny Zen meditations. Here's a typical Menashe poem, five lines long.
Mr. MENASHE: Winter. I am entrenched against the snow, visor lowered to blunt its blow. I am where I go.
The struggle is against words, words, words, and every word has to count. My mother was 20 years younger than I am now when she died. I'm 80, and I used to come home for dinner, and I said to her once, you know that poem I showed you last week? I worked on it since. And she said, how much shorter is it?
Mr. JOHN BARR (President, Poetry Foundation): Samuel Menashe's poetry is easy to overlook.
VALENTE: John Barr is the president of the Poetry Foundation.
Mr. BARR: It's deceptively simple, straightforward. The poems are all short, and one could read it quickly and say this is pleasant and move on. In fact, spending time with a single Menashe poem repays the effort and makes you aware of its profound depths.
VALENTE: Barr was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in New York when he first heard Menashe give a reading. He quickly became a fan.
Mr. BARR: His work comes profoundly out of his direct experience. Many of them, I think, come out of moments of contemplation, meditation, where he's alone, he's looking at his body or out the window or at something perched on the windowsill, and the poem derives from that.
Mr. MENASHE: On the Level. Does this desk, level with the windowsill, uphold my level best, or is the bed better for dreams that distill words to the letter.
There's an awful lot of poetry which is really - they're downers. I think a poem should make you, not in a Pollyannaish way, it should make you feel good about life, even if it's a poem about death. I wrote a poem called Hallelujah. Hallelujah means praise ye the lord.
Hallelujah. Eyes open to praise the play of light upon the ceiling. While still abed, raise the roof this morning. Rejoice as you please your maker who made this day while you slept, who gives grace and ease, whose promise is kept.
These poems that I'm writing now are ultimate. They're ultimate because they're obviously the last poems of my long life, which I hope will continue for a year or two or maybe five. I didn't know how fast time was going by. If I could relive my life, I would've had a family. I would not have remained a bachelor. I would probably be a great-grandfather by now.
Curriculum Vitae. One. Scribe out of work at a loss for words not his to begin with. The man life passed by stands at the window biding his time. Two. Time and again, and now once more I climb these stairs, unlock this door. No name where I live alone in my lair with one bone to pick and no time to spare.
VALENTE: Menashe still lives in his fifth floor walk-up. He still writes poetry every day from a desk at a window that faces east and catches the light. But some things have changed. Now the invitations flow in to give readings, and he's the toast of the New York literary parties where he once was snubbed. For NPR in Chicago, I'm Judy Valente.
YDSTIE: For more samples of the poetry of Samuel Menashe, go to our Web site, npr.org.
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