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April 03, 2010

The Amazing Samuel Menashe

Sam Menashe

‘I never thought it was a poem. I thought it was just [Menashe slides arm slowly downwards] a sigh’. This is Samuel Menashe speaking in the film Life is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe by Pamela Robertson-Pearce which comes packaged with the book. Menashe writes concise poems. It’s rare in a review to be able to quote a poem in full but with Menashe it’s open season. Here are two untitled poems that possess the sigh of pure brevity:

The sea staves

Concave waves

     * * *

A pot poured out

Fulfills its spout.

Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote that ‘I feel more and more that the purest poetry exists in single words or seemingly minute effects. These are what lodge in one’ (quoted from Thomas A. Clark’s suitably spare edition of Finlay’s letters on poetry and making A Model of Order.) For Menashe, purity of diction requires a purity of contraction:

The niche narrows

Hones one thin

Until his bones

Disclose him.

‘The Niche’

Eleven words. Fourteen syllables. This is a poem about which Donald Davie once commented, ‘[Menashe’s] poems have to be compact and close because only in that way can English words—any English word, if the right tight context be found for it—show up as worshipful, as having a wisdom and an emotional force beyond what we can bring out of it when we make it serve our usual occasions’. As Menashe might have said, less is more as God is love. (Being a tireless reviser and refiner Menashe would probably file this down to ‘Less is love’.)

Reading this excellent selection of poems, you can’t help but admire Samuel Menashe’s integrity of perception, his self-possessed seriousness, and the precise, often playful awareness of the importance of space—space as another means for stating, imparting, whispering.

Menashe’s restrained epiphanies come over strongly and unstrained in performance. I met this fine poet at the Ledbury Poetry Festival last year. His resonant, gentlemanly, measured delivery woke rich meanings and sounds from the stringed air of each poem. This is what so-called Slow Poetry should sound like, honed not only in drafting but in delivery.

It helps to hear him, and it is a pleasure to watch him articulate his working methods andMenashe transcribes his poem aesthetics. The film of Menashe reading his poems in his tiny New York apartment is a welcome extra and shows fine moments of generosity and insight. Any open-minded reader of poetry will warm to this man and this book.

New and Selected Poems, Samuel Menashe, with a film on DVD by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 240 pp., £12.00, ISBN 978-1-85224-840-6

My thanks to Fiona Sampson of Poetry Review where this piece first appeared.

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