From oral myths to the Tanakh, Dante to John Donne, poetry has often been a spiritual endeavor, a medium of both meditation and ecstasy. In contemporary poetry, however, spirituality is often considered to be in bad taste, fundamentalist, or simply boring.
Then there’s Samuel Menashe. For most of his poetic career, his work laid in relative obscurity. Only in 2004, around his 80th birthday, was he honored with the Unrecognized Master Award and a publication by the Library of America, a prestigious publisher of American classics. In the years that followed, a steady stream of reviews, publications, and translations have appeared, celebrating this elderly New Yorker. Upon his death on August 22, 2011, at the age of 85, he was eulogized by NPR, the New York Times, and nearly every bastion of high culture in America.
Menashe was born to a family of Jewish immigrants in New York City in the mid-1920s., His parents came to America armed with excellent education, and a love for literature, science, and languages.
Menashe’s first language was Yiddish, which his parents taught him in order to communicate with his grandparents, who remained in Europe. Menashe’s Yiddish was so fluent that, when working at a Jewish hotel as a teenager, he was dubbed “der greener” (greenhorn, a newcomer) by its patrons, who could not believe that he was a New York-born Jew. Many years later, a critic referred to Menashe’s “Anglo-Saxon sensibility” in his style and word-choice, which, Menashe himself attributed to his non-American, Yiddish-speaking beginnings.
Menashe enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces at the age of 18. He fought in World War II, taking part in the legendary Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, the battle considered by many to be Germany’s last attempt at winning the war.
Menashe chose to stay in Europe afterward, in France, to study at the Sorbonne. Though he wrote his first proper poem at the age of 23 in Paris, Menashe claims that his writing, actually began in the trenches. The spirit of his experience–its fierce intensity and the tender line between life and death–became the foundation of his writing.
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