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.
Since the 1950s, Menashe has been living in a small walkup in Greenwich Village, teaching at C.W. Post and Bard colleges, and supplementing his living as a French tutor. In 1961, the poet Kathleen Raine arranged for the publication of his first book, No Jerusalem but This. In the early 1990s, his work was featured in the Penguin Modern Poets series.
Spirituality in the works of Samuel Menashe
Spirituality, and the pained search for meaning, is Menashe’s main concern. In this search, he often employs explicit references and oblique hints to Jewishnesss, summoning the shadows of his Jewish heritage in most unexpected ways:
At the edge
Of a world
Beyond my eyes
I know Exile
Green with hope–
We cannot cross
Each line of this poem questions itself. On one hand, the poem can be read: “Exile Is Always,” implying that it will never end. Yet, reassuringly the poet adds that it is “Green with hope.” Menashe asserts that the river to the Promised Land can never be crossed, yet somehow its flow is the “forever” of eternity.
The poem itself quakes with motion, like the very river Menashe is describing. Its tone is timeless. With themes of exile, redemption, and looking at an unreachable land, it could well be Moses narrating the poem.
At the same time, perhaps, the poem can speak to contemporary Diaspora Jews. It asks questions relevant to the present: is Israel, fraught with realities of war and issues of social justice the Promised Land we’ve dreamed of all these years? Or is the Promised Land a spiritual reality located inside us, at the unreachable edges of our inner worlds?
The Meaning of Survival and Beyond
Perhaps most emblematic of Menashe’s spiritual vision are these two poems, both presenting a similar sentiment about the source of spirituality and survival:
He walked in awe
In awe of light
At nightfall, not at dawn
Whatever he saw
Receding from sight
In the sky’s afterglow
Was what he wanted
To see, to know
I stand on this stump
To knock on wood
For the good I once
Cut down, yes
But rooted still
What stumps compress
No axe can kill
However universal the “Survival” poem may be, the word itself has come to imply something very specific to 20th and 21st century Jews. Additionally, knowing that it was written by a Jewish poet who was born to Eastern-European immigrants–and who fought in World War II himself–it is hard not to think of the “stumps” of those vast demolished forests of Jewish Europe. The poet seems to suggest that the stumps will live on. Yet he presents more of a heartbreaking vision of mutilation than an encouraging one of some sort of vitality and revival.
Yet Menashe further implies that there is some sort of “misunderstood” good in the image of the stumps–perhaps a new reality of learning to grow into the ground, rather than upward like the rest of the trees.
Both poems are dark and depressing, yet fraught with pain, hope, searching, and the need for redefinition. This is the vision of the post-Holocaust, contemporary Jew: digging, craving, reaching toward a new understanding of the self.
Menashe’s poetry hints at a secret to Jewish spiritual survival in the 20th and 21st centuries–a combination of individuality and awareness of a greater truth. His voice combines the dark and ancient with the new and raw, intimately addressing both death and eternity.