From The Guardian of June 27 2009:
A pot poured out
The Waste Land, according to Ezra Pound, is "the longest poem in the English langwidge". As his spelling suggests, he was not being entirely serious. After all, The Waste Land is only 17 pages long. But Pound was pointing out a singular truth: that the bulk of a poem has nothing to do with the number of pages it covers. It is much more a matter of depth - of suggestion, allusion and verbal complexity. Condensation, he says elsewhere, is poetry.
For the American poet Samuel Menashe, now in his 84th year, this truth was the founding principle of his art. His poems take up far less space than Eliot's, but they too are much longer than they seem. No poem in his New and Selected Poems is more than a page long, and most of them are considerably shorter. And the shorter they are, the more there is to say about them. For instance:
A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout.
A spout is most fully itself in the act of pouring. In emptying itself. The same might be said of a poem. This is not to say that the pot is a symbol. The pot is simply a pot. But it can also be described as an emblem: a particular which, reflected upon, can tell us what the rest of the world is like. What is especially striking about Menashe is the fact that the poem itself, in all its materiality, is also emblematic. The sounds of the word "pot" are, as it were, emptied into the phrase "poured out" to be fulfilled (filled full) in the word "spout". As Christopher Ricks remarks in his introduction, even the American spelling of "Fulfills" seems part of it; British spelling would alter the poem's meaning. Menashe has a way of attending closely to the minutiae of his text as of the world. Nothing is too insignificant.
This might suggest someone fussy, pedantic and obsessive, but nothing could be further from the truth. Born in New York in 1925, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Menashe fought in the second world war and belongs to that generation whose arrival in adulthood coincided with the news of the Holocaust. "[A]s a survivor of an infantry company," he writes in his preface, "I was marked by death for life when I was 19. In the first years after the war, I thought each day was the last day. I was amazed by the aplomb of those who spoke of what they would do next summer. Later, each day was the only day ... Perhaps it is why I am still in the flat to which I moved when I was 31 years old."
Unsurprisingly, Menashe's poems are mostly about death, but they are rarely elegiac or regretful. On the contrary, they are passionately affirmative, the poems of a man in love with life and with no needs but for the things that make life possible. Death for him, like the spout's action, is the fulfilment of life - or the transformation of life into another mode. "Leavetaking", the last poem in the book and a very recent one, reflects on the coming of death:
Dusk of the year
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through
Menashe enjoys clichés. In what he calls "homely expressions", he finds meanings contrary to the expected ones. Normally to "see through" something is not to be deceived by it. It can be associated with smug knowingness: you think of those types whom nobody ever kids, whom life never led astray, but who perhaps by that token have never fully lived. In Menashe, who like Socrates knows that he knows nothing, "to see through" recovers its literal sense. The trees in winter losing their abundant foliage, the particulars of day dissolving into night, the body fading away in old age: these are things in the process of becoming transparent - transparent to the life they are part of.
There is nothing sentimental in all this. Every now and then, Menashe makes us aware of what it means to be poor or to live near death and in danger. The poems are haunted, too, by his love for his mother, now long dead, and by his own solitude. But all these states are, for him, enriched by the processes of life, so the mother who once cared for him now nurtures his memory. "The more aware you are of death," he quotes her as saying, "the more alive you are."
These are religious poems. They are, in particular, the poems of a Jew, not a Hebrew speaker, but one whose holy book is the King James Version of the Jewish Bible. They are not doctrinally Jewish, nor are they exclusive in their sense of holiness. They are imbued with a sense that - in the words of William Blake, a poet who looms large in Menashe's pantheon - "Everything that lives is holy".
The literary world has not been kind to Menashe, as is often the case with poets who make no claims on it. (Again, one thinks of Blake.) He is almost unknown in the United States. His first book, in 1961, was published in Britain, and his chief admirers have been British, Ricks being an outstanding example. His rediscovery, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a major event, because he is one of the finest poets alive. This edition includes a DVD of Menashe reading, measuring the poems out, syllable by syllable, in his patient, musical voice.