Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Giving Samuel Menashe the Fork

The Library of America is well-known for putting out travesties of collections such as their selected poems of Ezra Pound as well as work by poets that may seem to be of some interest to some folks who read poetry but mostly for the wrong reasons. Coming October is another waste of paper, the selected poems, edited by Christopher Ricks, of Samuel Menashe, as if a living poet unheard of, excepting but a handful of poets, needs a collected and at least a couple of selecteds. If he lives long enough, he will become the only one of two writers to be published by the LOA when alive (the other was the infinitely more talented Saul Bellow).

Sam is an old poet and has lived in New York City for most of his life. It is refreshing to note that the man does not use a typewriter or a computer but writes by hand with his trusty pen. Indeed, an NY Times article from October 2003 expresses the temptation to "regard Mr. Menashe as an heirloom from a more colorful era." But what good is an heirloom if the whole family is dead? One of the last of the poets who fought in WWII, Menashe is most definitely a fossil but hardly one worth saving. Even when the lightness of his verse delves to address headier subjects like Judeo-Christian mythos or the nuances of simple living, his poetry is as inspired as the classroom assignments of stoned middle schooler. Here is an example taken from the current issue of Poetry, that fortress of mixed emotions and questionable taste:


My father drummed darkness
Through the underbrush
Until lightning struck

I take after him

Clouds crowd the sky
Around me as I run
Downhill on a high---
I am my mother's son
Born long ago
In the storm's eye

Let us take a look at this poem. It would seem this is an Oedipal poem about birth and sex. The father has sex with the mother until conception. Either the speaker takes after the father by pursuing the mother or that he at least gets it on, and as he gets down, he gets high as in he's in the clouds. The poem ends with a reminder that we are born by "descending" (coming down the ancestral tree through our parents or as a fertilized egg from momma's ovaries) from the clouds of the storm where daddy's hammer struck.

What a load of shit. This story was better when it was called Greek mythology in all of its glory. Unfortunately, Menashe's poetry often harks back to a simple clarity of word & sound in the hope that it might be forgiven for its hackneyed subject matter, its poor unimaginative attempts at metaphors (metaphors beautiful captured by the world's many mythologies). Samuel Menashe is a hack. It is little surprise that the two champions of dumbed-down poetics, Dana Gioia and Billy Collins, sing his praises. Without a hint of irony, Menashe is self-described as "an accidental bohemian", which Gioia eats up, claiming that Menashe is "a throwback, preferring not to teach or to work at a literary publication," as if that makes one a bohemian. It just means Menashe prefers other kinds of work (though he did teach briefly) which is true of most poets despite what so-called current conventional wisdom would have you believe. If being relatively ascetic (poor?) in a small apartment doing odd jobs is bohemian, then students, indie rock kids, not to mention entire enclaves of select minorities and a good percentage of the urban middle class are bohemian.

Menashe is another example of a forgettable poet that won't be forgotten, not just yet. But here's to sticking a fork in this guy, hoping that the dreaded bad poetry hydra is fresh out of sprouts.


Anonymous fabian trunkhatch said...

oopies! I guess I'm a bohemian! oopsies! I stepped in dogshit!

10:30 AM, June 08, 2005  
Anonymous Lord Byron said...

Century and century, Trochee, they always come back. Eternal return of the hack poets.

12:00 PM, June 08, 2005  
Anonymous c said...

well congratulations.
it must comfort you to know he will never read this.

4:28 PM, November 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's quite a small sample size to base your opinion on.

5:49 PM, June 20, 2007  

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