Amen to Life: Learning from
the Haiku Mind of Samuel Menashe
“Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or by both. It represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit: the triumph of feeling and thought over the natural sin of language.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Athenaeum, 11 April 1919
In 2004, the Poetry Foundation awarded its first Neglected Masters Award—and $50,000—to inveterate New York City poet Samuel Menashe. Menashe wrote in relative obscurity for most of his life but on the foundation’s website he is rightly lauded. Stephen Spender is quoted as praising the poet for “language intense and clear as diamonds” and saying that Menashe “can compress an attitude to life that has an immense history into three lines.” Christian Science Monitor critic Victor Howes said, “The art of Samuel Menashe is a jeweler’s art.” Elsewhere, Donald Davie wrote that hearing Menashe read his poems “is to understand what it means in practice for a poet to compose by the syllable.” And in 2006 David Orr wrote in the New York Times that “each poem reads as if it’s been handblown, filled with an exactly measured dose of Wisdom and then polished 9,000 times by the world’s most precisely folded chamois.” In 2011, Samuel Menashe died in his sleep at the age of 85. A major reason why recognition did not come to the poet until late in his life—and he was fortunate to have received it at all—was because the poetry he wrote was inordinately brief.
Samuel Menashe was not a writer of haiku, but he was a writer of very short poetry. The New York Times referred to his work as “gnomic,” but instead of “short” the poet himself preferred “concise” (his work, like Lorine Niedecker’s, was “condensery”). In 1999, when the first issue of my publication Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem celebrated Menashe as its featured poet (suggested to me by Dana Gioia), Menashe and I talked on the phone and corresponded briefly. He said he had not written haiku, and had little interest in it. It seemed to me he was too New York a poet for haiku, that haiku was too exotic and foreign. Yet a number of his poems project the scent of haiku, and it’s worth exploring a selection of them. Many virtues found in the concise poetry of Samuel Menashe—beyond brevity—are also found in haiku.
My source is Samuel Menashe: New & Selected Poems (Tarset, England: Bloodaxe Books, 2009), edited by Christopher Ricks. The book also includes an hour-long DVD, Life Is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe, by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, in which the poet recites and discusses many of the poems from the book—all from memory. Christopher Ricks, in his introduction, says that “Menashe’s art pours together the elementary and the elemental” (xxix). Ricks asks, “What great poetry is not riddling?” and refers to one of Menashe’s most famous poems as “one of those kindly riddles that is so good as to let you in on the answer without delay” (xxix). Ricks adds that, in Menashe’s poems, “Nothing . . . is too small to matter” (xxxii) and that “Not just le mot juste but la lettre juste” (xxix). He says “These poems are not afraid to be found childlike,” and adds that “we need to be all the more vigilant that we not mistake for simplicity what is only simplistic, or simplified, or simple-minded” (xxxiii). In his foreword, Menashe himself says that “awareness . . . is the source of poetry” (xiv), something that is certainly true of haiku. Patricia Donegan, in her book Haiku Mind (Boston: Shambhala, 2008) says that “haiku mind” is “a simple yet profound way of seeing our everyday world and living our lives with the awareness of the moment expressed in haiku” (xi). In The New Haiku (Liverpool: Snapshot Press, 2002), John Barlow writes that the “expression of truth, producing what Bashō called yojo (surplus meaning), is sometimes referred to as ‘haiku mind,’” and that through it “the poet can share experiences and hidden significance, without ever directly telling them” (191). Samuel Menashe has a haiku mind in seeing the world, and with every poem, each packed with surplus meaning, he responds to his everyday world by saying “Amen.”
In introducing Menashe for Tundra #1, July 1999 (all references from pages 8–9), Dana Gioia indicates that “Nearly every poem he has ever published radiates a heightened religious awareness” and that “His central themes are . . . the tension between the soul and body, past and present, time and eternity.” He says that Menashe’s work is “alternately joyous and elegiac,” and that “his short, dense lines slow down the rhythm to encourage the reader to linger on each word,” each line being “not merely compressed and evocative, but talismanic, visionary, and symbolic.” Gioia notes that the poet’s technique focuses on “imagist compression with traditional rhyme” where the rhymes “exist not only for musical effect but also to freeze two or more words in time and hold them perpetually in spiritual or intellectual harmony.” Ultimately, Gioia concludes, Samuel Menashe “is a poet who can only understand physical reality in relation to the metaphysical” and that he has made a “unique contribution to the contemporary short poem.” As he might say regarding haiku, Gioia advises, “When you read [Menashe’s] poems, breathe them in slowly.” Their metaphysical transcendence, as with haiku, begins with physical reality.
These observations refer to all of Menashe’s poems, but I would like to focus on the ones that seem most haiku-like, the shortest of the short. They are not haiku, let me make clear, and not intended as haiku, but Menashe more than once taps into characteristics that make haiku successful in order to make his own poems successful.
Between bare boughs
One star decrees
This poem (13) gains an icy feel by the “e” vowel sounds that end the last two lines. The poem also relies not just on the clarity of winter light but on the clarity of imagistic expression. Aristotle said that “The soul never thinks without an image.” We see one star through the boughs of a bare tree. The clarity is not just what the poet can see so sharply, but a metaphysical clarity into life itself. In a later poem, “The Bare Tree” (19), Menashe begins by saying “My mother once said to me, ‘when one sees the tree in leaf, one thinks the beauty of the tree is in its leaves, and then one sees the bare tree.’” This reminds me of a haiku by Ruth Yarrow, in which the last line served as the title for one of her first books, from 1981: “moonlit okra leaves / floating in blackness / no one sees the stems.”
By the sea
On the sands
Menashe is overtly subjective in this poem (21), but his subjectivity dwells once again in the image, in the sand by the sea, taking the physical into the metaphysical. Life is ephemeral, like the sands of time, yet his poem is not about the sand so much as it is about a human visit to the sand by the sea, so brief a holiday, even more ephemeral.
Dry leaves fall
Down the stream
You walked by
Near the water
I want to die
I quote this poem (23) as a compressed example of how Menashe’s poems, and especially ones longer than this, depart from haiku. It is rooted still in image, and seethes with lament for a lost love or lost friendship, but he takes the image a step further, expressing a wish to die, or at least how he wants to die when the time should come. Perhaps this poem is more like tanka than haiku, based on length and feeling, but it’s a step beyond haiku mind.
I look up to see
Your windows, the house
Standing on this street
Like an old tombstone
Whose dates disappear
I still name you here
I stood, I saw
The room you left
What you could see
The awe of death
Took hold of me
Here (27) is a further example of departure, and the great majority of Menashe’s poems are like this, with little to do with haiku—yet still the image is central. He sees the house and room of a departed friend or loved one, and tunes in to the emotions he feels. Where he goes with the poem begins with the same awarenesses that haiku begin with—something is noticed—but he takes his awareness somewhere else, and in this case somewhere larger.
These stone steps
bevelled by feet
endear the dead
to me as I climb
them every night
I picture Menashe climbing the five flights up to his small Manhattan apartment where he had lived for more than fifty years. The steps are not stone, but perhaps the front steps to his apartment are. More likely this is a memory of some other location, but in this tanka-like poem (39), the poet’s close observation of worn-away stone—and the centuries of stepping upon them that bevelled them—make him think of the dead before him. Is he climbing the steps, or climbing the dead?
Leah bribed Jacob
With mandrake roots
To make him
Lie with her
Take me poems
Biblical references, mostly Jewish, are common in Menashe’s poems. This is among my most favourite of his poems (67). Menashe’s desire for love or companionship seems to motivate the writing of his poems, or at least this one. Menashe’s poetry may seem to be like mandrake roots used to entice a lover. But he is not Leah seeking Jacob in any sort of sexual way (he was a lifelong bachelor—married, instead, to his poetry). Rather, I would speculate that he wants readers to lie with his poems, not with him. Here I think of a favourite poem by E. E. Cummings:
if you like my poems let them
walk in the evening,a little behind you
then people will say
“Along this road i saw a princess pass
on her way to meet her lover(it was
toward nightfall)with tall and ignorant servants.”
Where Cummings paints his poems as subservient to the object of his desire that motivates them, Menashe has no such modesty. He wants you to take his poems.
The hill I see
Here (77) Menashe demonstrates his reverence for the world. Is the hill itself holy? Are all hills holy to him? Perhaps, more likely, it is being able to see a particular hill each day that, to him, makes it holy—the value of ritual. Either approach is haiku mind, and speaks, once again, to transcendence.
O Lady lonely as a stone—
Even here moss has grown
The ravages of time catch everything. We are given no clue as to who this lady is, but even she, as an everywoman, succumbs to time. The moss is metaphorical because the stone is a simile. Perhaps, though, the lady is an object, like a brownstone apartment in New York City. Whatever the case, the compression of the poem (83) makes readers focus on the unfolding of time.
The hollow of morning
Holds my soul still
As water in a jar
The conceit of this poem (89), that the poet’s soul is like water held in a jar, is tempered by the time of day—that still moment of morning, before the world stirs. What is not said is how that water is used later in the day, whether it is drunk, sprinkled on plants, or left to evaporate. As with haiku, the unsaid speaks as well as the said.
The key to this poem (95) is to read it from the bottom up. The clues are the capital V in “Voices” and the inverted syntax of “from / rise.” Once we figure this out, we can enter into the image, that voices rise from earth into the night. Thus Menashe plays a visual game that some haiku poets play, by the vertical arrangement of words, if not the reading from bottom to top. Are these the voices of the dead (in the earth) or the voices of the living (on the earth)? The careful use of ambiguity, also common in effective haiku, gives us a moment, and a message, to ponder.
A flock of little boats
Tethered to the shore
Drifts in still water
Prows dip, nibbling
The image of boats tethered to the shore in this poem (107) is extended by metaphor into being birds. The flock is not just drifting in the still water, but nibbling, a delightful way to show the reflected prows dipping into the still water. The poet trusts this image, and just enough of his metaphorical extension of the image, to do its work.
The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sands embed
Menashe fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, but that inland battle had no beachheads. Instead, for this poem, we can easily imagine Normandy. Similarly, readers of haiku can hardly apprehend this poem (116) without thinking of two famous Bashō haiku: “how piteous! / under the helmet / a cricket” (Makoto Ueda’s translation) and “summer grass— / all that remains / of the warrior’s dreams” (my own version). For those unfamiliar with haiku, or these haiku in particular, Menashe’s poem still taps into the melancholy image of the soldier’s absence symbolized by the helmet. And here, too, we witness the flowing sands of time, knowing that the soldier and his war are as ephemeral as ever.
A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout
More of an aphorism than a haiku, this poem (128) is among Menashe’s most famous. A key way Menashe’s poetry is distinguished from haiku is by overt subjectivity, here manifested by the choice—brilliant in this case—of the term “fulfills.” Haiku, nevertheless, creates an aspect of inevitability, of rightness, the suchness of existence. Menashe relies on that suchness with this poem. In the introduction to Samuel Menashe: New & Selected Poems, Christopher Ricks comments on this poem by asking, “Child’s play? Just try it. A minimalist’s maxim, the poem fulfills itself, just so” (xxviii).
As I lie on the rock
With my eyes closed
Absorbed by the sun
A creak of oarlocks
Comes into the cove
When I published this poem (132) in Tundra #1 (1999), I badly wanted to ask the poet to remove the title “Peace,” and I regret that I did not at least inquire if that might be possible, or how he felt about that. The poem itself is peaceful, and about peacefulness, so to me the title feels redundant, telling readers what the poem shows. What remains is an immediate imagistic experience, more tanka-like than haiku-like, perhaps, but we are transported to this moment of transcendent—and peaceful—awareness. In his introduction to Menashe’s book, Christopher Ricks says that Menashe’s lines “are there to be read between. Which means that above all they must not be underlined” (xxxii). Yet here is a case where Menashe himself felt the need to underline. Perhaps more of a haiku mind would have prompted him to omit his title, as he did with so many other poems.
gives wood its grain
Dreams knot the wood
In this poem (154), the title reads directly into the first line, and thus might not be seen as a title at all. In a previous book, “Sleep” is simply the first line with no blank line after it, making the poem at least look a little closer to haiku. In any event, we see the image of knots in woodgrain, and take the metaphor of dreams as a logical way in which the grain gets its knots. This is fanciful, of course. A haiku would show knots in wood, and juxtapose that image with a sleeping person, perhaps implying a dreamer. It would be too much of a leap for readers to infer that dreams knot the wood of sleep, however, so we can be glad that the poet made that final leap for us, whether the words create a haiku or not. The poem is assertive with its image, saying this is so, and it is assertive with its metaphor.
The sea staves
The staves of a barrel are the gently curved wooden pieces bound by wooden or metal hoops. In this poem (169), Menashe creatively uses “staves” as a verb to show the curve of concave waves. This is not Hiroshige’s great wave, towering and frothy, but the gentle concave undulation of a much more common and ordinary wave, perhaps barely a wave at all. The densely compact sounds coalesce here to show us the sea in its brooding strength.
Dusk of the year
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through
This poem (194), the last in Menashe’s finest book, returns to the bare boughs we witnessed at the beginning. Dusk is a metaphor for autumn, and the poem points to the leaves that used to be so plentiful on the trees we can now see through. Life, in fact, seems to become something that the poet, from a place of transcendent wisdom, now sees through. Where the prior poem valued the shape of the tree, here we see a more complete picture, and a lament for the leaves as well as the tree from which they fell. Has Menashe therefore grown in his appreciation of the tree and its leaves? We see growth in another poem (53), updated by changing a single word, forty-six years after the poem’s first publication—a poem that seems to move from hope to loss, yet in either version is about both:
When I was a boy When I was a boy
I lost things— I lost things—
I am still I am still
Yet I daresay Yet I daresay
All will be found All will be lost
One day One day
I’d like to close by quoting “Now,” the second-last poem (193) from Menashe’s book. It is not as short as a haiku or even tanka, but it carries something of the haiku mind. Samuel Menashe should never be confused with a haiku poet, and it is not necessary for him to have haiku mind, nor defer to choices that such a perspective would tend towards. Nevertheless, aspects of his poetry show commonalities with haiku sensibilities, including a kind of wide-eyed existentialism. In an interview with The Paris Review, Billy Collins once remarked that “a very deep strain of existential gratitude . . . runs through a lot of poetry. It’s certainly in haiku. Almost every haiku says the same thing: ‘It’s amazing to be alive here’” (#159, 2001, 194–195). I think that’s what Samuel Menashe is saying, too, and that every poem he has written offers, emphatically, an “amen” to life.
There is never an end to loss, or hope
I give up the ghost for which I grope
Over and over again saying Amen
To all that does or does not happen—
The eternal event is now, not when.