Among of green stiff old bright broken branch come white sweet May again - William Carlos Williams
It’s September, which would not be complete without a re-reading of Auden’s great poem, “September 1, 1939“. That was the date of the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of WWII. I’ve never understood why this poem didn’t make the cut in the Collected Poems (apparently Auden, in retrospect, didn’t think much of it – or perhaps he was concerned with false sentiment and “German usage,” as he put it); however, it’s available in the Vintage Selected Poems. And, of course, online. If you’re not familiar with it, read it – then go read Joseph Brodsky’s fine essay on it (it’s in one of his major essay collections). The poem begins:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Poet Samuel Menashe died on August 22, 2011. He was a friend of mine in my New York days, and I’ll remember him fondly. He was a very old school kind of person. He lived alone in a walk-up apartment on Thompson St., in Greenwich Village. He’d wander into New York bookshops and start reciting his poetry to complete strangers, which was how he sold his books. He had a gentle voice, a wild shock of white hair and a congenial presence. He’d sit for hours talking about the war, William Blake and the Hebrew Bible. His poems were “concise” (his term), mostly condensed into few lines of concentrated musicality. Below is a poem I wrote about him. I was told my a mutual aquaintance that he read it and enjoyed it. Goodbye, Samuel.
Samuel Menashe Reads at the Harvard Club*
You’re reading your poems at the Harvard Club
in New York City. The hall, rimmed with oak,
sputters a dying light suffused with thick
brown shadows, like intellectual antelope
gazing at their reflections on the wall.
You can’t believe you’re here.
from your throat (already you’re older
than most of the old men in attendance here)
poems so short that if you miss a word
you miss the point. I listen, neither
graduate of Harvard nor university-bred,
but a young man seeking encouragement
from an elder such as you. Invited here,
I hold your book open and read along
but the light is bad. My clothes are shot. No tie
is knotted in the hollow of my neck.
My shoes, the worn-out patent leather ones
from the J. Crew catalog, are more like husks
that hug my feet.
In private, you told me
to give up poetry and dedicate
myself to writing narrative instead.
“No one reads poetry,” you said.
Certainly you spoke from experience.
They used to snicker when you’d ramble in
off 47th St. to the Gotham Book Mart.
“Here comes the poet Samu-el,” they’d joke.
“C’mon,” I’d say, “He’s really not so bad.”
You’d stop and talk about the war, recite
Blake and the Hebrew Bible (KJV)
and then your own compacted prosody
which stopped the tourists in their tracks. “A pot
poured out fulfils its spout,” your voice
intoned. Then you’d explain, to the stupefied
clientele, what the poem really meant
based on its lingustic roots (“the pot
fills up the spout, fulfilling it etc.”)
You’d sign their books before they’d even bought:
“To Jo, from Canada. Best, Samuel.”
That said, your poems are now canonized
in the Library of America.
You snagged the “Neglected Masters Award”
the kind of name you always called yourself
alluding to the New Yorker and “Talk of the Town”
the only place they’d publish you back then.
You felt yourself a curiosity
in your hometown, an underdog, the last
of your generation, a congregant
of Homer’s, the Greek café long since shut down.
What more could anybody do for you?
Your wish-list is complete, you have become
a famous poet with a style, to boot.
Menashesque. I can almost hear it said
in college classrooms, by professors younger
than I am, too obliviously young
to have attended the Nutcracker with you
at Lincoln Center.
Wedged between Masters
and Michelangelo, your volume rests
on my bookshelf. I flip through it, recalling
your evening reading at the Harvard Club
ten years ago. Like Emerson, you blurred
the distance between poetry and faith,
the kind one has in literature, not God.
That evening you gave your best performance.**
* Published in Italian Americana, Winter 2011
** WordPress can’t handle proper line breaks. So be it.
*** Oh, yeah, this is my 500th post!
Every so often I mention that I write poetry. I used to write a lot of poetry, though lately it’s kind of tapered off due to our recent move, our ten month-old daughter and a hundred other things that eat away at the imaginative mental loitering time so conducive to writing poetry.
This is a poem I wrote a few years ago and posted at my wife’s blog at the time. Probably nobody ever read it but her. I’m posting it again because I like it; it has the scent of Cavafy, Pessoa and the “crepuscolari” poets so dear to me. Enjoy.
I crave the stillness of rooms
full of smoke, after the party,
when all the guests have gone.
That’s when the poem is born.
Late at night, sitting at a desk
in the city, or outside of one,
the poet remembers those rooms
full of smoke. He lives in them,
a world of his own making.
He conjures the odor of ash,
the yellowed lampshade, the stain
of lipstick on a shard of glass.