The Oracle of Thompson Street: Remembering Samuel Menashe
The summer of 2002 I was working as an intern for the Writers’ Center at Chautauqua Institute. I’d been working and taking poetry workshops at Chautauqua for the last two years after the editor of the Chautauqua County Arts Council published a short story I’d written and suggested I sign up for a workshop. “You’ll love it!” she said. “It has so much to offer. And… it will improve your writing!”
Chautauqua Institute, located about 30 miles from Dunkirk, where I grew up was a place I only visited once as a teenager during the off-season with a church youth group. My dead grandmother despised for the “kind of people” who spent their summers there: rich, snooty, intellectual, religious folk from New York City and Cleveland. People who had nothing in common with my grandmother, or any of the hard-working people of Chautauqua County: farmers and factory workers, fishermen, people who labored their whole lives and rarely, if ever, could afford to take a week vacation, let alone an entire summer. When he was seventeen, my father delivered fresh fish to The Athenium Hotel.
Now here I was, not only working at Chautauqua, but taking poetry workshops, attending classical music concerts, the ballet, mingling to a degree with those same people my grandmother turned her nose up to. Despite my grandmother’s misgivings, and some of my own, I discovered Chautauqua had a lot to offer. I discovered that with hard work and dedication, it was in fact possible to become a poet, to escape the mundane small-town life I was living. Maybe I’d even become like those poets I idolized: Neruda, Lorca, Dylan Thomas, Philip Levine.
It was in the beginning of August. Along with a half dozen others, I enrolled in that week’s poetry workshop. The instructor, an ancient man with a bird’s nest of hair the color of lemon meringue that sat atop an already enlarged cranium, was named Samuel Menashe. He wore floppy brown shoes and wrinkled pants held up by suspenders. Throughout the week, Menashe managed to insult and mock every poem that was given him, even scoffing at one student’s perceived pain.
“You’re too young to feel so much pain!” he yelled, admonishing Jared, a college student who worked with me at the bookstore the previous summer. Even Rodney, the director of the Writers’ Center, was not above Menashe’s unflinching ridicule. After reading aloud one of his poems Menashe informed the class that he “couldn’t deal with this right now,” and tossed the sheet of paper in the air. More astonished faces watched the paper soar and glide in the air, slowly making its way to the floor.
After reading a poem I submitted about my parents’ divorce where I compared the Ayatollah Khomeini to Darth Vader, Menashe only chuckled. Much of the class, however, was taken up my Menashe’s long soliloquies, his readings from passages of Blake and the Psalms, as well as his stories about New York in the 50’s, about fighting Nazis during World War Two.
The last day of the workshop, a humid Friday morning, Menashe sat before us grinning. I noticed a speck of food at the corner of his thin lips, that his hair was even more disheveled than usual, and his right shoelaces were untied. “I have a confession to make,” he announced. After an awkward silence he suddenly jumped to his feet and proceeded to dance around the room with arms flailing. “I’ve never taught a workshop before!” he laughed like a child who just at that moment realized he’d pulled one over on the grown-ups, the ones who, in my grandmother’s words, who thought too highly of themselves.
In a month I’d be starting my first semester at Sarah Lawrence, living in what would be my home for the next two years – a bedroom in a house belonging to a kindergarten teacher on Longvale Road in Bronxville. Though I enjoyed my week with Samuel Menashe, I admit I didn’t appreciate his poetry, and I certainly didn’t expect our paths to cross again.
The following November, three months into my new life as a graduate student, I was enrolled in a craft of poetry seminar with John Barr, poet, and Wall Street superhero, who soon would become the first president of the Poetry Foundation, serving from 2004 to 2013. If nothing else, Barr was always charming, always encouraging. You tell just by looking at him, watching him as he taught, how excited he was about poetry and its ability, as he never tired of pointing out, of uniting people from different backgrounds, both social and economic. Barr’s excitement, even if it was a bit naive, coming from a former investment banker, was genuine. His voiced bounced off the oak paneled walls of Slonim Hall, infecting us with its subtle power. In his weekly class Barr had us scan poems. “Let’s start from 30,000 feet!” he’d exclaim. “And then, gradually, we’ll swoop down across the poem’s landscape, burrowing deep into its topography, its rivers and mountains, its deserts, and fault lines, to find the poem’s core meaning. It’s emotion.” Having no formal training in poetry other than the workshops at Chautauqua, John Barr’s craft of poetry was at first, a bit over my head. I’d never studied a piece of literature with such intensity before. It didn’t take long however, before I fell into the rhythm of the class, scanning poems I’d loved on my own, late into the night.
In mid-November Barr announced that after Thanksgiving break, we’d be studying poets who he referred to as a “neglected masters.” “These were poets of great dignity and worth, who live exclusively for their art, beyond and apart from convention, from society.” Wasn’t this what we my MFA cohorts and I were spending tens of thousands of dollars for?
One of these so-called neglected masters, Barr announced, was Samuel Menashe: master of the short, concise poem. Dumbstruck, I felt like I’d just been hit in the gut by a bowling ball. Could it be the very same Samuel Menashe from Chautauqua? The old man with the suspenders and hair like lemon meringue?
Later that evening a few classmates and I traveled by Metro North into the city to attend a reading by John Ashbery and J.D. McClatchy at the 92nd Street Y. Afterwards, while my friends made plans on what bar or tavern we would journey to before taking the Metro North back to Bronxville, I headed to the men’s room. Off to the side next to the hand dryer stood a strange Hobbit looking creature, dressed in clothes that appeared as if he’d worn them for several days without changing. He had wild yellow-white hair, like lemon meringue. I watched both our reflections in the mirror, certain I was hallucinating. I watched him refastening his suspenders, tucking his plaid shirt into his grey trousers like a scarecrow, whose stuffing had recently fallen out. I knew then without question it was Menashe. I introduced myself, reminded him that I’d been in his workshop at Chautauqua just a few months earlier. I told him about Sarah Lawrence, asked if he knew John Barr. I told him about how Barr was planning on giving a lecture about him, that he considered him a master.
Suddenly, Menashe’s posture stiffened. He no longer looked like Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz. His eyes came alive like gas lamps at twilight. The bones in his face took on a hue of urgency like how the dying sometimes rally briefly before they finally fade.
“Well of course he is studying my work,” he roared. “Tell me more!” he begged, his smile growing to jack-o-lantern proportions. He asked me to arrange for Mr. Barr to call him and handed me scrap of paper with his phone number on it. I smiled, assuring him I give it to Mr. Barr. Over break I found my copy of The Niche Narrows and read it, still bewildered, somewhat unimpressed. Maybe in time, I told myself, maybe with maturity, I’d appreciate it.
With a Google search I learned he was born Samuel Menashe Weisberg on Sept. 16, 1925, in Brooklyn to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, where his father ran a laundry and dry-cleaning business. To me Menashe bore a striking resemblance to the actor Christopher Walken. He enrolled in Queens College but left in 1943 to enlist in the Army. As an infantryman with the 87th Division, he fought his way through France, Belgium, and Germany. During a single day of the Battle of the Bulge, he was one of only 29 members of his company out of 190 men who was not either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. After the war he earned a degree at the Sorbonne in 1950 and began his writing career with stories of his childhood and wartime experiences. His first poem was published in The Yale Review in 1956. His poetry collections included The Many Named Beloved (1961), No Jerusalem But This (1971), Fringe of Fire, (1973), To Open (1974) Collected Poems, (1986), and The Niche Narrows, 2000.
At our next craft class, I hand John Barr the slip of paper with Menashe’s phone number on it. I tell him about our meeting, about Chautauqua. Then I forgot about Menashe. I was consumed with my new life as a graduate student, about going to bookstores and poetry readings, art museums, staying up into the small hours of the night, rising late, reading, discovering new poets, while trying to put my own story down in verse. I was thirty-one years old — a few years older than most of my cohorts — and having been sick most of my life — in and out of the hospital as a child — I felt a freedom I had not previously experienced. Though homesick for my family and friends, even for the town I longed to break free of, I found living alone in a rented room in a town where I was a stranger, romantic.
One Saturday, after tutoring at the Bowery Mission’s Men’s Transitional Center, where I volunteered as G.E.D. prep tutor, I made my way to Central Park, taking the subway to 59th Street. It was a cloudless and utterly freezing day in February of March. I entered the park across from the Guggenheim and stood looking out across a frozen Jackie O reservoir and the buildings on Central Park West. Out of the cold silence I heard a voice cry out. It was the deep voice of a school master or God, if God were a disheveled bohemian in a long black coat. “Where is your hat?” the voice enquired and I turned to find Samuel Menashe walking towards me, pointing an accusatorial finger in my direction. “Where is your hat?”
Towards the end of the spring semester, John Barr arranged for Menashe to visit his craft of poetry class. He sent a limousine to 75 Thompson Street in Soho, where Menashe had lived in a 4th floor walk-up since the late 40’s. I was not present that day, I was told that Samuel was a hit with the students. He quoted Blake and the Bible, recited his concise poems with his usual mix of fervor, charm and arrogance, and even managed to lash out at those ‘academic poets he felt snubbed him, even accusing some of stealing lines from him. Yet even this he did with a smile. John Barr invited him back for the fall semester and for the semester after that.
After I earned my MFA, I moved to Astoria, Queens. I was living with the woman who would become my first wife, working at an after-school program in the Lower East Side, and submitting a manuscript that had poems I started at Chautauqua, which became my thesis, poems about growing up in Dunkirk.
At age eighty, thanks to John Barr, who became the president of the Poetry Foundation, Menashe was the first recipient of the “Neglected Masters Award.” His new, New and Selected Poems was published in 2005. He also received a check for $50,000.
Not long after reading about his award, I received a check in the mail for $375. The accompanying letter, written in Menashe’s shaky script, thanked me for introducing him to John Barr, for being a good friend. He called me his angel, wishing me health and happiness.
In April 2010, after moving to Pittsburgh, I traveled to back New York to witness a staged reading of a one act play I’d written that the Living Theatre was performing. I called Samuel and he invited me to his rent-controlled cold-water Thompson Street apartment. I sat across from him in a room that looked more like a ship run aground, than an apartment. A rusty tub sat on claw feet, in the middle of the room, and served as a table. Pill bottles and coffee cups, cans of instant oatmeal, bananas, and paper towels were strewn everywhere. Paintings cluttered the wall behind the couch where he sat like a king, like what he was: “a neglected master!” Watching him I noticed again the tinge of lemon meringue in his otherwise snow-white hair, a crumb of food hiding at the corner of his mouth and the laces on his right shoe untied. On the windowsill was a tiny red envelope – the card I’d sent him the previous Christmas. I wondered if one day I’d be like him, ancient and alone, yet not lonely, would any young would-be poet take the time to visit me?
Menashe told me my own poems were far too long, that I’d be better off writing fiction. He spoke with an ebullient sense of pride, like one who’d been vindicated after years of struggle, yet his admonishments were kind, judicious even.
“You need to chip away,” he said. “Get to the poem’s essence, its core.”
I gave him a copy of my first book Watering the Dead, which was published two years earlier. He thanked me and gave me yet another copy of his award-winning collection, inscribing: “For Jason Irwin with thanks and my best wishes. April 24, 2010.” and the lines “Now spring has come. No one knows how.”
Samuel Menashe left this world in 2011. As a writer, I arrived late to poetry. As another mentor put it I “didn’t know poetry from third base.” Yet I kept at it, for good or ill. I count Samuel Menashe as one of my mentors. I wouldn’t say his work influenced my own, more to the point, Menashe instilled in me a sense of what a poet, or any artist, should aspire to: humility, empathy, and as well as an insatiable curiosity. Once he had asked how I was. “I am good,” I replied, only to be gently rebuked. “To say you’re good,” Menashe corrected, “implies a moral imperative. Next time someone asks how you are doing, say ‘I am well.’”
I like to think I helped Menashe in some small way during the last years of his life. I know he has made a difference in mine. I keep his phone number in my cell just in case I accidentally dial, and he answers.
Watch: a short video profile of Samuel Menashe, produced by WNYC