Each Day as the Only Day

The poet Samuel Menashe died on Monday at 85. Here are excerpts from an interview by Adam Travis for the Poetry Foundation:

It isn't my decision to write concise poems, that's just me. I didn't decide to be a poet. I didn't decide to write the poems that I write. I remember once coming home — my parents lived in the suburbs and I would come home for dinner — and I said to my mother (they died when they were twenty years younger than I am now, so this was a very long time ago): "You know that poem I showed you last week, well, I've worked on it since. And she asked, "How much shorter is it?" Yes, I'm known for that. I could spend almost an entire summer revising a poem that's already been published, making a three line stanza out of a six line stanza — not just cutting away, but the whole poem goes into the works again. Didn't Poe say that in a long poem only certain parts are poetry? I'm not given to storytelling. There is narrative poetry, but it's not my kind of poetry.


If I'm working on a poem, I'm possessed by it. I have a desk by the window, and I have sun all morning on a winter morning. Well, I can repeat the same lines over and over again while I'm walking in the park in the afternoon. I wake up with them in the middle of the night, and the poem is in the works. But when I'm not working, like on a beautiful day like this — nothing is lacking in this day, even though I'm not working. Shall I recite a short poem?

The friends of my father
Stand like gnarled trees
Yet in their eyes I see
Spring's crinkled leaf

And thus, although one dies
With nothing to bequeath
We are left enough
Love to make us grieve

Now, the first four lines could have been written at any time, even in antiquity. That poem in its first version was in my first book published in England. But it was then revised. The revision always makes it more concise. But then I remember, I was walking one evening, a balmy evening, and the poem was in the works (the revision) and I had the line "crinkled leaf of spring," and suddenly when I was walking on a quiet street (there are quiet streets here) I was staggered, I mean physically. Do I dare say, instead of "a crinkled leaf of spring," "spring's crinkled leaf"? And for me that made all the difference. I dared!


If I hadn't been in the infantry and lucky enough to survive physically unharmed, I might have had a much more conventional life. I remember I used to hear people, when I came home from the war, talking about what they intended to do "next summer," and I was amazed by their certainty that they would be alive "next summer." I always thought that each day was the last day for the first few years. And then it changed: not each day as the last day, but each day as the only day. It's more hopeful in a way. So I was able to live in the day. Most people are planning for a future. I had no foresight for any future. It's a nice sentimental anecdote for a bohemian to talk about that cold water flat you had on Thompson Street. Well, I still live with a bathtub in the kitchen. If you live that way for two or three years when you're young, and then move to proper middle class housing, you can be sentimental about your old cold water flat. Anyway, I had no foresight.


In about 1957 I heard Kathleen Raine recite her poetry at the Y with two other British poets. I thought of her a few years later when I was in Europe, because she was a renowned Blake scholar. I sent my poetry to her, and she got it published by one of the leading publishers in London. My friends thought that American publishers would be waiting at the pier for me. On the contrary, it took me ten years to get my first book published here by the most unknown publisher in New York. That has been the story of my life almost to the present. I was published by Penguin in London seven years ago in a very reputable series called Penguin Modern Poets. Each volume included about three poets, and almost all of them were British. And I still couldn't get a publisher in New York. So, it's been a hard life. It's been the opposite of a life buttressed by grants and having a publisher and going to him every few years with new poems. Each time I've had to start from scratch.


Momento Mori
by Samuel Menashe, from New & Selected Poems

This skull instructs
Me now to probe
The socket bone
Around my eyes
To test the nose
Bone underlies
To hod my breath
To make no bones
About the dead 

Excerpt from Life is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe, a documentary filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce for the publication of the UK edition of New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2009).