A Liturgically-Minded Poet

by Patrick Angiolillo

Among my favorite poets is the little known, but tremendously talented twentieth century Jewish American poet Samuel Menashe. His was something of a late-bloomer in the literary community, at least in terms of his recognition. Indeed, late in his life, he won the Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters Award, receiving it in the first year of its presentation. But his poetry, regardless of it’s critical review, is some of the most concise expression of the deep and profound matters of life and faith.

The English Movement poet Donald Davie described Menashe’s verse as “liturgical”; indeed, he classifies Menashe’s poetry as expressly “un-literary.” Rather, Menashe’s is a “very insistently linguistic” poetry. As an educated American Jew, Menashe grew up with Yiddish, but learned English early on, and has acquired French by his teenage years. And, knowing his story, I would guess he was not unfamiliar with Hebrew and Italian, as well, if not even more languages than those.

Menashe was a words man. Words were important to him. They contained meaning, definite meaning, although not necessarily singular meaning. In this way, he was liturgical, for his words, when combined in a certain way, could transcend their simple linguistic meaning and achieve greater meaning, tapping into that sphere of language where we like to put not only poetry, but sacred poetry and sacred text—the land especially of the psalms, Pauline hymns, and the piyyutim.  Such sacred space—not unlike a church or synagogue itself—consists in the masterful combination of discrete parts brought together in such a way as to go beyond even the sum of these parts. And that is to say nothing of the way in which Menashe actually recites his poems. Admittedly, the first time I heard a recording of his recitation of one of his poems, I was bored by the low and slow, nearly monotonous way he read them. But an appreciation for the deliberateness of his delivery, the subtle accents he gave to certain words, allowed me to recognize this further layer of connective tissue tying together the manifold members of one of his poems.

As one who is interested not only in ancient Jewish texts, but in ancient Jewish (and early Christian) liturgy, I have encountered my fair share of Hebrew poetry. And while it may seem that sometimes I am not reading much more than the Hebrew equivalent of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (though such a joke might in fact be the case!), I am always enraptured by the combinations of words and sounds and meanings of these texts. Such construction can, and does, in beautiful ways engender meaning greater than the sum of its nouns, verbs, and propositions. Such meaning, when read prayerfully, or meditated upon, enables one to enter one’s own sacred space of the poetry itself, a place of worship set apart from the simple words on a page.

The kind of continuum of liturgical poetry I have found between ancient Hebrew liturgy like the psalms and a poet like Menashe offers me more ways than one to enter the sacred space of words—words prayerfully built up (one might say “fearfully and wonderfully made”!) into a holy place, a temple, a sanctuary, a place set apart for encountering the divine.

I invite all readers to investigate the Poetry Foundation’s collected volume of Menashe’s work, but I provide here only two of his poems that have especially  spoken to my liturgical and linguistic sensibilities. I suggest reading them aloud, slowly, almost ponderously, but definitely quite deliberately, so as to engage the words, and more so, the combination of words,  indeed, the combination of the sounds of words, and thereby enter one’s own sacred space. I provide beside Menashe’s work a short psalm that I think participates in this same liturgical-linguistic phenomenon (as many, many psalms do).

O Many Named Beloved

O Many Named Beloved

Listen to my praise

Various as the seasons

Different as the days

All my treasons cease

When I see your face

 

The Shrine Whose Shape I am

The shrine whose shape I am

Has a fringe of fire

Flames skirt my skin

 

There is no Jerusalem but this

Breathed in flesh by shameless love

Built high upon the tides of blood

I believe the Prophets and Black

And like David I bless myself

With all my might

 

I know many hills were holy once

But now in the level lands to live

Zion ground down must become marrow

Thus in my bones I am the King’s son

And through death’s domain I go

Making my own procession 

 

(Poetry reproduced from Samuel Menashe, New and Selected Poems: Expanded Edition, Library of America, 2005)

Psalm 117 (Hebrew; BHS)

הללו את־יהוה כל־גוים
שבחוהו כל־האמים׃
כי גבר עלינו ׀חסדו
ואמת־יהוה לעולם
הללו־יה׃

Psalm 117 (Translation my own)

Praise Yhwh, all you nations

Laud Him, all you peoples

For His love is mighty over us

The truth of Yhwh lasts forever

Praise Yhwh

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