Samuel Menashe has died.
Probably you did not know this. Probably you did not even know that he had lived.
I did not, until I read it on the last page of this week’s Economist. Actually, on the second to last page, which is the obituary page which I always read to cheer myself up after the latest news about China and the troubled states of Africa and/or America which I read to distract myself from more local disasters.
Though, indeed, the news this week mostly heartened me — Tripoli swept up and protected from looters by well-organized committees of volunteers, students running errands for hospital patients, water trucked in by boys from neighboring villages at no charge — this is the kind of news I could read every day. Or the straight-talking new prime minister of Japan, a brave and stoic nation which has long deserved better.
That I am illogical, I have the proof, for simutaneously am I delighted at the delicate tea ceremony that is Japanese politics. Where a politician takes off his jacket to signal his supporters to cast their votes for his stronger opponent. Where Mr. Noda’s calling himself a puffy-looking mudfish is not just self-mocking plain-speaking but a cannily nuanced and conciliatory coded reference to a poem much loved by a member of the opposition. Who then gracefully comes over to his side.
I also believe, of course, that poetry with its useful ambiguities is too under-utilized in American politics.
So that when the Economist (whom I picture as a living personage and not just a slick-paged magazine, whom I picture, in fact, as an over-educated Brit chappie: sleek-haired, nattily dressed, rather rat-faced, but wittily so, with an engaging grin) snips that the
… democratic ideal has lately found its way to the Arab world from another direction, by way of the Arab spring … the West cannot claim the credit for this awakening …
as if that were a bad thing. As if democracy ought not always to arise from within the people in that particular place. Not be imposed like a mismatched organ transplant.
When the Economist snips thus sniftily — I, like the Yankee that I am, feel the organ of political philosophy within me (such as it is) begin to wheeze in response with Walt Whitman’s undisciplined lines hymning in praise of Democracy – a giant and individual spirit rising again and again like a Titan awaking from each local hill and mountain.
“the unresting representative of thousands of other dogged and neglected poets, scribbling and dreaming at their windows in all the cities of the world”
Which words were actually not said by Whitman about Democracy, but by the Economist about Samuel Menashe. Whom you may not have known was a poet.
Though critics disagreed also about that: “His poems were either crystalline and profound, or slight and banal. Whichever was true, he laboured on.”
And for this laboring, I pause here to honor him, who said:
The hollow of morning
Holds my soul still
As water in a jar
Someday — God willing — I will say something as quiet and complete.
And now back to work. Which if I am not talking about, it is because I am superstitious and am fending off the evil eye by chanting from my new writing companion Menashe:
Inklings sans ink
Cling to the dry
Point of the pen
Whose stem I mouth
Not knowing when
The truth will out
Samuel who is dead.
If poets ever really die.