102. (Samuel Menashe)

Samuel Menashe (American; 20th c.) is not a witty poet, despite having written one of the best modern poems on wit:

Sharpen your wit–

Each half of it–

Before you shut

Scissors to cut


Shear skin deep

Underneath wool

Expose the sheep

Whose leg you pull


Wit is brief and bracing. It conjoins and affirms the suitability of the conjunction by the rapidity, on the page or in the air, of which it is affected; it braces a reader by being audacious and judicious at once; and it is braced within itself by plausibility, despite the dissimilarities it unites. When it totters, it finds madness; when it fails, it finds folly.

It makes a stand against waste in the implicit affirmation that the whole of life may be brought into a tolerable cacophony; that anything and everything might be joined to common purpose, should the occasion arise. It depends on sprezzatura, and thrives in the salon where carelessness is preferred to earnestness; it bears a relation to temporality, seizing at passing coincidences, asking them to converse, but not demanding their eternal union; it does not ask two incompatibles to wed, it asks them to flirt.

Menashe’s poem is brief but it is not braced within by images or notions at odds with themselves; instead, it grows, expanding by the principle contained in the first seed of thought: that wit is sharp, that it brings together two edges, that it makes a rapid movement; that the shears are socially useful, serving a pastoral function, tending the sheep; that the shears are simultaneously a satirical device, leaving exposed the herd, without drawing blood; pulling its leg, in a joke made for its benefit.

The first phrase, “sharpen your wit” is without wit entirely; it is a cliche, a common thought, and Menashe’s procedure, quite unlike that of the wittiest poets, is not to turn that tired phrase on its head, or to push it towards a pun, or to run it aground against another, or (and the options go on)—but to ask what it would be that could be sharpened that wit is like: scissors. The simile (or metaphor, if we take it to be an assertion of identity), though a comparison, seems rather than the reach of wit, to be the grasp of common identity: “wit is sharpened and yokes together two halves; scissors do the same. Here is how they work.” And then the poem, most unlike a wit, seems to say: and you can imagine the rest, do with the analogy what you will. Where wit would jump off, the poem cuts off: no extended play on wit-as-scissors or scissors-as-wit; instead, a seemingly-disingenuous disinclination to take a stab at what is like and unlike between scissors and wit.

Most unwitty. And Menashe’s poem in general feels characterized by this absence: by the knowledge that it could have been witty had it gone further, but that its brevity, rather than firmly placing the oppositions as wit would, instead only draws them near, to see whether they care to speak.

Whereas wit depends on our knowing that it knows, implicitly or explicitly, that the analogies and comparisons it makes, the unions it effects, and the bridges it builds, are provisional and glancing, Menashe’s poems take metaphor and comparison as natural: here are things that are really there, aspects inherent in the words by which we know the world, and, because of that, the poems suggest, fundamentally inherent in the world. Language does not conjure the world into new being by conjunction (as it does in wit); instead, language gets at the inner logic of the world’s being.

Here is “Peaceful Purposes”:

Those flapping flags

That the wind cracks

Over the house

Like an attack

Might have been

Potato sacks

If dipped in

Another vat


So nearly wit, as Eliot knows it: the recognition in any one experience of other experiences that are possible. But what Menashe writes feels too obviously true to conform…perhaps because the implication is not teased out by Menashe: it is not an experience that might have been otherwise, but the matter of the world, which might have been asked to conform to a very different human experience from what it has. Contingency of rhyme meets contingency of the world, which might make of cloth a symbol of nationality and war, or might make of it a hold for peasant fare: “attack” and “sack”  and “cracks” rhyme; “flag” and “vat” do not, though each echoes the short a of the rhyme; “house” gets no rhyme at all; the hypotheticals “might have been” and “if dipped in” are united; like wit, this takes what is at hand; unlike wit, it does not concern itself with bringing it all to bear on itself; some things are left out, not wasted, but not transformed as they might be; the poem holds together without harmony; adequate, it suggests, to accept disorder, waste, or disuse, if the purpose has been served.

Wit, for all of its indulgent ostentation, drawing together what does not belong, is motivate by an un-ease with waste. Perhaps this explains why wit has been less at home in American than in British verse, American literature on the whole tolerating, celebrating, accepting waste not more than British literature, but in works that have more centrally come to define its tradition: Whitman, Melville, Faulkner, Bishop (whose poems play with how much of them might not be necessary, as they wade into the wasteful and wasted, to find something of essential and true value)… The American authors who left for England, feeling more at home there, Eliot and James, were also ambivalent towards waste, the latter guarding vigilantly against it in his formal strictures.

Menashe is, perversely, near to Whitman in the sense that the abundance of the world makes wit unnecessary: there is so much contained within any experience or object that a poem does not have to reach, should not have to stretch, in order to accommodate, redeem, or even enliven any one topic. A hearty look at what is before us, following out the metaphors that are implicit, yields fruit; the difference between them is that Menashe is happy to pluck one between his fingers, whereas Whitman grabs an armful.

Here are, at random, some instances of Menashe’s work:

To Open

Spokes slide 

Upon a pole


The parasol


Salt and Pepper

Here and there

White hairs appear

On my chest–

Age seasons me

Gives me zest–

I am a sage

In the making

Sprinkled, shaking


Still Life

Where she sits

With apples

On her lap

Kindling snaps

Into flame

What happens

Fits the frame


Memento Mori

This skull instructs

Me now to probe

The socket bone

Around my eyes

To test the nose

Bone underlies

To hold my breath

To make no bones

About the dead


“To make no bones/ About the dead” is witty; but it is wit in the service of a poem that is enlivened not by wit but by an inspection of the world by play and placement of words; that inspection, each line another step in adducing and unfolding the order of what is found, could turn up the raw materials of wit, but might let those materials lie fallow, or might let them come, by chance, to what ends they will:

Just Now

With my head down

Bent to this pen

Which is my plow

I did not see

That little cloud

Above the field–

Unfurrowed brow,

You are its yield.

Menashe does not know entirely, or need to know entirely, what he traces in his lines of verse; there is more world than can be had within a poem; and that does not matter, because the wholeness of things, and their bearing on one another in so many ways, can be felt without, despite, the poet’s labors; he does not need to yoke to plow and bring forth all that’s contained within.


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