Samuel Menashe was born in New York City, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His early exposure to Yiddish was crucial in bestowing on him the sensitivity to linguistic nuance evident in the care he lavishes on every word in his poems. When Paul Bowles read the poems in the 1970’s, he commented on their “Anglo-Saxon” diction. Menashe was bewildered, until he realized that this quality may come from Yiddish, which is a late medieval German dialect. Menashe attributes his verbal gifts to the influence of his mother, who was multilingual. He served in the United States Army during and after World War II, fighting as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, writing a doctoral thesis on poetic experience and gaining an advanced degree, the doctorat d’univerisité.
Menashe has traveled widely in Europe as well as North Africa and Israel and, despite his long residence in New York City, is cosmopolitan as a writer, possessing an awareness of many literatures and cultures. Sometimes mischaracterized in critical accounts as a naïve poet, Menashe is often erudite and intellectual in his verse, especially in matters of etymology and the resonance and reverberation of words.
Menashe is an impressive and eloquent reciter of verse who captivates audiences when he reads aloud from his own work and that of his favorite poets. In 1996, his work was included in volume 6 of Penguin Modern Poets. Despite this recognition, Menashe remained marginal in the American poetry scene until 2005, when the Poetry Foundation gave Menashe its first Neglected Masters Award, which came with a cash payment as well as the publication of the poet’s work in the Library of America’s American Poets series; Menashe was the first living poet to be so honored. The book, New and Selected Poems, was extensively reviewed and brought Menashe to wide public notice in the poetry world. A second edition, including ten new poems, was published in 2008. A British edition of this version was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009. Still, Menashe remained a very independent poet, not affiliated with any school of poetry, not ensconced in academia, and with an appeal and a constituency of readers very distinct with respect to the mainstream of American verse.