Ifeanyi Menkiti

Ifeanyi Menkiti

August 24th, 1940 June 17th, 2019

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Obituary for Ifeanyi Anthony Menkiti

Ifeanyi Menkiti became, in April 2006, the man who saved poetry — or at the very least, he rescued one of its most revered institutions in this country by purchasing the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, which then was sorely in need of a buyer.

“I have a strong sense of hope and belief that poetry can help our world,” he told the Globe a few weeks later. “The sense of a world together has formed a very important part of my own poetry.”

A longtime Wellesley College philosophy professor who stressed the importance of fostering community, he was 78 when he went to sleep Father’s Day evening and did not awaken Monday morning. Dr. Menkiti, who had long lived in Somerville, had suffered a stroke several months ago, yet had impressed friends with his vitality since then, including at Grolier events.

“He was a nobleman in the best sense of the word,” said Robert Pinsky, a former US poet laureate who teaches at Boston University, and who noted that his friend was a significant writer, in addition to his concurrent careers in academia and developing real estate.

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“He was an artist and a man of the community,” Pinsky said.

Dr. Menkiti may have most succinctly articulated his view of humanity’s need to embrace a shared existence in his poem “Before a Common Soil,” whose title appears in one of its verses:

And I have called out to you,
Children of an undivided earth,
That you join your hands together
And be of one accord before a common soil –

A musical setting of the work was performed at the Spring Revels in Cambridge, and he dedicated the poem to his friend Jack Langstaff, founder of the Revels, who died in 2005. Dr. Menkiti read the poem in appearances around the world: in Sweden and South Africa, at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Wales and in Nigeria, the land of his birth.

The poem’s own travels underscored Dr. Menkiti’s belief that “we” supersedes “I.” In his philosophical essay “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought,” he quoted the Kenya-born philosopher John Mbiti: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”

“The loss is hard to bear,” David Ferry, a poet who was awarded the National Book Award in 2012, said in a statement via the Grolier. “He is a great exemplary figure in the community of poetry here, poets and readers, because of his own eloquent poetry and his magnanimous fostering of the Grolier Book Shop with all its historic standards.”

Dr. Menkiti was only the third owner of the Harvard Square shop, which was founded in 1927 by Gordon Cairnie and is the oldest store in the nation devoted solely to poetry. Louisa Solano bought the Grolier from Cairnie, and sold it in 2006. Over the decades, the shop was a gathering place for the likes of T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings and Robert Lowell.

Even within the remains of the once mighty print publishing world, shelves earmarked for poetry are few. So far as poetry lovers know, just one other store in the country — Open Books in Seattle — sells only poetry.

“Ifeanyi was the kindest man, emanating benevolence,” Frank Bidart of Cambridge, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize last year for “Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016,” said in an e-mailed statement.

“His even-handed generosity — not only as a poet, but as an entrepreneur who saved the Grolier Poetry Book Shop for the community of poets and readers — seemed to proceed from a sure knowledge of who he was, of his nature,” Bidart added.

Cambridge poet Gail Mazur praised Dr. Menkiti’s “generous affection” for writers that was exemplified by buying the Grolier.

“The only profit in it was the joy of keeping the whole enterprise, and poetry itself, alive,” she said in an e-mail. “He was an astonishingly beneficent figure in our midst, paternal and princely, adoring conversation about poems and poets.”

Ifeanyi Anthony Menkiti was born Aug. 24, 1940, in Onitsha, Nigeria, a son of Ozomma Charlie Nnaemeka Menkiti and Nwamgbafo Margaret Olieh.

After secondary school, he worked in an office until his score on an exam earned a scholarship to Pomona College in California. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1964, and won the distinguished senior thesis award for his paper on the poetry of Ezra Pound. “That sparked his interest in poetry,” said his son, Obiora “Bo” Ifensor Menkiti of Washington, D.C.

Subsequently, Dr. Menkiti received a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, a master’s in philosophy from New York University, and a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University, where noted philosopher John Rawls supervised his dissertation.

Dr. Menkiti, who published four poetry collections, met Carol Bowers when both lived in international housing as NYU graduate students. She previously had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria.

They married in 1971, and he began teaching at Wellesley in 1973, retiring as a professor of philosophy in 2014. He had saved his Pomona scholarship stipend, which he used for the down payment on the family’s Somerville home.

“He never splurged. He never needed anything fancy or splashy. Relationships, language, and morals were the currency he dealt with,” said his daughter Ndidi Nnenia Menkiti of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dr. Menkiti washed his clothes by hand. Avoiding computers and e-mail, he kept paper and a pen handy.
“One of the things that have been so wonderful about Ifeanyi is his sense of being a citizen of the world, and at the same time he so loved his own traditions,” Carol said. “He loved the music of Nigeria, he loved the language.”

He added the first name Chinyelugo after receiving a Nze na Ozo title in Nigeria, one of the highest titles the Igbo people of Nigeria can bestow. And yet, his wife added, his Catholic faith also meant much to him. “When he went to Mass here,” she added, “he’d say The Lord’s Prayer in Latin.”

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Dr. Menkiti leaves two other daughters, Nneka Ngozi Ekwife Menkiti of Malden and Enuma Menkiti of Brooklyn; and five grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at noon Saturday in St. Paul Catholic Church in Cambridge, and a celebration of Dr. Menkiti’s life will be announced.

Though Dr. Menkiti’s work ranged from writing to teaching to investing in properties, he secured a significant legacy by purchasing the poetry bookstore on Plympton Street in Harvard Square.

“He was a hero to do that,” said Lloyd Schwartz, a poet and a writing professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “The Grolier is really a landmark for the poetry world in New England and beyond.”

For Dr. Menkiti, the poetry that filled the pages on the Grolier’s shelves could not really be separated from music — from traditions that dated back to his childhood in Nigeria, where “there was a lot of song in the air,” he recalled.

“With poetry, for me, it’s almost as if we live in this song-denominated universe,” Dr. Menkiti told the Globe in 2011. “The music that resides inside the human tribes of the world, and the tears that the nations cry, their joys, it’s as if they’re not able to cry or have their joy unless they encode it in song.”

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Service Details

  • Visitation

    Thursday, June 20th, 2019 | 4:00pm - 7:00pm
    Keefe Funeral Home - Cambridge
    2175 Massachusetts Avenue
    Get Directions: View Map | Text | Email |
    Thursday, June 20th, 2019
    4:00pm - 7:00pm
  • Funeral Mass

    Saturday, June 22nd, 2019 | 12:00pm
    Saint Paul's Church
    Bow and Arrow Street
    Get Directions: View Map | Text | Email |
    Saturday, June 22nd, 2019
  • Interment

    Address Not Available

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Thomas DeFreitas VI

Dr and Mrs Menkiti not only saved Grolier Poetry Bookshop, but transfigured it into a place of warmth and welcome for all who were inclined to drop in to browse its hallowed shelves. It has been such a joy in recent years to go into Grolier and to be greeted quite often by Mrs Menkiti herself! I met Dr Menkiti only twice, perhaps (I know Mrs Menkiti a bit better); but as I heard him eulogized at his funeral Mass, I began to wish that I had known him as others have. I proffer my deepest sympathies to Dr Menkiti's family and loved ones.
Comment | Posted at 06:40am via Condolence

Dr. Azuka Dike

Professor Dr. Ifeanyi Anthony Menkiti,
29 Auburn Street,
Cambridge, Mass 02138

Professor Dr. Ifeanyi Menkiti was a great man. He had a presence you will not forget.
I loved to see him and wanted to be near him. His presence at my 80th birthday was
a re-union, I will always remember.

I understand from his wife, Carol, that he died working at his table and could not be resuscitated in the morning when he was found. That was a pity. He should
have lived longer. May his soul rest in perfect peace.

Azuka , (retired professor, Dr., UNN)
Comment | Posted at 05:58pm via Condolence

Marilyn Melville

Dearest Carol and Family, I,
as well as my children, are extremely saddened to hear of Ifeany’s passing. He was an amazing human being and there are no words to express how much he will be missed. I feel so privileged to have known Ifeany on a professional and personal level. Thoughts and prayers are with you during this extremely difficult time. Love, Marilyn Melville
Comment | Posted at 12:30pm via Condolence

Angela Jones

I will miss Ifeanyi immensely! He was one of the kindest, distinguished, and most beloved parishioners at St. Paul Parish, where the Menkitis have been longtime parishioners. My deepest heartfelt condolences to Carol and the Menkiti family. I can only imagine their grief. May this great man of faith rest in God's eternal peace.
Comment | Posted at 08:31pm via Condolence

Patricia Thatcher

Dear Carol & family, we are so very sorry to hear of Ifeanyi's passing. It is a great loss for you, our neighborhood and the greater community. We are in South Carolina so will be unable to attend the funeral but please know our deepest love and prayers are with you all. Blessings, Pat Thatcher & Simon Volpini
Comment | Posted at 08:20pm via Condolence

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