Ifeanyi Menkiti, Wellesley professor who rescued the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, dies at 78
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.
“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.”