On September 28th the world said goodbye to one of Wales’ most loved literary sons, Dannie Abse. In a special series of reflections and appreciations, Wales Arts Review pays tribute to the great and much loved poet and novelist, beginning here, with the words of those who knew him both personally and through his work.
Historian and Chair of Arts Council Wales
There will be time enough now to let his poetry, his novels, his plays, his memoirs, his public performances, all seep through our consciousness. There is something deeply valuable, in a contemporary sense, to know already that his distinctive combination of cool rationality about and warm empathy with the fate of others will, later on, echo for those others yet to come after all our present lives have passed. Here, then, I wish to remember the man I encountered as, in his lifetime, he engaged with Wales, and its meaning for him. I do so, rather than pay properly due homage to his writings, because I believe he is that important for our disputed future in Wales. And I say ‘disputed’ not in the sense that we will not have a Welsh future but that its traits are perhaps less clear now than they were for most of his long lifetime. We even cling, adrift on tides of civic uncertainty, to spurious genealogies of genetics rather than attend to the common legacies of hope still available to us from our shared history. How Dannie would have laughed at the latest mockery of cultural sensibility put before us by the Media’s Barnum-and- Bailey circus stunts of biological tomfoolery: DNA as a token of Pura Wallia. How Dannie would have cursed the fouler implications of such simplistic delineation of the being of human inhabitants in any country, including the Wales to which he was so attached.
But which Wales was that? Let’s make no bones about it. His particular Wales was South Wales, urban Wales, secular Wales, cosmopolitan Wales, socialist Wales, the Wales of popular culture and spectator sport, of sardonic jokes and knowing commitment, the Wales into which he was born in 1923, the subsequent Wales which, in every essential sense that matters, he never left behind him. In fact, it was always beckoning him not back but on, on to the fulfilment of its promise. It was this Wales, married in his maturity to a European intellectual culture that was as threatened as it was beguiling, which Dannie valued as his very own, just as its vibrant politics and defiant communities, laid before him early on by his insistent brother Leo, nurtured him as one of their own. Through being a Cardiffian. A Jew. A non-believer. A dreaming Doctor. A practical Poet.
He was a Welshman who, by dint of all these things, was a testimony, in his life as in his work, to the greatness of the particular Wales which made him. That meant, too, no nostalgic romanticism, the sentimental downside of the second-rate mind. Dannie Abse was rooted not in order to wither on someone else’s previous vine but to be able to grow as he chose, and so to change, even in his embrace of Wales. That required, first and foremost, for his generation of poets, sloughing off the otherwise overpowering verse of Dylan Thomas. It was the same for Dannie’s great friend and exact contemporary, John Ormond and, like John, he would, in the majoritarian tongue of modern Wales, go on to celebrate in his poetry the expressed humanity of Dafydd ap Gwilym, and such others who had preceded them in genius and intent, even from that otherwise distant medieval world. No DNA needed for admission at those particular Gates.
It was in John’s company, in the late 1970s, that I first met Dannie. The miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 already whispered of their strictly pyrrhic victories, and the reckoning of 1984 was a pall on the fast-closing horizon to anyone who dared to look beyond the clouds of rhetoric. I remember discussing these things, and the mouse of devolution too, with an ever-alert John and a diffidently-bemused Dannie. When I’d finished my rant, Dannie had asked me if I was ‘a Marxist, then?’ I think I gave a vague, unsatisfactorily academic reply. Vague, because there was to his direct question, as he well knew, no direct answer which could serve as it once had when he was growing up in the 1930s in South Wales. Every time I met this great and exemplary Welshman, thereafter, all down the years, privately and publicly, he taught and I learned.
Not that he was obtrusive about it, again rather unlike the much-loved but exasperating Leo, only that his blend of insight and sympathy, invariably sent out the signals—whether to stop, pause or go—which any ‘Marxist’ might reasonably be expected to recognise, consider and act upon. Few did so as we blundered into the egregious 1980s, and on through the hypocrisies of the 1990s. Well, here we are in the wallowing 2010s and, as Dannie leaves us to go forward on our own, we should pause to ponder, as we choose to stop or go, how the care and respect he gave to the intricate responsibilities innate in our lives is an indispensable signal to the traffic chaos of all human existence wherever it may be located. And not least in Wales.
Poet and former National Poet of Wales
I spent yesterday afternoon at the lakeside house of a poet and teacher in Princeton. The late autumn sun made it feel as if summer hadn’t shifted, but the showers of dry leaves that fell on us from time to time said otherwise. We talked about Dannie Abse, who’d spent a year as a Poet in Residence at Princeton. All the poets there had heard him read. Because he was a man loyal to his roots, we tended to forget that he was a poet of national and international reputation. When we got home, we heard that Dannie’d died. He was the father of us all.
I feel lucky that I’d seen Dannie twice recently. On both occasions he was on great form, enjoying life and making wry comments about being so damned old. Like my aunt, when you met, he’d kiss you full on the mouth, as if you were family. Dannie was also on form poetically. His last book, Speak, Old Parrot was deservedly shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. I’d written to him about a series of Dafydd ap Gwilym poems in the book. Written in Dafydd’s persona, they’re not exact renditions of any of his poems, but they’re the best Dafydd ap Gwilym translations I know. They catch his playful tone exactly, and his seriousness about love.
At base, Dannie was a love poet in the broadest sense. His practice of medicine was love combined with science. Dannie’s mourning diary The Presence records the unbearable love of losing his wife Joan, and an enduring commitment to poetry. He could turn his hand to any genre – the novel, memoir, plays – with apparent ease. Much is made of the neuroticism of the poet these days. Dannie Abse’s life and work show that poetry loves the healthy, that it flows out from a good life lived well. Dannie was great company, and a few of his anecdotes are in my top ten. His poems will grow in stature even as we, his friends and followers, have to learn to live without him.
We’re familiar with the extent of Dannie Abse’s writing, poet, novelist, dramatist, autobiographer, anthologiser and diarist. This in addition to practising as a doctor in London. Yet there was more. Dannie, one of the finest – and surely the most humane – of post-war poets in Britain, was for many years intimately involved with Seren. He was the earliest supporter of Cary Archard in setting up Poetry Wales Press (as it was then) and, with great generosity made the annexe of Green Hollows, his house in Ogmore-by-Sea, its first office. I well remember my first days there, sunlit and with a view to Somerset and Devon across a sparkling Bristol Channel. Though I’d met writers at university (including a gruffly charming Ted Hughes) this would be the first time I would be involved in both a social and a working relationship with one. Any misgivings I may have had were soon forgotten as I got to know Dannie and his art historian wife Joan: they couldn’t have been more welcoming or at ease, qualities which characterised them both.
Wales was at the heart of much that Dannie did. Hospitality extended to book launches too. There was the (in)famous launch of Dannie’s Wales in Verse anthology (published by Penguin), held at Green Hollows and attended by the good and great of poetry in Wales at the time. (In)famous because such a good time was had by all that Dannie and Joan had to gently steer a well-oiled John Tripp to the gate despite his protestations that ‘it’s not over yet’. For John it would be over all too soon.
Poetry Wales Press/Seren grew and the office moved on to Bridgend but Dannie remained on the management board for many years, offering advice, contacts, ideas and books. His Miscellany One – the Press’s very first title, was followed over the years by Intermittent Journals, The View from Row G, Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry, the paperback of There was a Young Man from Cardiff and a collection of poems, Welsh Retrospective. Occasionally we could help out Dannie in return, such as becoming extras at the Pelican pub when the BBC wanted to film him entertaining friends for a piece accompanying the publication of Ask the Bloody Horse. We were happy to, even though the BBC didn’t feel that the licence fee would stretch to a round of drinks.
Seren apart, Dannie was a good friend of several ‘Anglo-Welsh’ poets, among them John Ormond and Leslie Norris, and a staunch supporter of young Welsh poets, from Robert Minhinnick through to Owen Sheers and beyond: where he could help, he would. And Wales itself was an integral part of his identity as a person and a writer. Despite his long residency in London I never thought of him as a metropolitan writer (a European one, yes); but Wales, with its people, its history and, yes, its two languages seem to me central to his writing. Dannie Abse was always an engaged (as well as an engaging) man, engaged with politics, history, writing (especially the act of writing) and with Wales. In the light of recent obituaries of him it seems that we need to remind ourselves of that engagement with Wales.
I met Dannie Abse only once, years ago, when I was one of the poets reading with him on a ‘Welsh Night’ at the Poetry Society.
This fleeting encounter confirmed the sense of a warm, perceptive, immensely likeable human being which I got from the poems of his I’d read. I remember how honoured I felt to be reading in his company. How right I was. And now I don’t know any poetry-lover who doesn’t feel his death to be a personal loss, as I do.
Writer and broadcaster
One of the first tributes to be paid to Dannie Abse after his death came from Owen Sheers who suggested we should remember him by reading him. So, in the week after his passing I did just that, turning the pages of the New and Collected Poems with undiminished, and, indeed, undiminish-able pleasure.
Dannie Abse was an urbane, humane and deeply human poet and a rare and genuine generosity shines through the work, like quiet lamp-light. I only knew Dannie in my capacity as an arts journalist who recorded occasional programmes with him, and about him, but I always recall our meetings with a warm smile. He welcomed you fully into his life, in London as in Ogmore, just as his printed words welcomed you into his mind. One critic in the Observer once commented on this very facility when he said that Abse’s poems are ‘always welcomingly clear.’
This generosity encompasses and embraces the work of fellow poets and it is salutary and striking just how many poems and poets are named by Abse in his own work. There’s a ‘Note to Donald Davie in Tennessee’ and ‘A Sea Shell for Vernon Watkins’. The range of references suggest a bookshelf bowing and straining under the weight of slim volumes, and give glimpses of his learning, his reading and, indeed his sympathies. And, because we’re talking about Dannie Abse, the references are often learned, elegant and contained within beautifully wrought lines of verse.
So who do we have here? There’s Shakespeare, of course: there had to be Shakespeare. And George Herbert and a clutch of Hebrew poets and writers, some in translation or in free-form adaptation. And a poem called ‘After the Release of Ezra Pound’. And a poem, too, which simply finds Dannie ‘Talking to Blake’.
You’d bet your bottom dollar on there being a nod to Dylan Thomas, and it turns out to be more of a half bow, in the form of the ‘Elegy to Dylan Thomas’, which encourages the reader thus:
But far from the blind country of prose,
wherever his burst voice goes about you or through you,
look up in surprise, in a hurt public house
or in a rain-blown street, and see how
no fat ghost but a quotation cries.
A bit of a cryptogram, true, like so many of Dylan Thomas’ poems, yet Abse’s elegy ends with the unequivocal phrase ‘now he is dead.’ Over the English border there were those who probably didn’t mourn his passing quite so much. In the poem ‘Enter The Movement’ Abse critiques the response to Dylan’s prolixity and gusto in the work of such 50s poets as the more conservative and less showy Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and Kingsley Amis. They are, Abse avers, ‘Proudly English, they sing with sharp, flat voices/but no-one dances, nobody rejoices.’ This was The Movement, after all, that trained its guns explicitly on Dylan’s memory, with the introduction to the 1956 anthology New Lines railing against his excess.
Dannie Abse wrote ‘A Note to William Carlos Williams in Heaven’ in short, pithy stanzas, more in homage than in parody and suggests that they may be writing on the self-same paper which
must have floated
His beloved Rilke is in evidence, too, with a variation on his ‘Das Karussell’ as well as epigraphs taken from him, just as there are some from the work of Robert Browning, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. Knowingly, Abse’s poem called ‘A Translation from the Martian’ is dedicated to Craig Raine, progenitor of that Martian way of looking at the world, while other poems are dedicated to the likes of Peter Porter and X.
‘Pathetic Fallacies’ expands on a line by W. H. Auden in which Wystan states that ‘My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely’ by creating four little shards of poetry – the vain ‘Afternoon Mirror’, the ‘Evening Mirror’ which is lonely and desires another mirror to reflect itself back, the ‘Night-time Mirror’ with its ghost, the window and the ‘Morning Mirror’ which is like a Portrait Gallery as visiting hours commence. Thus Abse, in these various mirrors, views the world and the poet at various stages of the day, or of life.
I’d forgotten how Dannie Abse had also studiously read his way through so much Welsh literature, in translation, so that there are poems which reference poets from a bygone age, such as Meurig Dafydd and Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd, who ‘Sunday, skilled in zealous verse I praise the Lord./Monday, I sing in bed to my busty Nest.’
Abse belongs to all of these poets – to all those variously name-checked or praised in his own verse – to Mayakovsky, Goethe, Gillian Clarke – for he belonged, deeply, to a greater humanity.
Yes, he wrote in the shadow of Nazi atrocity, and the Holocaust visited on millions of his fellow Jews.
But while he sometimes wielded his words with all the sharpness and dexterity of a medical scalpel, he also used them to extend compassion, understanding and some kind of forgiveness.
A true doctor, then, he cut under the skin and fully repaired the wounds. Knowing that with pain comes some kind of epiphany. A full and uncompromised understanding of things. Of life. Of the sometimes joy of it all.
On January 12th 2014, I sat in the half darkness of the Royal Festival Hall listening to the blood in my skull. My leg was doing the kind of disco judder it usually does on a gritstone climb in Derbyshire, high above the ground. I was about to share a stage with Dannie Abse at the T.S. Eliot awards, a prize we had both been shortlisted for. He was the oldest poet on the shortlist, I the youngest. It was the highest honour. I was rooted to the spot.
The task wasn’t just daunting because Dannie brought the house down with his reading from Speak, Old Parrot, but because his poetry had a special significance to me – Way Out in the Centre was one of the first collections that I read when I was discovering poetry for myself as a student, around the time I published my first pamphlet. I was reading alongside a poet whose influence on me was huge and, like all important influences, strangely difficult to articulate.
I don’t remember how I first discovered Dannie’s work. It’s as if the poems themselves have been scrawled across the memory. My boyfriend at the time was studying to be a doctor, and we’d read the poems to each other, talking animatedly about how immediate they seemed, how they so often captured that feeling a lot of people have at university of being between things, inhabiting more than one world at once. We’d admire the way they seemed to search and never settle, how they were no less decisive for that. The poem that really summed it up and became a motif for both of us was ‘Song for Pythagorus’ with its opposition of ‘white coat’ and ‘purple coat’:
White coat and purple coat
a sleeve from both he sews.
That white is always stained with blood,
that purple by the rose…
This notion of two worlds that ‘few can reconcile’ sang to me, and has kept singing since. Many years later, I came back to it when I started studying for a PhD at The University of Sheffield. I was interested in comparisons and areas of overlap between the ‘white coat’ of neuroscience and the ‘purple coat’ of contemporary poetry. I read avidly. I was fascinated by links between the kind of questions that preoccupy neuroscientists (how do we process metaphors? What does ‘consciousness’ really mean?) and the ideas poets try and put into words, differently. As I found these connections, I couldn’t help thinking that Dannie Abse had put it more elegantly in a single poem. ‘White coat and purple coat / can each be worn in turn.’ A poet can always say it better, whatever it is. Dannie Abse said it better than most. I feel privileged to have met him.
Poet and novelist
It was hearing Dannie Abse read his poem ‘In the Theatre’ that made me want to write, and want to try to write poetry. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old, in the back seat of my parents’ car. They were playing a tape of Anglo-Welsh poets. I don’t remember what poem came before or after, but I do still clearly remember hearing ‘In the Theatre’. By the last line I was hooked. I had been in the presence of a poem, a real poem, its brief existence on the air having altered my mood, my thinking and my feeling. It was a poem which fulfilled what Dannie himself always asked of a poem – ‘to enter it sober, and leave it drunk.’
In the years that followed I was fortunate enough to get to know a lot more of Dannie’s poetry, and his other writing. And I was even more lucky to eventually get to know him as a man as well. Although to be honest, in recent years, the two became increasingly indistinguishable. Did the man form the poetry, or the poetry the man? Both were imbued with the same vitalising cocktail of generosity, curiosity, humour, a ludic love of language and a sharp, often disturbing, intelligence. As both a poet and a man he was an example. Someone to aspire towards. A man and a writer possessed of that rare ability to make a person or a reader feel ‘at home’ in his company, be it on the page or across a table.
In all the forms and genres in which he wrote Dannie was a story teller, and that too is something that didn’t fade at his study door. He loved anecdotes, the telling small moment, gossip even. He loved the way things could add up, or balance, in the accidental movements of our lives.
On one of the last times I saw him, only a couple of months before his death, he told me such a story, about when he’d first come to London as a young man. He’d found himself wandering on Hampstead Heath, eventually coming to a pause at one of the ponds beside South End Green. For some reason he was carrying a stick, and as he stood on the bank, an evening light touching the tops of the trees, he signed his name in the water. Then he carried on walking, only to come, moments later, upon Keats House. Immediately, his actions beside the pond made sense to him. Here was the house of Keats, whose gravestone reads ‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water.’ Dannie saw this as a sign and ever since, whenever a poet visited him in London, he would take them to that same pond and ask them to sign their name across its dark surface. ‘Haven’t I ever taken you?’ he asked me when he’d finished this story. No, I said, he hadn’t. ‘Well you must do it,’ Dannie ordered. ‘Tonight, it’s the one just up the street.’
But of course, I didn’t. The night got late. There was an early start the next day. And so I went to bed not having followed Dannie’s instructions. Now, when I do, I will do so in memory of Dannie, a poet whose name is very much not writ in water. A brilliant and generous poet who never let his successes alienate him from younger or lesser writers. A funny, life-loving man, whose voice remains with us in his poems, even if he himself, after all his prolific years, is now finally in silence.
Poet, author and former Chief Executive of Academi
At this distance trying to recall my first encounter with the work of Dannie Abse is a difficult exercise. I found him, I think, by accident. In my early days I’d become enamoured with the work of the Beats. They were out there in America bopping their freeform verses while Al Cohn, Zoot Simms doodled, rasped and ripped their saxophones behind them. At the time this was revolutionary stuff. In an anthology of Jazz Poems I picked up somewhere in Cardiff, from Lears all-embracing bookstore on St Mary Street, no doubt, I found what I imagined to be the British equivalent. Dannie Abse’s A Woman To A Man – ‘To pure being you devote / all your days. You are your eyes, / seemingly near but remote.’ While I was rifling the record racks at City Radio Abse turned up again on an Argo label album of jazz and poetry with the Michael Garrick Quintet and fellow jazzers Adrian Mitchell, and Jeremy Robson. This was 1964 and this was it.
Imagine my surprise a few years later to find Dannie Abse launching his latest book, A Small Desperation, at that same branch of Lears. God, Abse was here, Abse was Welsh, and he came from Cardiff. His audience that night was large. He made them laugh, he thrilled them. Smiling that famous Abse smile, he sold dozens of books. I introduced myself, told him about my magazine second aeon, asked him for a new poem as a contribution. This he willingly supplied. ‘These readings are half poetry and half a social event,’ he told me. ‘Don’t go away now, stay and enjoy yourself. Have some wine.’ I did.
We became friends and down the years since our paths have crossed and intermingled on countless occasions. Dannie, poet, raconteur, novelist, dramatist, keeper of journals, autobiographer. I bought the Argo album and discovered that his contributions were read straight and the band only began to play after he’d finished. ‘I was a sort of scene setter,’ he told me. Pushing boundaries was not what he did.
Instead he created a body of work that was simultaneously erudite and accessible, appealed to all ages and managed that trick desired by so many Welsh poets – it sold in London. If he was anything then Dannie was the consummate literary businessman. In my days as a bookseller it would be Dannie who turned up to check that his books were all in stock. He never trusted the reps. ‘You do it better yourself,’ he said. He edited bestselling anthologies for international publishers and supervised Corgi paperbacks’ alternative to the ground breaking Penguin Modern Poets.
His autobiographical fiction Ash On A Young Man’s Sleeve was set in South Wales. It beats Salinger as a work of coming of age. His There Was A Young Man From Cardiff and Poet In The Family offer some of the best descriptions of the poetry business and of the city of Cardiff there are. Having read in them of the hut in Waterloo Gardens where as a child he carved his name, we returned, me now living nearby and him residing in London. We couldn’t find it. The hut had been pulled down.
I’ll miss him. He’s been a core feature of our literature for more than fifty years. Dannie Abse, CBE, poet and world face for Welsh literature in English, rest in peace.
Poet and Novelist
Dannie has been part of the Welsh writing scene as long as I have known it; it is very hard to think of it without him. He would always go out of his way to help a colleague; I recall when I was writing a novel about an historical character and trying to understand some details of a post mortem report. I asked Dannie because he was the only poet I knew with any medical knowledge, and he was able to tell me what the woman had been suffering from and how it would have affected her. He was not only a fine reader of his own work, but a humorous and sparky presenter of it; he had a fund of good stories and jokes to enliven readings, almost all at his own expense. He had a very self-deprecating way, which was endearing, though I wonder if his modesty has led to his talent being less appreciated than it ought. Some of his poems – ‘Ya’, ‘In the Theatre’, ‘Talking To Myself’, for example – seem to me to be as powerful as anything written in a generation. He’ll be greatly missed, both as a poet, and as a contributor to literature in other ways – he was judging the Forward Prizes, a task many a younger man might have found onerous, at the time of his death – and as a gentleman.
Dannie and Joan Abse came to Hitchin to perform at the Literature Festival I was organising back in the eighties. He was his handsome boyish self even then and Joan was still a very handsome woman. They were to do a double act they had done before, Dannie reading poems and Joan showing pictures of art works about which she would talk. It was a slightly old fashioned idea, the equivalent of a magic lantern show, but it held together with great conviction and charm. After the show they got back into the car with the apparatus they had brought with them and drove home to London.
He was of course a famous man and had been for a long time. I knew a number of his poems such as ‘Letter to Alex Comfort’, ‘Elegy for Dylan Thomas’, ‘Poem of Celebration’, ‘The Game’ (one of the very few good poems about football!), ‘As I was saying’, ‘Pathology of Colours’ (the poem where he is shocked by the colours associated with sickness and death), the eight lines of ‘The Sheds’ and probably, most clearly, ‘Even’ where he watches first his fellow Jews heading for the synagogue and, the next day, a Christian congregation on its way to church, thinking of both ‘I don’t like them, I don’t like them / and guilty fret – just thinking that’ while wondering ‘could it be I am another tormented anti-Semite Jew?’
I think of these now leafing through his Collected Poems 1948-1976 which was probably the book I had back then. Nothing revolutionary in it, nor indeed in the New and Collected Poems of 2003, but instead an intelligence and a kind of stillness or perhaps steadfastness. There was also the sense of Welshness, Welshness rather more than Jewishness perhaps, that was never shouted nor proclaimed, but clearly important, especially at a time when the young poet first emerged. It was the heyday of Welsh poetry, the last years of Dylan Thomas and the great swell of Richard Burton’s ebullience. The heyday was not to last long nor did he really belong to it. In fact he didn’t really belong to anything, not to The Group, nor to the Movement. There was nothing of the manifesto about his work, just a naked, considerate individual intelligence reporting on all it saw that moved or troubled him.
We bumped into each other a few times, most often recently at public events. Each time he was smiling and joking, because he was after all not only a witty man – did I say he was witty? – but a courteous, kind and lovable man. He was certainly conscious of his end: Speak Parrot, his last book, is evidence of that.
His poems are valuable not only because they are well-made and honest but because his voice extends beyond the bounds of literary fashion or theory. He was not only a poet’s poet but a genuinely popular people’s poet. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, his partly autobiographical novel of 1954, lies at the heart of his best work. It is a classic and the source of all he did later. Like all classics it will survive along with its best products.
Poet and Author
When I was young the boys in school all adored Ryan Giggs. He was for them greater than any film star. The girls always made him number one in their top ten lists of cute boys. He was both hero and pin-up. I couldn’t understand it, until, later years, I discovered Dannie Abse. To an aspiring Cardiff poet he was very much a rock star.
I had to wait several years for life to give me the opportunity to get his autograph. Back before Chapter Arts Centre had been remoulded into an airport waiting room, and the garden destroyed, Dannie Abse was known to take lunch near the trees by the back fence on match days. I found him there one afternoon, sat with a bunch of mates, telling tales over a pint and plates of sandwiches. I didn’t want to disturb him but neither did I want to let the opportunity pass. Another problem was that I had nothing for him to sign except a postcard with a naked lady on, shaped like a chair; I had been to the Tate Modern the day before and my then girlfriend had bought me the card as a joke. It was about 45 minutes before Dannie got up to refresh his pint and I managed to accost him. Only, being star struck I turned mute, handed him the card and shook like a madman. ‘It’s not an I.O.U?’ he asked. I shook my head. Thankfully he never turned the card over.
Three years later and I was at the Hay Festival, for the first time ever, publishing my first ever poem. Dannie was there too. By this time I had amassed quite a collection of signed Abse books. They weren’t hard to find. Once, in the old Cardiff bookstore in the David Morgan Arcade I found a 1st Ed 1970 Selected Poems signed ‘to a fellow Cardiffian’. I think Dannie even wrote about buying a signed first edition of Way Out in the Centre, because his copy was a bit worn, only to be told by the shopkeeper that he wouldn’t charge him more because ‘Abse signed easily’.
Even though I had so many signed books, sat next to Dannie at the Hay Festival, I simply had to get another, this time in my very own notebook. He didn’t mind. He was busy building himself up for his own reading. After the reading he came back to the green room and asked, quite sincerely: ‘was I any good?’ He was a man of such humility that even after a lifetime of literary successes he was still unsure of himself. For an amateur like me it was reassuring.
Two years later when I was lucky enough to release several poems in a Parthian anthology, I wrote letters to all of my literary heroes to see if someone would give me a blurb. Dannie was the only one to reply. I keep the letter he wrote me as a bookmark, inside my recently signed copy of Speak, Old Parrot, one of the very last autographs he gave. For there will be no more autographs in future. The special game of signature treasure hunt, which Dannie unknowingly played with me, has finally come to an end. For a while, I will probably still find some lurking on dark shelves of obscure shops, but now I know for sure that a day will come when I won’t find any; shops will simply be dark and obscure. With the release of Dannie’s final book of poems next year, my collection will always be only one signature short, which may not seem like much; but what a hole it will leave; what a void there is already.
Poet and Lecturer
Late at night, on a screen, the news, a pang.
A year ago almost to the day he was
the last and wittiest and alas the briefest
speaker after his own birthday dinner,
and that was the last time I set eyes on him.
There were many of us and where I was sitting
I couldn’t say hello or shake his hand,
but when he rose to thank his well-wishers
and he looked speakingly at me, I knew
he recognised me and knew all about me
and would, as I would, have wanted to have
the conversation we had barely started.
I hoped till Sunday night we still might have it,
perhaps in the favourite London café
he wrote about in his most recent books,
or Ogmore where he lived and I take children
and friends to bathe or walk by the water.
This morning I retrieve from a high shelf
double-stacked behind more recent volumes
the old New and Collected and start reading,
moving between the younger and the older.
I underline a word I’ll have to google.
Yes, that’s one of his hall-marks, and the wit.
The doctor’s and the Jew’s unflinching look
into the darkness of the soul and body,
the defiant playfulness and ego,
no bones made about desire or anger,
and the spade of history and holocaust
called an unvarnished spade, though artfully.
Above all how full of energy, how full
of him his printed words are now he’s stilled.
It’s as if at the moment of passing
the poet’s life migrates into his poems.
As he was leaving the restaurant I touched him
to hand him with a few sheepish words
a birthday card that we had written for him.
He turned with his overcoat half on
and took it with no words but such another
speaking look as beats most eloquence.
I feel his eyes on me, reading his poems.
Editor, BIMAH magazine ‘The Platform of Welsh Jewry’
Born Welsh – his grandparents arrived in Wales in 1870 – and having himself lived for many years at Ogmore-on-Sea, Dannie Abse was also proud of his Jewish background. The youngest of the four children born to Rudolf and Kate Abse, he grew up in Cardiff, his mother being able to speak Yiddish as well as Welsh and English. It was whilst he was still in the sixth form at school that he began writing poetry. In May last year, timed to coincide with his 90th birthday, he produced a new poetry collection, Speak, Old Parrot. With an autobiographical heart, the contents of the book, which was short listed for the prestigious T.S. Elliot prize, centre around meditations on love, medicine, the passing of time and the Jewish folk tradition.
Despite his pride in his Jewishness, it was something he struggled with at times in his youth. At times he could be ultra-sensitive about his Jewish background – as when, after a brief time at Cardiff University, when he was studying medicine at King’s College, London, his skill at sport resulted in him being chosen for the First Eleven and he ruminated wryly that he might not have been chosen had they realised he was Jewish. A writer of prose as well as poetry, his life during that period is documented in two of his novels, both autobiographical – Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve (1954) and O, Jones, O Jones, published in 1970.
Training for his early career as a doctor included, inevitably, the dissection of corpses; his musing on the subject surfaced in poems relating to Auschwitz.
‘..Auschwitz made me
More of a Jew than Moses did.’
(‘White Balloon’ published in Two for Joy, Hutchinson, 2010)
Abse wrote this after, as a medical student, he was omitted from the group sent out to the by then abandoned concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen towards the end of World War II. Much later, in Welsh Retrospective, (Seren, 1997), in ‘In Llandough Hospital’, written as his father lay dying, he wrote:
‘Now, since death makes victims of us all,
He’s thin as Auschwitz in that bed.’
Although in later years he spent much of his time in London, Dannie’s love of Wales never left him. He came to Cardiff frequently, to lecture at the university, when his presence commanded a packed auditorium and a multi-faceted audience, and for readings at launches of one of his many published anthologies. At one of the latter I was privileged to meet him and enjoy his astute comments and wry sense of humour.
Hardly surprisingly, for a poet of his advanced years, the poems in Speak, Old Parrot tend to dwell on the realities of old age – when ‘all pavements slope uphill.’ Dannie’s brother Leo is elegised, as are the poet’s father and his beloved wife Joan, the subject of much of his poetry and to whom he was devoted, who died nine years ago. He recalls her in one of the loveliest of the elegies, ‘Sunbright’:
..I swear I almost need to wear
(muses help me, cross my heart)
Each time I think of you.
It is the poignancy of this, and so much of his work, both poetry and prose, together with Abse’s wry sense of humour, which makes his poetry memorable.
clare e. potter
Last Sunday I was driving home listening to Poetry Please and someone requested a Dannie Abse poem. I was thrilled to hear ‘A New Diary’ and it prompted me to begin mentally penning the letter I was going to send him with a copy of his Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve. I would ask Dannie to sign it for my father, I would apologise that, shamefully, only this year had I discovered his poetry, that I was currently reading Two for Joy, that I’ve wept and laughed and wept through each poem. And then I began to imagine sitting with this writer I have come to admire, without my tongue going limp.
What a conversation we had.
That evening, when I settled in to read, I had a text from my father saying that Dannie Abse had died. And it felt like the words were uncertain; my instinctive response was, ‘but I’ve just been with him, having tea in his garden, enjoying his poetry, learning from this man who was brilliant and generous and True.’ I only wish this were the case. But I am an impostor. All I have to tie me to Dannie Abse is profound respect.
I want to write something simple
that everyone can understand
something simple as pure water
(from ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’)
He achieved this simplicity, purity of language, emotion pared down and delivered with a lack of pretence.
Thank you Dannie for your words and your care and service to others. Your presence is felt.
original illustration by Dean Lewis