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Abse, Dannie

ABSE, Dannie


Nationality: British. Born: Cardiff, Glamorgan, 22 September 1923. Education: Marlborough Road Elementary School, Cardiff; St. Illtyd's College, Cardiff; University of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Cardiff; King's College, London; Westminster Hospital, London; qualified as physician 1950, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P. Military Service: Royal Air Force, 1951–54: squadron leader. Family: Married Joan Mercer in 1951; one son and two daughters. Career: Specialist in charge of the chest clinic, Central London Medical Establishment, 1954–82. Senior Fellow in Humanities, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1973–74. Editor, Poetry and Poverty magazine, London, 1949–54. President, Poetry Society, 1979–92. Awards: Foyle award, 1960; Welsh Arts Council award, 1971, 1987, for play, 1980; Cholmondeley award, 1985. D.Litt.: University of Wales, Cardiff, 1989. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. Fellow, Welsh Academy, 1991. Agent: Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF. Address: 85 Hodford Road, London N.W.11, England; or, Green Hollows, Craig-yr-Eos Road, Ogmoreby-Sea, Glamorgan, South Wales.

Publications

Poetry

After Every Green Thing. London, Hutchinson, 1948.

Walking under Water. London, Hutchinson, 1952.

Tenants of the House: Poems 1951–1956. London, Hutchinson, 1957; New York, Criterion, 1959.

Poems, Golders Green. London, Hutchinson, 1962.

Dannie Abse: A Selection. London, Studio Vista, 1963.

A Small Desperation. London, Hutchinson, 1968.

Demo. Frensham, Surrey, Sceptre Press, 1969.

Selected Poems. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Funland: A Poem in Nine Parts. London, Portland University Library, 1971.

Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 4, with others, edited by Jeremy Robson. London, Corgi, 1972.

Funland and Other Poems. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1973.

Lunchtime. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1974.

Penguin Modern Poets 26, with D.J. Enright and Michael Longley. London, Penguin, 1975.

Collected Poems 1948–1976. London, Hutchinson, and Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Way Out in the Centre. London, Hutchinson, 1981; as One-Legged on Ice, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Ask the Bloody Horse. London, Hutchinson, 1986; as Sky in Narrow Streets, in Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series (Princeton, New Jersey), 28, 1987.

White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1948–1988. London, Hutchinson, 1989; New York, Persea, 1990.

Remembrance of Crimes Past. London, Hutchinson, 1990; New York, Persea, 1993.

On the Evening Road. London, Hutchinson, 1994.

Selected Poems. London, Penguin, 1994.

Welsh Retrospective. Bridgend, Wales, Seren, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1997.

Arcadia, One Mile. London, Hutchinson, 1998.

Be Seated, Thou: Poems. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York, Sheep Meadow Press, 1999.

Recordings: Poets of Wales, Argo, 1972; The Poetry of Dannie Abse, McGraw Hill, n.d.; Dannie Abse, Canto, 1984.

Plays

Fire in Heaven (produced London, 1948). London, Hutchinson, 1956; revised version, as Is the House Shut? (produced London, 1964); revised version, as In the Cage, in Three Questor Plays, 1967.

Hands around the Wall (produced London, 1950).

House of Cowards (produced London, 1960). Included in Three Questor Plays, 1967; in Twelve Great Plays, edited by Leonard F. Dean, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1970.

The Eccentric (produced London, 1961). London, Evans, 1961.

Gone (produced London, 1962). Included in Three Questor Plays, 1967; revised version, as Gone in January (produced Edinburgh, 1977; London, 1978), in Madog (Pontypridd, Glamorgan), 1981.

The Courting of Essie Glass (as The Joker, produced London, 1962; revised version, as The Courting of Essie Glass, broadcast 1975). Included in Miscellany One, 1981.

Three Questor Plays. Lowestoft, Suffolk, Scorpion Press, 1967.

The Dogs of Pavlov (produced London, 1969; New York, 1974). London, Vallentine Mitchell, 1973.

Funland (produced London, 1975).

Pythagoras (produced Birmingham, 1976; London, 1980). London, Hutchinson, 1979.

The View from Row C (includes House of Cowards, The Dogs of Pavlov, and Pythagoras Smith). Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren, 1990.

Radio Plays: Conform or Die, 1957; No Telegrams, No Thunder, 1962; You Can't Say Hello to Anybody, 1964; A Small Explosion, 1964; The Courting of Essie Glass, 1975.

Novels

Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve. London, Hutchinson, 1954; New York, Criterion, 1955.

Some Corner of an English Field. London, Hutchinson, 1956; New York, Criterion, 1957.

O. Jones, O. Jones. London, Hutchinson, 1970.

There Was a Young Man from Cardiff. London, Hutchinson, 1991.

Other

Medicine on Trial. London, Aldus, 1968; New York, Crown, 1969.

A Poet in the Family (autobiography). London, Hutchinson, 1974.

Miscellany One. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1981.

A Strong Dose of Myself (essays). London, Hutchinson, 1983.

Under the Influence Of (lecture). Cardiff, University College of Wales, 1984(?).

Journals from the Ant Heap. London, Hutchinson, 1986.

Intermittent Journals. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Seren, 1994.

Editor, with Elizabeth Jennings and Stephen Spender, New Poems 1956. London, Joseph, 1956.

Editor, with Howard Sergeant, Mavericks. London, Editions Poetry and Poverty, 1957.

Editor, European Verse. London, Studio Vista, 1964.

Editor, Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 1, 3, 5. London, Corgi, 1971–73.

Editor, Thirteen Poets. London, Poetry Book Society, 1973.

Editor, Poetry Dimension 2–5: The Best of the Poetry Year. London, Robson, 1974–78; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1976–79; The Best of the Poetry Year 6–7, Robson, and Totowa, New Jersey, Rowman and Littlefield, 1979–80.

Editor, Poetry Supplement, Christmas 1975. London, Poetry Book Society, 1975.

Editor, My Medical School. London, Robson, 1978.

Editor, Wales in Verse. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.

Editor, Doctors and Patients. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Editor, with Joan Abse, Voices in the Gallery. London, Tate Gallery Publications, 1986.

Editor, with Joan Abse, The Music Lover's Literary Companion. London, Robson, 1988.

Editor, The Hutchinson Book of Post-War British Poetry. London, Hutchinson, 1989.

Editor, with Sandra Anstey, Listening to Voices from Wales: Short Stories. Treforest, National Language Unit of Wales, 1992.

Editor, with Anne Stevenson, The Gregory Anthology, 1991–1993. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.

Editor, Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry. Bridgend, Wales, Seren, 1997.

*

Manuscript Collection: National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Dyfed.

Critical Studies: Interviews in Jewish Quarterly (London), winter 1962–63, Flame (Wivenhoe, Essex), March 1967, Anglo-Welsh Review (Tenby), spring 1975, The Guardian (London), 31 January 1978, Good Housekeeping (London), May 1981, The Times (London), 28 February 1983, and Sunday Times Magazine (London), 22 May 1983; by Jeremy Robson, in Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 4, 1972; "Poet on Poet" by Fleur Adcock, in Ambit 70 (London), 1977; "The Poetry of Dannie Abse" by Howard Sergeant, in Books and Bookmen (London), July 1977; by John Pikoulis and John Tripp, in Poetry Wales (Bridgend), October 1977; by David Punter, in Straight Lines 2 (Norwich), 1979; by Renée Winegarten, in Jewish Chronicle Literary Supplement (London), 24 December 1982; The Poetry of Dannie Abse: Critical Essays and Reminiscences with contributions by Alan Brownjohn, Vernon Scannell, M.L. Rosenthal, Peter Porter, D.J. Enright, Barbara Hardy, and others, edited by Joseph Cohen, London, Robson, 1983; "Science Poetry: Approaches to Redgrove, Abse, and Ammons" by J.P. Ward, in Poesis (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania), fall 1984; "Doctor and Magus in the Work of Dannie Abse" by Daniel Hoffman, in Literature and Medicine (Albany, New York), 3, 1984; Dannie Abse by Tony Curtis, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1985; by William Oxley, in The Inner Tapestry (Salzburg, Austria), 1985; by James A. Davies, in New Welsh Review (Lampeter), 6, 1989; by Katherine Soniat, in Spirit (South Orange, New Jersey), springsummer 1989; by J.P. Ward, David Wright, and Richard Poole in Poetry Wales (Bridgend), 29(2), 1993; by John Cotton in The New Reporter (London), June 1994; by Katie Eramich in Poetry Wales (Bridgend), 30(2), 1994.

*  *  *

Dannie Abse is a popular poet without being exactly populist, which is unusual among British poets. Although he has suffered, as have many popular poets since World War I, from critical neglect on account of such popularity, there is an increasing realization that genuine poets can be both popular and serious. In part, Abse's popularity derives from the fact that he is a doctor of medicine and that there is a worldwide interest in anything to do with health. He is also an accessible poet, however, and although he is an avowed believer, like Yeats, in difficulty ("I am committed to the idea of difficulty in writing poetry"), his poems are limpid. As he put it in the introductory note to his 1977 Collected Poems, "… my ambition has been to write poems which appear translucent but are in fact deceptions." This may be interpreted as the wish to write of complex matters in the simplest and clearest way, as he does.

The reader of his work senses that Abse believes that the best poem, or at least the most appropriate type of poem, is one rooted in the immediate, the visible and day-to-day world. He has written many such poems. Even his "Funland" sequence, for all its surrealism and accent on lunacy, is very much a poem of "the real world." Almost despite his overt intentions, however, the importance of his poems lies not in their concrete descriptive powers or in the moods they evoke but in their ideas, the insights they contain. I do not say that Abse is a highly metaphysical poet, but he is the author of much that can be described as a poetry of ideas. It is a poetry of a quietly enormous range of concern that is informed by fine turns of phrase in flashes, though never using flashy turns of phrase for their own sake.

The persona that Abse projects in his work is an extremely "doubtful" one in the best sense of that term. It is full of doubt and is even self-contradictory, for he is a sincere poet. Abse is self-consciously ambiguous for the sake of truth. This is quite clear from the many-sided poem of alternating currents—by turns negative and positive—called "Poem of Celebration":

   I lean against the air.
   It gives way like unstitched water. I fall in
   but am drowned in air. Now distinctly
   every image reflects the invisible world.
 
 
   The noise divides from light.
   Bold astronomers who at night
   peep through the window-pane of the colossal skies
   look too far for the farthest star.
   This world confirms my senses.
 
 
   Swaying and drunk with seeing
   the near magnificence of things,
   I cry out a doxology with surprise
   of a shout, creating maximum silence.

One should note the contradictions and oppositions: "every image reflects the invisible world," "noise divides from light," "a shout, creating maximum silence." Added to this is affirmation that is contradiction piled atop contradiction—"This world confirms my senses"—though he has just demonstrated the insubstantiality of that world. What one has is a poet vitally alive to the mystery of the world and of himself.

This poem, with its urgent questioning of reality, derives from the 1950s. A decade later came "Mysteries," one of Abse's most celebrated poems. The theme is more or less the same, except that the self is increasingly part of his scrutiny as well:

   At night, I do not know who I am
   when I dream, when I am sleeping.
 
 
   …I should know by now that few octaves can be heard,
   that a vision dies from being too long stared at;
 
 
   …that a magnesium flash cannot illumine,
   for one single moment the invisible.
 
 
   I do not complain. I start with the visible
   and am startled by the visible.

Although Abse starts with "the visible," he is obsessed with "the invisible," an obsession that is fueled by his increasing awareness of his Jewish background. Many of his later poems are influenced by his reading of Judaic literature, which has brought him up against the core of Judaism, which is religious awareness. As a result, Abse's poetry has increasingly sprung from the conflict between his secular beliefs and experience and the deep well of religiosity that lies beneath the surface of Jewish consciousness, the race that Orde Wingate said "invented God."

The pragmatic and empirical side of the secular Abse means, as an interviewer has said, that he "lacks dogmatism" and "confronts experience one step at a time." Other critics have emphasized the sense of his humanity and compassion, which especially show up in his medical poems, though not only there. On birth, Abse is sensitive and beautiful ("The Smile Was" and "The Stethoscope"); on love, tight-lipped but tender and, at times, even tragic ("Portrait of a Marriage" and "The Silence of Tudor Evans") and, once, truly celebratory (in the early poem "Epithalamion"); on death, exact, realistic, and movingly existential ("Pathology of Colours," "Carnal Knowledge," "Millie's Date," "Last Words," and many more). His sense of humanity springs from the anguish of an honest observer of life who, by turns, feels powerlessness and fear in the face of the fact of mortality. There also is a degree of dismay at the way society is organized, but even though Abse comes from a highly political background, his poetry is rarely political as such. Whereas the politician craves ideological solutions, the poet, at least in Abse's case, merely feels compassion and a sense of injustice.

Although I emphasize the more serious aspects of Abse's genius, other critics naturally attend to quite other features of his poetry. He is a gifted anecdotalist, and not a few of his poems are built around this side of his talent. He can take small incidents from life or short tales from Jewish or Greek myth and build them into a quasi narrative in a contemporary setting. He does this, for example, in "A Small Farmhouse near Brno," "Of Rabbi Yose," and "The Victim of Aulis." Even when the setting is not contemporary, the language and tone always are.

This brings one to the great technical virtue of Abse's poems. He is a Welshman by birth, and the craft of his poems springs perhaps as much as anything from that unique awareness of the possibilities of verbal interplay so highly developed in the englyn form of the Welsh language. It surprises me, as I have suggested earlier, that Abse is not considered more of a poet's poet, for he has much to teach his fellow poets. Not least are his ability for the judicious disposition of surprising words and the suggestive phrase. His greatest strength, however, is talent for the discreet organization of sentence into statement and image. Such an effective balance is created that, contrary to Hopkins's advice, we should "admire and (try to) do likewise"—at least, those of us who are his fellow poets. As Peter Porter has put it, "Abse knows just how far to push the insight, how to underlay the fantasy with reality." That he can so effectively achieve this—no matter how varied and wide-ranging his subject matter—is entirely due to his exquisite tact and care in handling words.

Abse's poetry has, as I have suggested, always been known for its humanity and its realism; never exactly despairing, it has been skeptic driven. I have also pointed to its frequent metaphysical undertone, as well as to its Judaic-biblical background. This latter receives masterly treatment in a fine long poem that concludes the volume entitled Arcadia, One Mile. The poem, "Events Leading to the Conception of Solomon, the Wise Child," shows a great gift for the extended narrative, which hitherto has not been employed much in his poetry. Likewise, the volume opens with a fine lyric that mixes tenderness with a quietly passionate music of the sort we have not seen since his much-praised "Epithalamion." All of this confirms that the poet's skillful and varied talent remains undimmed even into old age.

—William Oxley

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