Abse, Dannie 1923-
* Indicates that a listing has been compiled from secondary sources believed to be reliable, but has not been personally verified for this edition by the author sketched.
ABSE, Dannie 1923-
PERSONAL: Born September 22, 1923, in Cardiff, Wales; son of Rudy (a cinema owner) and Kate (Shepherd) Abse; married Joan Mercer (an art historian), August 4, 1951; children: Keren, Susanna, David. Ethnicity: "Welsh." Education: Studied at University of Wales, 1941-42, King's College, London, and Westminster Hospital; Royal College of Surgeons, M.R.C.S., 1949; Royal College of Physicians, L.R.C.P., 1950. Religion: "Secular-Jewish." Hobbies and other interests: Chess.
ADDRESSES: Home—85 Hodford Rd., London NW11 8NH, England; and Green Hollows, Craig-yr-Eos Rd., Ogmore-by-Sea, Glamorgan, Wales. Agent—Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England.
CAREER: Physician, playwright, novelist, and poet. Poetry and Poverty magazine, London, England, editor, 1949-54; Central Medical Establishment (chest clinic), London, part-time physician, 1955-89; freelance writer. Writer-in-residence, Princeton University, 1973-74. Military service: Royal Air Force, 1951-55; became squadron leader.
MEMBER: Poetry Society (president, 1978-92), Welsh Academy (president), Royal Society of Literature.
AWARDS, HONORS: Charles Henry Foyle award, 1960, for House of Cowards; Welsh Arts Council Literature Award, 1970, for Selected Poems, and 1979, for Pythagoras; Jewish Chronicle Book Award, 1970, for Selected Poems; Royal Society of Literature fellow, 1983; Cholmondeley Award, 1985, for distinction in poetry; D.Litt., University of Wales, 1989, and University of Glamorgan, 1993; honorary fellow, Cardiff University, College of Medicine, 1997.
Fire in Heaven (three-act in verse; also known as In the Cage; first produced in London, England, 1948; also see below), Hutchinson (London, England), 1956, prose version produced as Is the House Shut?, in West End, 1964.
Hands around the Wall (three-act), first produced in London, England, 1950.
House of Cowards (three-act; also see below), first produced in London's West End, 1960.
The Eccentric (one-act; first produced in London, England, 1961), Evans Brothers (London, England), 1961.
The Joker (one-act), first produced in London's West End, 1962.
Gone (one-act; also see below), first produced in London's West End, 1962.
Three Questor Plays (contains In the Cage, House of Cowards, and Gone), Scorpion Press, 1967.
The Dogs of Pavlov (three-act; first produced in London, England, 1969; produced in New York, 1974; also see below), Vallentine, Mitchell (London, England), 1973.
Gone in January, first produced in London, England, 1978.
Pythagoras (first produced in Birmingham, England, 1976; also see below), Hutchinson (London, England), 1979.
The View from Row G: Three Plays (contains House of Cowards, The Dogs of Pavlov and Pythagoras), edited and introduced by Gary A. Davis, Seren Books (Bridgend, Wales), 1990.
Plays anthologized in Best One-Act Plays, 1960-61, edited by Hugh Miller, Harrap (London, England), 1963, and Twelve Great Plays, edited by L. F. Dean, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1970.
After Every Green Thing, Hutchinson (London, England), 1948.
Walking under Water, Hutchinson (London, England), 1952.
Tenants of the House, Hutchinson (London, England), 1957, Criterion (New York, NY), 1959.
Poems, Golders Green, Hutchinson (London, England), 1962.
Dannie Abse: A Selection, Studio Vista (London, England), 1963.
A Small Desperation, Hutchinson (London, England), 1968.
Selected Poems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1970.
Funland: A Poem in Nine Parts, Portland University Library (Portland, OR), 1971.
Funland, and Other Poems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1973.
(With others) More Words, British Broadcasting Corp. (London, England), 1977.
Collected Poems, 1948-1976, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1977.
Way out in the Centre, Hutchinson (London, England), 1981, published as One-legged on Ice, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1983.
Ask the Bloody Horse, Hutchinson (London, England), 1986.
White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems, 1948-1988, Hutchinson (London, England), 1989.
Remembrance of Crimes Past: Poems, 1986-1989, Hutchinson (London, England), 1990.
Selected Poems, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1994.
On the Evening Road, Hutchinson (London, England), 1994.
Welsh Retrospective, Seren Books (Bridgend, Wales), 1997.
Arcadia, One Mile, Hutchinson (London, England), 1998.
Be Seated, Thou: Poems, 1989-1998, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 2000.
Encounters, Hearing Eye (London, England), 2001.
New and Collected Poems, Hutchinson Radius (London, England), 2003.
Poems represented in anthologies, including Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Verse, edited by J. F. A. Heath-Stubbs and D. H. Wright, Faber (London, England), 1953; Presenting Welsh Poetry, edited by Gwyn Williams, Dufour, 1959; An Anthology of Modern Verse, edited by Elizabeth Jennings, Methuen (London, England), 1961; Mid-Century: English Poetry, 1940-60, edited by John S. Williams and Meic Stephens, J. M. Dent (London, England), 1969; Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellmann and R. M. O'Clair, Norton (New York, NY), 1973; and The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse, edited by D. J. Enright, Oxford University Press, 1980.
Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve, Hutchinson (London, England), 1954.
Some Corner of an English Field, Hutchinson (London, England), 1956.
O. Jones, O. Jones, Hutchinson (London, England), 1970.
There Was a Young Man from Cardiff, Hutchinson (London, England), 1991.
The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas, Robeson (London, England), 2002, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Stephen Spender and Elizabeth Joan Jennings) New Poems, 1956, M. Joseph (London, England), 1956.
(With Howard Sergeant) Mavericks, Editions Poetry and Poverty, 1957.
Modern Poets in Focus, Corgi (London, England), Volume 1, 1971, Volumes 3, 5, 1973.
European Verse, Studio Vista (London, England), 1964.
Thirteen Poets, Poetry Book Society, 1972.
Poetry Dimension 2: The Best of the Poetry Year, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1974.
Poetry Dimension: The Best of the Poetry Year (annual), Volumes 3-7, Robson (London, England), 1975-1980.
My Medical School, Robson (London, England), 1978.
Poems for Shakespeare 9, Globe Playhouse (London, England), 1981.
(And author of introduction) Wales in Verse, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1983.
Doctors and Patients, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1984.
(With wife, Joan Abse) Voices in the Gallery: Poems and Pictures Chosen by Dannie and Joan Abse, Tate Gallery Publications (London, England), 1986.
(With Joan Abse) The Music Lover's Literary Companion, Robson (London, England), 1989.
The Hutchinson Book of Post-War British Poets, Hutchinson (London, England), 1989.
(With Anne Stevenson) The Gregory Anthology, 1991-1993, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1994.
Twentieth-Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry, Seren Books (Bridgend, Wales), 1998.
RADIO AND TELEVISION SCRIPTS
Conform or Die, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) Radio, 1956.
No Telegrams, No Thunder, BBC Radio, 1962.
You Can't Say Hello to Anybody, BBC Radio, 1964.
A Small Explosion, BBC Radio, 1964.
Dylan Thomas Lived Here (teleplay), BBC-1, 1975.
Like Poetry (teleplay), BBC 2, 1977.
Pythagoras, BBC Radio 3, 1978.
Return to Cardiff, BBC Wales Television, 1985.
Bookmarks (teleplay), BBC 2, 1986.
A Welsh Life, HTV, 1990.
Case History, BBC Wales Television, 1999.
Medicine on Trial, Aldus Books, 1967, Crown (New York, NY), 1969.
A Poet in the Family (autobiography), Hutchinson (London, England), 1974, updated edition published as Goodbye, Twentieth Century, Pimlico (London, England), 2001.
(Contributor) Three Poets, Two Children: Leonard Clark, Vernon Scannell, Dannie Abse, Answer Questions by Two Children, Thornhill, 1975.
Miscellany One, Poetry Wales Press (Bridgend, Wales), 1981.
A Strong Dose of Myself (essays and stories), Hutchinson (London, England), 1983.
Journals from the Ant Heap, Hutchinson (London, England), 1986.
Intermittent Journals, Seren Books (Bridgend, Wales), 1994.
The Two Roads Taken, (essays, broadcasts, lectures), Enitharmon (London, England), 2003.
Contributor to books, including How Poets Work, edited by Tony Curtis, Seren Books (Bridgend, Wales), 1996. Contributor to periodicals, including New Yorker, Encounter, and Times Literary Supplement.
SIDELIGHTS: Welsh-born Dannie Abse has successfully combined the practice of medicine with the art of writing poetry all of his working life. He was influenced toward a career in medicine by the example of several family members—including his brother Wilfred, who became a psychoanalyst—yet was also charmed in his teens by the rich language he heard in the political speeches of his brother Leo, who was then a vocal supporter of the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and later became a member of Parliament. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Daniel Hoffman explained that "Abse is a poet whose range of experience is wide, whose tone—at once intimate and unselfconscious—is inimitably his own. . . . His poems do not shrink from grappling with the most pressing questions of identity and existence."
At times a reluctant medical student, Abse entertained the notion of giving up medicine altogether, especially after his first book of poems, After Every Green Thing, was accepted for publication in 1946. An opportunity to work in the Royal Air Force's Mass Radiography section in London during World War II not only placed Abse closer to his future wife, art historian Joan Mercer, but also laid the groundwork for a clinical career that would give him enough leisure time to write.
For many years Abse's dual careers were discrete in his mind and practice. As he once explained in an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, "Until the mid-sixties I somehow had not been able to call upon my confrontations with patients, their triumphs and defeats." People would approach him after poetry readings to express their surprise at learning he was a doctor. Despite the poet-physician examples of Keats and Robert Bridges, Abse said, "I felt uneasy about not being able to call upon that dramatic area of my life experience—was it so disturbing? Did I not believe that poetry should be an immersion into reality not an escape from it? . . . Gradually my mind, as it were, became prepared to write poems with medical themes."
This growth was first apparent in A Small Desperation, published in 1968. Books and Bookmen critic Howard Sergeant remarked that "although Dannie Abse has produced outstanding poems at various stages of his poetic career, there can be little doubt that since he has been writing 'as a whole man' and accepting his medical profession within the total complexity of his experience, his poetry has gained in scope, imaginative depth and psychological insight."
Abse's early work was heavily influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke. "The Uninvited," the only poem from After Every Green Thing that Abse remained pleased with through the years, had its genesis in his reading of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. The early poems are characterized by an extensive use of symbolism, a practice Abse later rejected. His collection of poetry, Walking under Water, demonstrates a decline in his former emphasis on the metaphysical and a shift toward the creation of poems drawn from personal experience—a trend that continues in the more conversational poems of Tenants of the House and Poems, Golders Green.
Abse's Jewish heritage and his family life are among the subjects of his poems in 1981's Way out in the Centre, a book in which he continues to explore his dual careers and their relationship to each other. He examines this issue on a deeper personal level in the poem "Lunch and Afterwards," which Douglas Dunn of the Times Literary Supplement found insufficient as an explanation of the tension between Abse's "physician's reliance on practical, scientific procedures and his poet's respect for the apparently unreal and irrational, the imagined and mysteriously human factors of life." In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hoffman observed this and other apparent contradictions in the poet's life, "Abse is 'way out' among English poets as a Welshman, a Jew, a Dionysian, a physician. These sides of his identity isolate him so that he feels he 'travelled without ticket.' Yet he is at the same time 'here . . . in England . . . in the centre,' because his work is rooted in the central English tradition of intimate address to a reader, more concerned to communicate through shared conventions of rhetoric and syntax than to substitute idiosyncratic inventions."
Several critics have commented on Abse's approach to depicting everyday life in his writing. Nathan Zach of the Jewish Quarterly wrote, "His poems are in part episodic and in their subject matter remain faithful to reality; a kind of diary-like impressionism." According to New Statesman's Alan Brownjohn, Abse goes further than simply recording reality: "He writes in a restrainedly observant way about urban living, yet he is rarely mundane or patronising." Abse is uncomfortably aware of the difficulties encountered by those living a less privileged existence than himself. Michael Mott of Poetry praised Abse for being "willing toughly to accept the chasm between the comfort of his life and the discomfort of his thoughts. The questions he is brave enough to ponder at that chasm's edge, in however quiet a voice, are terrible."
Although Abse often concerns himself with serious issues in his verse, he "shows a clever wit in locating the fun in circumstances both grave and trivial," Poetry's Leroy Searle observed. Some critics have characterized not only Abse's humor but also his poetic voice as particularly Welsh. As William H. Pritchard said in the Hudson Review, "Abse, like all good Welshmen, cares about, because he is so endowed with, the singing voice and the sense of humor." Samuel Hazo in Commonweal added: "I have a suspicion that Dr. Abse, being a singer in the Welsh sense, . . . is best in those poems of his that are essentially lyrical." Michael O'Neill, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, saw in "A Scream," from the 1986 book Ask the Bloody Horse, "fluent rhythms, diffusedly musical internal rhymes and casual run-ons" and found "much wit and exuberance" in "Hotel Nights," in the same collection.
Although Abse is best known for his poetry, he has also written several plays. In The Poetry of Dannie Abse John Cassidy described the plays as being "concerned with the making of choices and with the recognition of moral imperatives" and "aloof from the main currents moving through English theatre in the sixties and seventies. . . . If they have an affinity to anything outside themselves it is perhaps to the radio play, that underestimated form in which reliance upon language is often virtually complete. . . . The people who in habit these dramas, whatever their status, are people whose lines are eminently speakable."
"Although he was long well known as a poet," Linden Peach wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, ". . . Abse only belatedly came to be seen as a major theatrical voice. Despite generally favorable reviews, his plays were regarded as aloof from the main trends in English theater in the 1960s and 1970s; as ignoring the influences of Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco; and as having most affinity with radio plays, a genre in which Abse also worked. His career as a dramatist reflects his concern with complex philosophical issues, and his Jewish background has exerted an increasingly powerful influence on his work."
Peach pointed out that Abse's play The Dogs of Pavlov focuses on the readiness of two average people—lovers Kurt and Sally—to inflict pain on others when they are ordered to do so. As Peach described the play, the couple "volunteer to take part in a psychological experiment. They are separated, and Sally is strapped to an electrically wired chair and asked to perform a series of arithmetical calculations. If she gets an answer wrong, a volunteer in another room, who can hear but not see her, is instructed to give her a shock. . . . The experiment is supposedly designed to test the effect of negative reinforcement on learning; in fact, the ostensible subject, Sally, is a confederate of the experimenter and is not being shocked at all but is screaming in simulated pain. The real purpose of the experiment is to see the degree to which the actual subject—the person administering the 'shock'—will ignore his own moral code and carry out the instructions of the experimenter. . . . The play developed out of Abse's thinking in the 1960s—reflected in poems such as 'Postmark,' 'Not Beautiful,' and 'No More Mozart'—about how ordinary Germans during the Holocaust could obey orders to commit atrocities."
Among Abse's other writings are several novels, the first of which, Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve, has also been categorized as an autobiography. Despite James D. Finn's complaint in Commonweal that Abse's first novel has "a story but no plot," it was this book rather than his poetry that originally won Abse recognition as a promising writer. Speaking with Carolina Moorehead of the London Times about his more recent autobiographical work A Strong Dose of Myself, Abse referred to himself as "a dilettante doctor" and a professional poet, "because while I do feel that many doctors could do what I do, and probably do it better, no one else can write my verse, however defective it is."
In his novel The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas, Abse draws on his medical experiences to fashion a fictional story revolving around Dr. Simmonds, who is practicing medicine in postwar London and despising it. With the end of the war, many refugees are moving into Simmonds's community, particularly Jewish refugees. Simmonds's inherent anti-Semitism is only stirred by this development. But when he comes to know the wife of the Jewish patient he despises most, Simmonds becomes infatuated and is soon plotting to murder her husband and win her for himself. Told through a series of journal entries which chart the doctor's decline into madness, the novel moved a Kirkus reviewer to maintain that "Abse works a fascinating riff on the Dr. Jekyll theme without adhering to it slavishly." Claire McKenna, writing in the British Medical Journal, noted that the novel "explores the themes of unrequited love, loneliness, unfulfilled potential, and the central tenets of the Hippocratic Oath," while John Quin in the Lancet concluded that "Abse has written a splendid and timely meditation on a doctor who chooses evil intent over good."
Asked by Nicholas Wroe in the Guardian about whether he had ever considered giving up medicine for a writing career, Abse explained: "I did once consider giving up medicine just after I'd failed a pathology exam. . . . By this time I'd already had a play produced and a book of poems accepted for publication. But I was under great pressure to carry on, both from my brothers and my father, who basically lived vicariously through his sons. I remember him saying, 'I don't care if he's Homer. He's got to earn a living.' And looking back, I'm glad I did stick with it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cohen, Joseph, editor, The Poetry of Dannie Abse, Robson Books (London, England), 1983.
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 29, 1984.
Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Curtis, Tony, Dannie Abse, University of Wales (Swansea, Wales), 1985.
Robson, Jeremy, editor, Modern Poets in Focus, Volume 4, Corgi (London, England), 1972.
Anglo-Welsh Review, winter, 1967; spring, 1973.
Booklist, June 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Be Seated, Thou, p. 1839.
Books and Bookmen, October, 1968, Howard Sergeant, review of A Small Desperation; July, 1977.
British Medical Journal, August 31, 2002, Claire McKenna, review of The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas, p. 499.
Commonweal, March 18, 1955; October 19, 1973.
Encounter, June, 1973.
Guardian, January 31, 1978; September 29, 2001, Nicholas Wroe, "Is There a Poet in the House?"
Hudson Review, autumn, 1973.
Jewish Quarterly, winter, 1968-69.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas, p. 324.
Lancet, April 11, 1998, Joseph Cady, review of Welsh Retrospective, p. 1141; October 24, 1998, Daniel Davies, review of Arcadia, One Mile, p. 1397; August 24, 2002, John Quin, review of The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas, p. 651.
Listener, October 8, 1970.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 29, 1984.
Nassau Literary Review, spring, 1974.
New Statesman, March 6, 1970; May 11, 1973.
New York Times, April 12, 1969.
New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1970.
Poetry, May, 1971; March, 1974.
Spectator, November 24, 2001, P. J. Kavanagh, review of Goodbye, Twentieth Century, p. 56.
Times (London, England), February 28, 1983; November 13, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, August 15, 1968; April 27, 1973; October 11, 1974; November 18, 1977; August 21, 1981, Douglas Dunn, review of Way out in the Centre; December 30, 1983; January 23, 1987, Michael O'Neill, review of Ask the Bloody Horse; November 2, 1990; August 9, 2002, Paddy Bullard, "Love in Swiss Cottage," p. 20.
World Literature Today, summer, 1998, Daniel T. Lloyd, review of Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry, p. 625.
Desperado Literature,http://lidiavianu.scriptmania.com/ (July 1, 2002), Lidia Vianu, "Interview with Dannie Abse."