In the same week we celebrated National Poetry Day, we also sadly parted with one of Wales’ most talented writers – Dannie Abse, who passed away last Sunday, aged 91.
As a young man, Abse started down a rather different career path; studying medicine at Cardiff University (then the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire), before moving to London, to continue his studies at King’s College and Westminster Hospital. But even before he was a working doctor, Abse’s literary ability had already prompted him into the world of a poet. His first volume, After Every Green Thing, was accepted and published by Hutchinson in 1948.
Abse did not entirely abandon one aspect of his life for the other. Indeed, in much of his later work he skilfully interweaved his medical knowledge into his poetry, creating an idiosyncratic voice, with access to a specialised world of terms and imagery not available to his literary contemporaries. As much is evident in poems such as ‘Pathology of Colours’, where Abse-as-poet claims:
I have seen red-blue tinged with hirsute mauve
in the plum-skin face of a suicide.
I have seen white, china white almost, stare
from behind the smashed windscreen of a car.
Indeed, Abse’s poetry was notable for its continuity with his own life, voice, and loves; much of his poetic phrasing (seamlessly) resembled turns of his speech, and his long-life passion for Cardiff’s football club – ‘The Bluebirds’ – recurred as a motif, just as much as Abse’s medical training or Jewish heritage did.
An incredibly talented and prolific poet, perhaps what was most impressive about Abse was the level of quality he consistently maintained throughout his great body of work. This quality was reflected in the number of awards Abse gained throughout his lifetime, scooping the Welsh Arts Council Award in both 1971 and 1987, and becoming a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature in 1983. And just as recently as 2012, Abse was appointed CBE.
Among the many volumes of poetry he wrote and edited – sixteen, spanning from his first in 1948, to his latest, Speak, Old Parrot, in 2013 – Abse also produced plays and fiction, beginning with his autobiographical novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, in 1954. Written when Abse was still a medical student, the novel presents a fictionalised proxy of Abse’s own childhood; growing up as a boy born to a Jewish family, in Cardiff in the 1930s.
Perhaps the best of Abse’s work derived from the most tragic circumstances of his life (as is often the troubling case, among writers). In 2003, whilst travelling home from a reading in the car, Abse and his wife Joan were involved in an accident that left Abse with a broken rib, and a widower. Both The Presence and Running Late – the latter a volume of poetry and the former a memoir – were based on this tragic event, and its ramifications. Highly compelling and poignant mediations on grief, they also garnered much acclaim; The Presence being named the Wales Book of the Year in 2008, and Running Late being afforded the Roland Mathias prize.
We will conclude this tribute with a favoured poem by Abse, which he wrote as a contribution for Answering Back: an edition of poetry put together by Carol Ann Duffy in 2007, in which fifty contemporary poets were asked to form an artistic response to a poem of their choosing.
For this collection Abse chose to ‘answer back’ to ‘Echo’ by Walter de la Mare, offering a response highly indicative of the unique style he honed throughout his lifetime. With its autobiographical murmur, touch of medical insight, and familiar language handled just so – shifting the prosaic into the poetic – ‘Bluebells’ perfectly demonstrates those skills for which Abse received rightful renown, and for which he will be long remembered.
Cycling for the bluebells near St Mellons
two boys tasted the decomposing of the light
in a high echoing tunnel. They stopped,
left foot on the pedal, right on the ground,
to lark loudly, My hen Glad is sad aye!
When Keith shouted I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD
believe in God … in God … in God a sudden
WHOOSH replied. Four pupils dilated.
Tachycardia. A goods train clumped over
and multitudinous thunderbolts shrivelled.
Later, bikes angled against a stout tree,
they heard a meandering bee shopping
among the profusion of flowers they bent
to pick. Keith said, Devout little bugger.
Sounds like a daft insect’s prayer to me.
Through the returning dark tunnel they hurled
echoes and laughed. But the small dot remained
below the big question mark when they came out
(bluebells alive in the handlebar baskets)
blessed in the unanswering light of the world.