b. 1923 – d. 2014
Dannie Abse was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1983.
Dannie Abse was a Welsh poet, author, doctor and playwright. His career as a poet spanned the years 1948-2014 and earned him much acclaim. Abse drew on his identity as a Welshman, his career as a doctor, as well as his Jewish heritage, to inform his writing.
He was appointed CBE in 2012 for his significant contribution to British 20th century poetry.
Dannie Abse remembered – by Tony Curtis
In 2014, the year that Wales is celebrated the life and works of Dylan Thomas, we lost another great writer: Dannie Abse, poet, novelist, playwright and essayist died on Sunday 28 September at his home in London. He had been ill for some weeks.
From his first collection, After Every Green Thing (accepted, remarkably, during the War when Dannie was training as a doctor at Westminster, and published in 1948), up to his 2013 collection of poems Speak, Old Parrot, he published steadily and was always critically well-received. That final collection
was short-listed for last year’s T.S. Eliot Prize and Dannie acted as a judge for the 2014 Forward Poetry Prize.
Dannie was born in 1923 and grew up in Cardiff as the youngest son in a family of remarkable vigour and intellect. His two brothers – the psychiatrist Wilfred and the lawyer and mp Leo – were his role models and inspiration. He and wife Joan were very much part of the Swiss Cottage intelligentsia in the post-war years and she supported his work closely, as well as being a fellow anthologist and the author of an acclaimed biography of Ruskin. They both enjoyed regular visits to their house in Ogmore-on Sea in the county of Glamorgan, and it was here that she was killed in a car crash in 2005. His book The Presence dealt with that loss; it was Wales Book of the Year in 2007.
Dannie was handsome and charismatic, and wrote poems which were at times funny, at times dark and profound, and at all times accessible and welcoming to the reader. I have carried his line ‘I start with the visible and am startled by the visible’ with me since I first read it. In the 2007 Warton Lecture on English Poetry to the British Academy (‘“We keep the bread and wine for show”: Consistent Irony and Reluctant Faith in the Poetry of Dannie Abse’), I tried to capture the fine balancing act which Dannie achieved. A secular Jew – ‘Auschwitz made me more a Jew than Moses ever did’ – he was both pragmatic doctor and magical dreamer. He wore both the white coat and the purple coat. He was deeply spiritual, but not conventionally religious. We should start with the visible – his poems – and be startled by them and his vision and wit.
The contribution that Wales owes Dannie Abse is profound. Dannie and Joan and generously allowed Poetry Wales Press (later Seren Books) to set up office at their house in Ogmore. Seren published Dannie Abse: A Sourcebook, edited by Cary Archard, as well as Joan’s anthology Letters from Wales. Dannie was President of the Welsh Academy of Writers; in his work for the RSL (he had the unique distinction of never missing a meeting during his time on Council), the Poetry Society, the Gregory Awards and Cholmondeleys, he ensured that Wales’s writers were considered. Through his work and right up to the final collection, Dannie drew on his boyhood in Cardiff, the landscape of Wales, and especially his continuing fascination with the ribald medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. He was a life-long supporter of Cardiff City fc, and among the many tributes to him was one printed in their match programme, accompanied by a screened photograph and the crowd’s applause.
The week before he died, he had on his desk the proofs of his new Collected Poems: Dannie was a working poet to the end. The appearance of that book last November ensured that we have his considered and final selection for our enjoyment and judgement: his place in twentieth-century British poetry is secure.
Tony Curtis is Emeritus Professor of Poetry at the University of Glamorgan. His books include ‘Dannie Abse’.