Dannie Abse was an esteemed poet, author, playwright and former doctor. He was a hugely popular figure in British poetry, a former President of the Poetry Society (1978-1992) and a powerful reader who displayed great humour and lightness of touch. He remained a vigorous poet up until his death in 2014, with new poems published in recent issues of The Poetry Review.
Born in 1923, Abse wrote and edited more than 16 books of poetry. His first, After Every Green Thing, was published in 1940. His last, Speak, Old Parrot, came out in 2013. Dannie won the Welsh Arts Council Award in both 1971 and 1987, and the Cholmondeley Award in 1985. His poetry has been part of the national curriculum and read by generations of school students in the UK. He was a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature since 1983 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wales in 1989. He was President of the Welsh Academy of Letters and was awarded a CBE in 2012.
Born in Cardiff to a Jewish family in 1923, Abse moved to London to continue his medical studies and lived there until his death. However, his Welsh nationality was central to his poetic life, along with his Jewish heritage, as was his medical career with its various insights and complexities. Whatever their focus, Abse's poems meditate on what it means to be human, often expressed through binaries or contradictions: his poems are both playful and serious, autobiographical and universal, sorrowful and joyful. Abse articulated this duality with typical lyrical clarity: "You have to go into the darkness of oneself, as it were, to come back with some light."
This is perhaps seen most clearly in his writing about his wife, Joan Mercer. In The Presence and Two for Joy, Abse explores life after Joan's death in a 2005 car accident, after more than 50 years of marriage. They are portraits of grief and now-painful memories, but they make room for love and renewal. Elaine Feinstein called Abse "one of our few great poets of married love." His poem 'Epithalamion' is regularly used in wedding services.
Abse always resisted categorisation, mastering various genres whilst forging a successful career as a specialist chest doctor. He also collaborated on two books with his wife, celebrating the cross-pollination between art and poetry, and music and poetry. His use of language is masterful but not obscure: as M. Wynn Thomas observed in The Guardian, Abse is a "magician of ordinary speech... His unique achievement has been to fashion a genuinely lyric art out of a relaxed, colloquial, deceptively desultory style of writing."
Dannie Abse appeared at the Poetry International Festival in 1983.
After Every Green Thing, London: Hutchinson, 1948
Walking Under Water, London: Hutchinson, 1952
Tenants of the House: Poems 1951-1956, London: Hutchinson, 1957
Poems, Golders Green, London: Hutchinson, 1962
Poems! Dannie Abse: A Selection, London: Vista, 1963
A Small Desperation, London: Hutchinson, 1968
Selected Poems, London: Hutchinson, 1970
Funland and Other Poems, London: Hutchinson, 1973
Penguin Modern Poets 26 (Dannie Abse, D. J. Enright and Michael Longley), New York: Penguin, 1975
Collected Poems 1948-1976, London: Hutchinson, 1977
Way Out in the Centre, London: Hutchinson, 1981
White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems, 1948-1988, London: Hutchinson, 1989
Remembrance of Crimes Past: Poems 1986-1989, London: Hutchinson, 1990
Selected Poems, New York: Penguin, 1994
Welsh Retrospective, Bridgend: Seren, 1997
Arcadia, One Mile, London: Hutchinson, 1998
New and Collected Poems, London: Hutchinson, 2002
Yellow Bird, Rhinebeck: Sheep Meadow Press, 2004
Running Late, London: Hutchinson, 2006
The Presence, London: Hutchinson, 2007
New Selected Poems 1949-2009: Anniversary Collection, London: Hutchinson, 2009 (shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry)
Speak, Old Parrot, London: Hutchinson, 2013
A Poet in the Family, London: Robson, 1974
Goodbye, Twentieth Century, London: Pimlico, 2001
Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve, London: Hutchinson, 1954
Some Corner of an English Field, London: Hutchinson, 1956
O Jones, O Jones, London: Hutchinson, 1970
There Was A Young Man From Cardiff, London: Hutchinson, 1991
The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds & Dr. Glas, London: Robson, 2002
The Poetry Archive
The Poetry Foundation
The British Council
Interview in the Wales Art Review
Obituary in The Guardian
Obituary in The Telegraph
Profile from the BBC
Wales Online recommends five Abse books everyone should read