Perhaps our common Cardiffian roots engineered it, but determining the lifespan of his kitchen cupboards’ content five minutes after knocking Dannie Abse’s door was unforeseen. The survival of potentially mouldy toffee lay in my (clueless) hands. A few welshcakes later, dictaphone at the ready, we turned to this poetic virtuoso’s latest collection: Speak, Old Parrot.
Abse’s nine decades on the planet have been artistically fruitful, to say the least. With over thirty books published and countless awards to his name, I underwent a trembly tube journey to meet him. Needlessly so – Abse’s chipper modesty belied his prestige, and this summery morning in Golders Green was a delight, as well as a privilege. I left beaming like the sun overhead. Abse’s 550-page autobiography brims with brilliant things done, brilliant people met. His curiosity about others became transparent as he laughingly said: “People are so odd! I think they’re so comical.”
Abse is my very favourite kind of person: honest and passionate. And, despite the approach of his ninetieth birthday, more vibrant than most of my Oxford Blues acquaintances. On hearing that I had just celebrated my own birthday, he scurried off to fetch a present (a book which he then signed). One surprise after the other. A poem must likewise startle, Abse told me: the best poem is both surprising and apt. His poem Wasp revolves around a wasp trapped by a windowpane – a recent scene in his local cafe. Abse nodded as I asked whether he saw himself as an observer: “I’ve wasted so much time in places, staring and waiting for something to happen”. Poetry should emanate from experience, he insisted, since this can encapsulate ideas unknown until written.
He spoke of the comparative ease of prose-writing: “I write prose downhill, poetry uphill.” Abse seems to favour that less-trodden ‘challenging but rewarding’ route through life. His fieriness emerged in stories of early twentieth-century playground fights against Franco supporters in his Catholic school. Abse’s schooling was not first-rate, but he had “a happy time”. Instead his real education seemingly sprang from his elder brothers: Wilfred and Leo, each of whom became eminent in their respective fields of psychoanalogy and law mixed with politics.
As I touched upon his father’s last words to him, rather Delphically, “know yourself”, Abse became more sombre. His confused identity has been the subject of many a poem: a Welsh Jewish yet secular doctor-poet does not squeeze easily onto one label. ‘White coat, purple coat’ – patients need objectivity, alas as a poet he inclined towards empathy. “I wasn’t fit for purpose” he confessed, contradicting his thirty years as a specialist at a London chest clinic. When it came to religion, Abse drew breath: “oppose, oppose orthodoxies”. I mentioned a poet whom I had recently met in Jerusalem, now happily living a secular life after fleeing from his dogmatic Jewish-orthodox family. Rewinding to the wasp’s struggle, Abse smiled: “the window is open for your poet-friend”.
Tucked into a poetry book of his on our household bookshelves, I found a ticket to a 1991 talk by Abse. My dad had scrawled notes across it, and as I squinted at one jotting I read “it’s an imperfect world”. Having lost his wife in a car crash several years ago, Abse has felt life’s imperfections all too well. I ask him for his thoughts on the twenty-first century, steeling myself for a possible dash of pessimism. Wrong again, for he shrugged: “What’s going to happen is so various. It’s rather wonderful, I think.” The world’s quirky mysteriousness seems to appeal to Abse. Enigma is a key poetic ingredient – what is to name is to destroy, he smiled, plus it gives the critics something to do. Any advice for budding poets? “Don’t write”. I half gasp, half laugh. Abse continued: “I think all advice is prejudiced. If you need to write, you’ll ignore me anyway.”
Time had flown, and I began to collect my things together when I was distracted by a buzzzz overhead. A wasp imprisoned in the living room. Dannie’s eyes twinkled, and with a wave of the hand: “surprising, but apt”. Unquenchable, admirable, inspirational: for Dannie Abse, I can’t help but feel that there are no windowpanes.