Dannie Abse Abse, Dannie (Vol. 7) - Essay

Abse, Dannie (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Abse, Dannie 1923–

A Welsh poet, dramatist, novelist, and physician, Abse considers himself a poet who happens to practice medicine. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

The characteristic poet of the last 10 years has been a sensitive who rarely topples over into gaucheness or sentimentality, and a craftsman whose skill is unobtrusive rather than accomplished or exciting. He is uneasily domesticated, with predictable angsts about the rival claims of his creative gift and his family responsibilities. He is primarily urban, but suffers enough incursions from the persistent world of nature (all those spiders, dead birds, stoats and pike) to doubt his urban security. His blurbs speak of his awareness of 'the wider problems of the age', but these function as temporary guilts, not rousing causes, and are easily sublimated into a sensitive, unimpassioned response to history and myth. He is sane and reasonable, a slightly melancholy humanist who very fairly represents the acceptance of limitations by creativity and intelligence in a world where the larger gestures would seem ineffectual or compromised.

The very generous selection of poems in Dannie Abse's new volume [Selected Poems]—which shows a remarkable unity of theme and method in 20 years' work—places him firmly in this school, but how much more convincing, honest and likeable his poetic personality is than those of most of his colleagues. He is domestic—'no more than vulnerable human', or 'islanded and inspired by/the merely human'—but never petty or self-tormenting: compare his poems about home, children and married love with the run-of-the-mill products of the school. He knows about the conflicts between work and poetry, Golders Green and irreligious Soho—there is a recurrent theme of 'duality' in his verse—but there is nothing of frustrated complaint about it. He writes in a restrainedly observant way about urban living, yet he is rarely mundane or patronising. And the larger issues are fused with the personal in a manner which gives point and dignity to both: look at 'The Victim of Aulis' and 'A Night Out'.

Part of his secret (apart from a perfectly genuine 'unobtrusive craftsmanship') lies in his skilful and resourceful handling of a genial, informal mode. Abse is talking quietly and persuasively to people who will understand, listen and agree. Occasionally he caters for whimsical tastes; and he could overplay the persona of the ordinary sensitive man appealing to his peers. But at his very best, he uses this warmth and approachableness to lead the reader on to accept some disquieting, original and memorable effects. To mention 'The Second Coming', 'After a Departure' and 'Hunt the Thimble' is to instance three poems widely separated in time yet linked by a forceful humanism which informs all his verse…. (pp. 330-31)

Alan Brownjohn in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 6, 1970.

Dannie Abse's Selected Poems … is a thoroughly impressive selection of Abse's performance over the last fifteen years. He understands both Golders Green and Soho (responsibility and the pleasure principle), while his lyric insights are expressed with neat concision….

Mr. Abse is often over-prosaic, but "The grand view" and "Odd" are examples of his highly charged, naturalistic style at its best, while "On the beach" is a stunning attempt at fusing mythological (Helen of Troy) and modern (Vietnam) themes. I'm not sure if the attempt works, but I would definitely suggest that you give Mr. Abse a try. (p. 33)

John W. Hughes, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 8, 1970.

[The] long title poem [of Funland and Other Poems] felt a bit artificial and over-extended, but the solid core of this book is found in a number of poems about ordinary life, driving the M4 back to South Wales to visit an eighty-year-old mother, kissing your youngest child on returning home from that journey, summing up your life at 3:30 a.m. on January 1st, getting your diary and address book up-to-date, sorting out your attitudes toward an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Dannie Abse, like all good Welshmen, cares about, because he is endowed with, the singing voice and the sense of humor…. [I] was charmed by the poised, attractive spirit of these poems. Like Nemerov's, it's not poetry that will change anybody's life, and witty resignations and compromises may have had their day, but at least Abse knows how far he can let a poem take him and is willing to imagine the sort of listener I was happy to be. Funland is at least a couple of notches above Abse's previous Selected Poems—a good indication for his future. (pp. 583-84)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973.

[Funland and Other Poems] is not a book likely to attract much attention, for despite the longer and more ambitious title poem, it remains a collection of moments, each with a quiet and reflective value, most with an underplayed poignancy. Yet these poems take on a strange independence from each other, as if each were ringed by a shield, owing little alliegance to anything but the occasion it memorializes; collected, they create a pattern of incomplete resonances far less distinct than many of the individual poems. (p. 353)

Abse shows a clever wit in locating the fun in circumstances both grave and trivial, as in Moon Object, or Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-aged Man. But all too often these poems are transparently invited by their occasions, as Demo Against the Vietnam War, 1968; or In the Theatre (a True Incident), where an anesthetized patient in a brain operation says: "Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone"; and the effect is a rather slack theatricality.

Funland, however, is theatrical in a more engaging, revealing way. Originally a short radio play, it preserves the peculiarly sensuous drama of versatile speech. From its setting in the nowhere anywhere ambience of a mental institution, this poem gives greater scope and interest to the question of isolation and discontinuity the shorter poems collectively suggest. (p. 354)

While these poems are competent, touching, sometimes nervously funny, they are strained, to paraphrase a line from Funland, by 'voices entangled in a thornbush', voices one may not wish to hear but cannot shut out. The collection is consequently disappointing—and disturbing—for it appears that Abse uses the tricky machinery of poems with only an occasional trust that it can untangle the voices into a performable script. (p. 355)

Leroy Searle, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1974.

The Dogs of Pavlov … is an almost classic example of the type of play in which practical opportunism substitutes for theatrical imagination. Dannie Abse's play … is inspired by the Stanley Milgrim experiments at Yale and Milgrim's book describing them, "Obedience to Authority," which is still a center of controversy. The experiments, dramatic in themselves, are a superb subject for a play: Milgrim and his colleagues told volunteers they would be participating in an educational experiment by administering mild electric shocks to other volunteers who made mistakes in adding or subtracting; the point supposedly was to speed up the learning process with threats of punishment. Actually, the "learning" volunteers were actors, who reacted to the increasing shocks with increasing cries of pain, and the actual subject of Milgrim's study was how people respond to commands that include the inflicting of pain.

The concept is harrowing enough, and raises so many deep questions about aggression and its results (and about scientific ethics as well), that an urgent evening of theatre could be made out of readers' presentation of Milgrim's book. Abse, however, felt the need to write a play, and so he duly carpentered up a dull story about a left-wing actress and her affair with the heir to a British pharmaceuticals empire, which is perfunctorily tied into the experiment in ways too silly to describe. The characters are a constant pasteboard rebuke to the upsetting reality of the experiments, and I left, rather angry at the unimaginativeness of it all, after the first half.

Michael Feingold, "Beyond Categories," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1974–75), May 2, 1974, p. 85.

Abse more often seeks the self in I-think-therefore-I-am than in I feel-therefore-I-am…. Man is adrift in flux. Before he finds port, before he can navigate, he must handle Stevens's ghostlier demarcations. Abse therefore walks the fences of consciousness…. He is not a poet of the transient or the transcendent but of transcendence. His vision is persistently temporal, cast in the fourth dimension. Not so much extension of the self or its mass, but the intervals of extension, a tracking of self while it assumes dimensions. (pp. 65-6)

Everything in this his sixth volume [Funland and Other Poems] polarizes into Old and New. That is the crux of Abse's verse. His forms are often as confined as the cell of a nun, occasionally as inchoate as a howl. More often the line is a perceptible unit, and is terminated by intermittent rhyme, or cast into a stanza….

So is it too with his matter. The stuff is constituted of time…. Abse would accommodate the eternal in the now—Antonioni softly panning the Thames, or Mozart scratched from a record. The poet is an epigone, fortyish, and seldom gay. The feeling for rebellion remains in his blood, but he cannot mount the barricades…. He won't buy old kulchur, but neither would he assimilate himself into the new antiseptic world of the medic, much less into the insecticidal, herbicidal, and ultimately homicidal world of man unkind….

His voice wavers, and his eye will not stay put. Images pop from yesterday to today to tomorrow. But it is not always so. In "Here" the solemn, outrageous purveyor of balloons in Golders Green is a vision entirely seen. And in "A New Diary" the scene, the I, and the eye are at once distinct and reconciled. (pp. 67-8)

Tony Herbold, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974.