Words tell me that I think
Interview with DANNIE ABSE (born 22 September 1923), British poet and novelist
Published in Lidia Vianu, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: When I received your books, a note from you said, ‘I hope the enclosed pleases you.’ This short introduction is emblematic for you. For your warmth, tenderness and gentle care for the reader. Upon reading your poems, I am overwhelmed by your emotions, which do one major thing: they bring up mine. You care for the reader’s sensibility and understanding as you would for a patient. What is poetry for Doctor Dannie Abse: a hobby (so many books could never be the result of a mere hobby), a ‘mug’s game’, an emotional outlet, an outburst of tenderness?
DANNIE ABSE: Hobby? No, a need.
LV. Your lines are as clear as a blessing. Actually, you write in a blessing mood. I think this is the generosity of a doctor, accompanied by the honesty of a true poet, who need not hide behind encoded sentences. You write what you think, but what you think is not always what you feel. Your thoughts have an indirect strategy (like all good poetry) of hiding the flat statement and offering the fragrance of guessed feeling. Is clarity a project in your poems? Is it (as Eliot described criticism) ‘as inevitable as breathing’?
DA. Clarity? I once wrote that I would like my reader to enter my poems and be deceived that he/she could see through them like sea-water, and be puzzled when he/she cannot quite touch bottom.
LV. I confess I do not like –isms (Eliot’s influence, again), Postmodernism included. In an attempt to avoid this label I have fallen in my own trap: I have devised the name Desperado for the contemporary writers who desperately want to be themselves and their own trend. You do not seem to care about such things. Your poetry is calm and indifferent to the somersaults of your age. You are new and yet so classical. I am at a loss: what – if any – was your intention? Compete with other poets or compete with yourself?
DA. There is no competition. Poets try to do ‘their own thing.’
LV. One Desperado feature is to use the poem as a shelter for minute and innumerable narratives. You tell so many stories. Even more than the incidents you relate. Your emotions can be decoded into stories, too. Your life is a story to you. So many poets today empty the word of stories, even more, of meaning, and then play upon uncouth rhymes or funny rhythms. The result... but you guess what can come out of such a vain attempt. Your lines burst with life. Again, is story telling a project in your poems? Would you recognize a willful strategy in this hybridization of fiction and poetry (which is not new, but done so very differently from of old)?
DA. ‘The name of the story will be Time/ But you must not pronounce its name./ Tell me a story of deep delight.’ (lines from Robert Penn Warren).
LV. I detect clear echoes of Eliot in many poems, and fainter traces of Auden, Hughes, mainly William Carlos Williams (with whom I hoped you would have a little in common and I found out you had even more than that – or am I wrong?). Who are your models and, if the idea does not seem repugnant (to most Desperadoes it does – they all want to be on their own, which is human nature, after all), what is the literary group you might be said to belong to, or to have belonged to, at any point in your life? Do you belong anywhere?
DA. I discovered William Carlos Williams rather late, when ‘influences’ to some degree ceased. Besides, William Carlos Williams rarely confronted his medical experience in his poems – as he did in his prose.
LV. You say you are both Welsh and Jewish. One other poet who admitted to that is Ruth Fainlight. Jewishness is not easily assumed. It is no burden for you, you are very much at ease as to who you are and what your home is. For my – and your – readers in this interview, would you care to confess more than your poems reveal? Talk about your father, your mother who died in hospital (peeping at your life from your poems), your two grandmothers, your son, your daughter, your grandchildren, and, mainly, your wife? I am only talking on the basis of your poems, I actually know nothing except the incidents you chose to make poems of. Who is Doctor Dannie Abse?
DA. Who is Dannie Abse? See my Autobiography (Goodbye 20th Century).
LV. ‘Twice upon a time’, as one of your poems begins (Duality), there was no irony and no prosaic streak in poetry. You have plenty of both, and that ranges you with the other Desperadoes. But you have a kind of irony that is very different: your irony is deeply caring. Your sense of humour is both warm and sharp. Is it important for a poet to have a sense of humour, in your opinion?
DA. Humour? ‘Comedy is the blossom of the nettle’ (Coleridge).
LV. In The Trial you write, ‘Once, I built a bridge right into myself.’ I have the feeling that this bridge is your poetry, all of it. I do not know the story of your life after reading all your poems, but I certainly know the inner you, because you confess a lot, especially when you talk about other people than yourself. Actually you never talk about yourself, yet you make the reader feel he is very close to you. How do you manage this little game of indirection, which is an important strategy for your poems?
DA. A bridge? Yes – though one end reaches the mists...
LV. In many ways you write like a doctor. On the one hand, you have a little of Huxley’s cold observation, on the other you have what few doctors really have, an extraordinary sympathy. Your heart warms up for every being in pain. Now, this is not a Desperado feature. Most Desperadoes are cold and disagreeable, defiantly aloof from their readers. You are a compassionate poet. Is that your intention or just an accident, caused by your first profession (the medical one – if the order is right)? I wonder, do you consider yourself first a poet or first a doctor?
DA. I like to think I’m a poet and Medicine my serious hobby.
LV. In Poem and Message you say something about ‘Words of safety, words of love’, followed by the confession ‘And I call your name as loud as I can/ and I give you all the light I am.’ I am aware (Eliot was right, again) that some of these words were uttered when you were very young and you may be very different at your present age. A poet changes. Yet all through your poetry there runs this vein of reassuring honesty. You play/write with all your cards on the table. What is the essential quality of a poet, do you think?
DA. Don’t know.
LV. In After the Release of Ezra Pound you make a very plain statement:
Pound did not hear the raw Jewish cry,
the populations committed to the dark
when he muttered through microphones
You are very much aware of your Jewishness, yet you seem to have struck deep roots in Wales. You belong to England. Or am I wrong? The times you mention Israel do not seem of vital importance. I should say you have sympathy for Jews and love for England. Would that be mistaken? Have you ever thought otherwise? For the sake of your readers, would you, this once, tell us the story of your life and where you really feel you belong?
DA. Please see Autobiography.
LV. A Winter Convalescence echoes Eliot explicitly in ‘Humankind/ cannot bear very much unreality’. Unfaithful, mocking echo, in good Eliotian tradition. Did Eliot mean anything/much in your formation as a poet? You quote him in bits almost everywhere. Funland 3 has another such slightly (and significantly modified) line: ‘Why should the aged peacock/ stretch his wings?’ One can feel you have read him thoroughly. Was he an essential pattern? Your poetry is so much more relaxed and reassuring.
DA. Eliot. I like to think Funland is more savage than The Waste Land. Certainly Eliot was an early influence, but so were many others.
LV. Even wonders: ‘could it be I am another/ tormented, anti-semite Jew?’ You are half pleased and half afraid of this. Well, are you?
DA. Even – Irony.
LV. A second important obsession is that of medicine. Not Beautiful records: ‘once, while dissecting a nerve in a cadaver/ my cigarette dropped, fell into its abdomen./ I picked it up. I puffed out the smoke of hell.’ Medicine is your second – maybe your first – nationality. You use it in order to convey the message that you are unafraid. You are a poet who does not fear or obey convention (that makes you a Desperado), a person who fears no borders, whether they be racial, intellectual, professional. You mix all the levels of your life into one, all-important work (hybridization of this kind makes you a Desperado, again). You say in a poem, in a persona’s voice, that you take yourself very seriously as a poet. From the poet we also learn that you take yourself very seriously as a doctor, as well. Who has the upper hand in your inner world, though, the poet or the doctor? After William Carlos Williams, I should say literary critics should now come up with a class in itself, that of doctor-poets (or should it be poet-doctors? I do not think so.)
DA. See autobiography.
LV. The death of your parents, briefly touched upon, very discreetly, is painful. In Interview with a Spirit Healer there is one line: ‘I became mortal the night my father died.’ Another poem talks of death (many more poems do, actually), Give Me Your Hands:
Faint in the hall the telephone goes.
As I approach, how loud it grows.
I lift up a voice saying, ‘Doctor?’
So in a room I do not know
I hold a hand I do not know
for hours. Again a dry old hand.
Death is the beginning of life to you, you just cannot see its finality, although, as a doctor, you know exactly what it is all about. This is the reason why I think you turn all the painful deaths in your life into sources of poetry, of strong emotion. You use death. To John Donne death was a picturesque background. To you it is life. Your poems are all more or less about death, but none is morbid. I think you are an incurable optimist, a strong, (again) reassuring poet. How do you view yourself?
DA. Death? I think Death is the patron of all the arts.
LV. A Winter Visit is a tender poem about the most untender thing in the world – old age. Eliot once said Yeats was ‘preeminently the poet of middle age’. You are preeminently a poet who reassures. You treat your readers with the doctor’s deference and concern:
A Winter Visit
Now she’s ninety I walk through the local park
where, too cold, the usual peacocks do not screech
and neighbouring lights come on before it’s dark.
Dare I affirm to her, so aged and so frail,
that from one pale dot of peacock’s sperm
spring forth all the colours of a peacock’s tail?
I do. But she like the sibyl says, ‘I would die’;
then complains, ‘This winter I’m half dead, son.
And because it’s true I want to cry.
Yet must not (although only Nothing keeps)
for I inhabit a white coat not a black
even here — and am not qualified to weep.
So I speak of small approximate things,
of how I saw, in the park, four flamingoes
standing, one-legged on ice, heads beneath wings.
What do you expect back from these readers? When you keep reminding them of Eliot and mingling his words (such as the Sibyl’s motto, here), when you make them watch your and their own mothers die slowly but soon, when you decide you are not ‘qualified to weep’. You are the man who inhabits ‘a white coat not a black’. I take this to be the definition of your poetic mood, and your message to your readers. How would you put into words the idea that is the dearest to your poetry?
DA. White coat – doctor. Black coat – mortician.
LV. No Reply has two defining lines. One is, ‘because I’m Welsh because I’m a Jew’, the other, ‘because when sick I’m still a doctor.’ They both answer a generic ‘Why?’ The question in large might be, Why a poet? Why have you chosen poetry?
DA. I like to think poetry chose me along with many others.
LV. Pantomime Diseases shows not only your sense of humour but also your love of debunking, contradicting convention: Sleeping Beauty married a fat Prince ‘out of duty/ and suffered insomnia ever after.’ ‘Snow White suffered from profound anaemia./ The genie warned, ‘Aladdin, you’ll go blind.’ ‘The Babes in the Wood died of pneumonia.’ Red Riding Hood had ‘Scarlet Fever’. In conclusion, ‘The lies of Once-upon-a-Time appall’. The same as all Desperadoes, even when they slip into lyricism, you use irony as a second main weapon. Do you consider yourself ironic?
LV. The poem Phew! (your Sunday best irony on display, and your most volcanic feeling close behind) is a paradox: you are shy when it comes to invoking love, or, rather, you are sceptical, because of many reasons (doctor’s reasons, Dannie Abse reasons mostly), yet in this poem love gushes forth and there is no stopping it. All the more convincing as it is not even once mentioned as a word. Not as a mere word, indeed:
Do you know that Sumerian proverb
‘A man’s wife is his destiny’?
But supposing you’d been here,
this most strange of meeting places,
5000 years too early? Or me,
a fraction of a century too late?
No angel with SF wings
would have beckoned,
‘This way, madam, this way, sir.’
Have you ever, at a beach,
aimed one small pebble
at another, thrown high, higher?
And though what ends
is never the end,
and though the secret is
there’s another secret always,
because this, because that,
because on high the Blessed
were playing ring-a-ring-o’-roses,
because millions of miles below,
during the Rasoumovsky,
the cellist, pizzicati,
played a comic, wrong note,
you looked to the right, luckily,
I looked to the left, luckily.
Desperadoes have, as a common feature, this mistrust of love confessed. Feeling is all right. Naming is an altogether different matter. In novels the image of the (un)happy couple is gone. Poets claim they do not want to confess. The whole edifice of traditional, conventional literature crumbles. The very idea of poetry has changed. Is it your intention to contribute to such a change?
DA. Naming. ‘To name is to destroy, to suggest is to create’. Mallarmé.
LV. Your volume of Collected Poems 1948-1988 is entitled White Coat, Purple Coat, and your last page enlarges upon it thus:
White coat and purple coat
can each be worn in turn
but in the white a man will freeze
an in the purple burn.
It is, I think, your dilemma: white (as in doctor) or purple (as in poetry, emotion ‘recollected in tranquillity’)? After a long set of questions, after this trip into your soul, could you close with a clear statement, such as ‘I can be found in...’? Can we make sure we have found you in your lines or is Dannie Abse condemned to being his own persona? Is confessive poetry such a sin as most Desperadoes would have us think?
DA. Purple coat is sometimes worn by magicians. Perhaps I was influenced by the clothes worn by Dr Anton Mesmer!
Clear statement. I can’t unless it be to confess that words tell me that I think.
July 1, 2002