Dannie Abse ponders fleeting inspiration in new poetry collection

Dannie Abse @ Keats House

Dannie Abse @ Keats House - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Good men, wild men, grave men. As Dylan Thomas once wrote, all must eventually face the dying of the light. For the last four years, however, his compatriot Dannie Abse has looked the other way.

Approaching his 90th birthday, the Golders Green-based poet has released a new collection, Speak, Old Parrot, which reflects on what has preceded it more than on what might follow. With the first line of the collection declaring he is “in the mildew of age”, Abse admits it could well be his last major work.

“I left the cage open,” says Abse, in reference to the metaphorical parrot that hovers over the set of poems. “We all have selves, our moody self, our happy self – the parrot represents my inspirational self. And now he’s gone.”

So he writes in the last poem, Gone, which bemoans the traceless departure of the “ventriloquist bird” that sometimes “choired loudly, dionysiac”, but also “word-whispered sedately”. Yet in the poems before Gone, the presence of the parrot is as clear as day, with Abse penning portraits of love, lust and loss with the sort of panache that has seen him awarded a CBE and mentioned by many on the same breath as poets Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy.

“It’s not just bringing the past back, it’s bringing the past back with excitement. Perhaps it’s nostalgia to a point, but hopefully it’s something less winsome. It’s about exploring the base musicality of words – I want you to go into them sober and come out drunk.”

While the death of Abse’s wife Joan in 2005 has understandably left a dark, lamenting imprint on many of his poems, there is an equal celebration of their life together in Speak, Old Parrot.

What is also evident, particularly in Abse’s poems concerning the medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, is the amount of good humour injected into the writing. One line for example, sees Abse in a café hearing two Jewish men discuss “the state of a soul”, only to disappointingly see one take off his boot and the other assure him “the heel’s all right”.

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“A lot of people think you can’t be funny and serious at the same time, but you can. Dafydd, in my opinion, was possibly the greatest Welsh language poet. He was like Chaucer. At a time when Welsh poets were writing about the countryside, he’d be writing about a penis.”

Returning to the modern day, Abse reveals he is friends with many fellow writers around Hampstead, such as Lynne Hjelmgaard and Alan Brownjohn. Furthermore, when talking about the difficulties of identifying his own poetic style, he recalls a fond relationship with Ted Hughes.

“Ted once wrote to me to apologise for being influenced by a poem of mine; he thought he’d copied my style. When I looked at it though, I had to tell him I thought it was nothing like mine.

“Do you remember what your voice sounded like the first time you heard it on a recording? Everyone else says that’s what you sound like, but you don’t know it yourself. It’s the same with your style.”

When it comes to identifying the influences behind Speak, Old Parrot however, Abse is much more self-aware. Shakespeare, Browning, Dante and Whitman play their part among many, but Joan and his brother Leo rise as some of the strongest inspirations.

“What’s influenced me most is not poets, but people, like my brother Leo who one of the poems is about. Michael Foot once said Leo Abse did more for the country from the backbench than the entire cabinet put together. Foster children, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, he was one of the leading voices in reforming all of them, so I’m very proud of that.”

Awash with experience

Looking back as it often does, some of the most striking moments of Speak, Old Parrot come from the simplest triggers. The swing of a garden gate, the plight of a wasp as a window pane blocks its path – Abse’s life is so awash with experience that thought and feeling have physically manifested themselves around every corner of his world.

“There’s a point in the collection where I quote Noel Coward, who once said something as ordinary as a cheap dance tune can trigger huge feelings. Thankfully for all of us, I’ve discovered this doesn’t have to be limited to just a cheap dance tune.”

The cage may be open, but with Danny Abse, it’s nigh on impossible that the parrot will ever quite be out of sight.

n Speak, Old Parrot by Dannie Abse is available for £14.99 from Random House. Dannie Abse is also reading at Joseph’s Bookstore in Temple Fortune on May 19. Visit josephsbookstore.com for details and tickets.