Paxman Abse Mort crop May 2014 Jeremy Paxman, Dannie Abse, Helen Mort judging the Forwards.  © David Secombe


On Tuesday this year’s Forward Prize winners will be announced, and the entire auditorium will be in a hush of sorrow. There will be a hole where one of the judges was to have sat, and most of the people in the auditorium will be feeling bereft. A light has gone out.

I use this expression without cliché or melodrama. It’s literally true: Dannie Abse has died. The Welsh Jewish  doctor poet: a man of whom every word in that barest identity speaks of culture, words, thought, care. I only met him once or twice, but over the years, whenever he was present at a poetry reading or gathering, I’d see him talking to someone or other and he always gave off an amazing glow – a sort of aura – what was it? Not exactly visible, but something as obvious as sunlight. This seemed to me one of the chief things about him.  For me, it’s a measurement of what’s been lost with his premature death at the age of only 91.

In 2007 I wrote about the launch of an Oxfam poetry CD, ‘Life Lines 2′, at St-Giles-In-the-Fields Church; one of the best things about the event was Dannie Abse. Here’s what I wrote about him then:

Dannie Abse started the evening off, reading in his beautiful voice – one of the beautiful reading voices that seem to be disappearing, as no one any more seems to have the particular tone necessary for that kind of modulation. Anyway, he stood there all small and handsome and white-haired and really very old now, with the largest pair of reading glasses I have ever seen, and to be honest by the end of his first poem I was all choked up. It was a lament for his cousin Sidney who lied about his age to join the Army in 1940, & was killed… but also much more than that. Stunning poem, and a wonderful beginning to the evening. Especially after the speeches. And most of the rest of his poems were very sexy…

The other thing I mentioned was how lovely it was to sit behind him and see him laughing away merrily during Attila the Stockbroker’s set.

Parrot AbseAbse’s last book came out last year: Speak, Old Parrot (the old parrot in question being his ‘inspirational self’; I want a parrot too) dealt with old age, the loss of his beloved wife Joan in 2003, and life. Life! Dannie Abse had more of it even in his frail old age than many people ever get. The book deals with many things – sorrow, grief, love, sex,  the dailiness of things… A lot of it is very funny. He ate a lot at a little Italian place called L’Artista, and it figures in many of the poems. You grow to love it: there he is again, doing his thing, taking you with him… I especially like the one called ‘Perspectives’, which bears the inscription, ’5 paragraphs for Frank O’Hara’ (& n.b., I hope that under the circumstances no one minds me quoting the whole poem; buy the book, you won’t regret it.):

I sit in L’Artista, our local Italian restaurant.
Outside, a rain-thrashed queue waits for their bus.
At an adjacent table, a man with liquorice hair
is shouting to himself; but soon I discover
he’s phoning someone. At 1.50pm I order
Fusilli all’ Ortolana and their house-red poison.

A waitress bending forward to pick up a spoon
bothers me in more ways than two.
She moves with such grace and femininity
the very earth is richer where she stands
It surely makes all the clientele forget
their ‘nostalgia for the infinite’ and to understand,
perhaps for the first time, ‘the nostalgia of the infinite’.

Umbrellas pass by the window as I eat my pasta.
Some of it spills onto my trousers, dammit.
Why does this make me think of how those poets
who write enigmatic nonsense become famously
the darlings of the professors they  most despise?

At 2.23 p.m. I drink my cappuccino and glance
at the TV that’s flitting behind the counter.
The 2012 dogs of war are pissing on the dead, Frank.
It could by Syria. Could be Afghanistan.

At 2.40 p.m. the Renoir beautiful one
brings me the bill (£15.10p). She squawks. Pity
her voice like a very active yak makes me shiver.
Outside the rain’s gone North. A 2.41 droplet
of pure silver falls from a high tin roof.

Now, clearly, the whole thing pivots on one little preposition. And the poem plays a bit of a game. For any of you who may have momentarily forgotten about Frank O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ manifesto, here’s a bit of context.

The poem, of course, is about more than just pasta and the waitress and the TV. First, it is the poem of an old man, addressed to a man who never became old. Specifically, an old man reflecting on time, marking time, knowing he hasn’t got an awful lot of it at his disposal, addressing a colleague who never had half the amount. It’s about the present. The ever-rolling present.

Dannie, in the poem, is a very much living man – a man who minds about the state of his trousers – writing to the instructions of a long-dead one. The poem oozes with love of the immediate, sensory detail, the possibilities of everything. It’s an homage – not just to the moment, and not just to Frank, but to their common ground. In fulfilling the rules of the Personism manifesto, Dannie addresses Frank – and, more tellingly, what is also clear, Frank addresses Dannie. He has addressed him in the Manifesto (and in his poems), and Dannie is listening.

Abse and O’Hara shared a world and a generation; they were were young in that sense together, in a time that had its own chaos, but when you’re young(ish) the world is full of possibility and constantly making itself, in the same way that it must be unmaking itself if you’re 90, even though the waitress is beautiful and the man has liquorice hair.

‘The 2012 dogs of war are pissing on the dead, Frank.’ In addressing Frank, this once, far down the poem, in such a register – by coming out of the poem (though inside the rules of the game) to comment on the news of this day – he makes the poem rise above itself and leap across time. It does this neatly while literally marking off its minutes: affectionately, or warily, or in memoriam.

Dammit. ‘Nostalgia of the infinite’. It’s so clever, so light,  so delicious. It makes me want to stay and be in the restaurant with him, but he’s paid the bill, he’s leaving, nothing lasts forever, he’s out the door, a droplet of silver falls from the roof.

PS, A NOTE ON THE PICTURE:  My other half took the photograph above, and I not only love it, I feel somehow really proud of him having taken it. I can’t help it. It was exciting to find this sequence when he got home with the pictures in the camera and we were looking through to see what he’d got. This one is already in use by the Forward Foundation, but I was saving it for the announcement of the winners, only two days from now.  It’s so much about Dannie Abse, though, I’m using it today in a much sadder way than I had thought I would have to. And it’s such a happy picture.


PPS, as I’ve been writing this the Forward Foundation has written that the prize ceremony will, of course, be held in memory of Dannie. There is a lovely account of his activity on the judging panel.




‘Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me…’

Today, 16 September, while the Scottish Referendum rages, the future once again seems uncertain – like it did for some of us this week ten years ago, when Michael Donaghy lay in hospital, on a life support system, after a massive brain haemorrhage. Of course, I now know from reading his widow Maddy’s book (The Great Below) that already by this stage they did pretty much know what was going to happen when they turned the machine off that evening. The future in that sense – for Michael – was certain enough. But for many of the rest of us that week was long and helpless; and after he died (unimaginably)  there was a real sense of what now, how do we go on.

Well, so, what indeed?

Things did go on, as things always go on, and Michael’s death changed both nothing and everything. As a friend – another of his ex-students – said to me at the big memorial service at the Union Chapel: ‘We all have to grow up now’. We had no choice. We kept writing, we formed alliances, we published. We grew, changed. One group of us spent a year meeting almost weekly, putting together a book of our work, with John Stammers supplying the foreword. It was clinging to spars, we were each other’s spars, and the book – The Like Of It – launched several of us on our way.  (& n.b., I still have a few copies…) It’s been repeatedly said by a poet friend of the previous(-but-one) generation that he’s never seen anything like the solidarity Michael’s old students have as a group. ‘We never had anything like that in the old days’. And it’s true. We found that we were a family, of sorts.

The poetry landscape changed, by chance, in the ensuing decade. A new, startling generation of talented 20something poets came rushing up (almost too fast for those of us whom Michael was in some despair about, in his last year, because there simply weren’t the opportunities for us to be published then), with their different inspirations and concerns. But Salt, the old Cambridge experimental poetry press, suddenly jumped up and grew, encompassing the mainstream – but the hip, groovy mainstream –  and many of us, having indeed grown up, had our first and second collections published there. The internet became, not just a thing, but actually THE thing. People who remember Donaghy’s many alter egos on the discussion boards, and the emails he used to send out to everyone he knew (the jokes, the memes, the links to the Japanese cat-costumes websites) know what he would have been like on Facebook! Facebook even drives poetic careers: we’re ‘friends’ and definitely colleagues with more of our American cohort than ever before. And some of the ‘best’ places to get poems published in are webzines, which operate across borders.

In short, we’re much more integrated. Some of the old Poetry Wars arguments seem dated now. ‘Formalism’ has largely dropped its prefix ‘New’, except for in a sort of subculture where that’s more the point, seemingly, than the poetry itself – kind of like its opposite number where nothing must EVER rhyme. Much of the work that calls itself ‘innovative’ is, in fact, completely accessible – more linguistically, syntactically, imagistically standard, even, than the stuff the ‘innovative’ people complain about as being ‘mainstream’. I hope Michael would have applauded this tendency, as it opens up the field of poetry and lyric to a wider part of the brain. I like to think he’d have really liked Luke Kennard and Mark Waldron, for example.

Ten years on, I myself teach poetry, and Donaghy was my example for that. He gave me the reason why and a way to do it – though I’m nothing like him, of course. Now he’s one of the people whose work we teach, we share his poems, we quote his ideas, we tell the stories. Because there was nobody quite like him, at all, on either side of the ocean. And – in a neat sidestepping of the truism about writers’ reputations going into posthumous freefall – his work is revered by young and old poets as a lodestone. Technically rigorous, formally ingenious, full of intellectual games, and heart, full of music and literary theory, full of jokes that make you cry – challenging, and always there when you need it.

Well, as of today, it’s been ten whole years. I think we did grow up. And he’s still here.



Free Verse and Penned in the Margins: be there or be square

August 29, 2014

Once again it’s that time. If you can possibly get to London next Saturday – the 6th, that is, not tomorrow – and are even remotely interested in the state of UK poetry, Free Verse is the place to be. I think this might be the fair’s fourth year; it’s now such a well-embedded date […]

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The Great Below and the great after

August 18, 2014

This year marks ten years since Michael Donaghy died. As it happens, this autumn his Collecteds – poems and prose – are both going to be out in paperback, at last. Almost more to the point, the first critical guide to his work (appropriately called Smith: A Reader’s Guide to Michael Donaghy) will be published by […]

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Purple prose for purple times

August 4, 2014

1980: One of the things I really wish I hadn’t lost over the years is my great-grandfather’s scrapbook. It was a large, old-fashioned tome with dark pages, on which anything that meant something to my great-grandfather had been glued. A lot of it was very boring to the teenager I was when I read it. […]

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John McCullough: blog tour guest post no. 4

August 3, 2014

John McCullough had been on the poetry scene for ten years or so and had three pamphlets published (including the Tall Lighthouse pamphlet, The Lives of Ghosts) by the time his first collection came out in 2o11.  The Frost Fairs - one of the many generation-changing first collections made possible by the Salt – won the Polari […]

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Jen the Zen: or, how we live today

August 1, 2014

Tomorrow, John McCullough’s guest post on his writing process – the final one in the series – goes up. In the meantime I came across this video of Jen Hadfield talking about her remote life as a poet in Shetland and it really resonated with me, as well as setting up a sort of base […]

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Pop-in summer poetry!

July 22, 2014

On Tuesday 29 July and 5 August I’m running two pop-up poetry workshop sessions, over the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. The workshops will be mixed level – as long as you’re self-generating and not a complete beginner, you’ll fit in. My groups are very inclusive, and are open to the whole range of poetry […]

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