Jewish and Welsh, both physician and poet, Dannie Abse has drawn upon
seemingly disparate elements of his life in an extensive body of work
that includes ten volumes of poetry (the first published while he was
still a medical student), three novels, plays, and autobiographical
Born in Cardiff, Wales in 1923, Abse was educated at the University of Wales, and received his medical training in London at King's College and Westminster Hospital. After serving in the Royal Air Force, he practiced medicine in a chest clinic for many years. Now retired from clinical practice, he continues to write poetry.
Dannie Abse's poetry is influenced by his Jewish heritage, Welsh tradition, and his life as a husband, father, brother, and London suburban dweller. His work is richly informed by his medical experience. M. L. Rosenthal wrote that Abse "is a born yarn-spinner who loves to shape his stories into poems. Sad, or comic, or broodingly dark, these story-poems take on the mystery of fable . . . He is a lyric poet of depth, whose imaginitive reach can be both adventurous and demanding." (Foreword to White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1948-1988. New York: Persea Books, 1991.)
On being both a doctor and a writer:
"There have been many [doctor-writers] who have had great difficulty in
combining both of these professions. Tobias Smollett, the novelist, did
not prosper as a surgeon, and Oliver Goldsmith was advised to treat his
enemies rather than his patients. There was John Keats, who perhaps
suffered from too much empathy with creatures and things to become a
good doctor, to survive, perhaps, as a doctor. And I think that is a
problem for a lot of poets, that they do have this ability to empathize
"Keats used to talk about how he identified with a bird pecking at the gravel outside his window, and indeed with a billiard ball he could feel complete affinity. Some, like the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, used to say that he didn't like to leave a bit of soap behind in an hotel in case it got lonely. So I do think poets have got this problem, and they, doctor-writers, are not always as successful as William Carlos Williams was, or, indeed, Chekhov."
On learning to appreciate poetry:
"At school, I didn't like poetry. It was too much about celandines and daffodils, and skylarks, and I was, in those days, more interested in playing football and chasing girls, I suppose. But my elder brother Leo took political magazines into the house, and in these political magazines there were poems that were not about celandines, and not about skylarks, but about the war in Spain, and as a result I felt that I wanted to write political poems."
On being a medical student and fledgling poet:
"My other brother, Wilfred, who is nine years older than I, put my name down for Westminster Hospital to become a medical student when I was about thirteen years of age. . . . Well, I became a particularly dreadful medical student, and continued to write poetry, and when I was a medical student I had my first book of poems published. It was a very defective book, but I thought it was the best first book that ever existed, and I certainly felt irritated when I saw in a bookshop window. . . that it had 'Local Author,' and I resented that because I so wanted to be an international author. When the second book came out, I realized the first book was no good, and when my third book came out I realized that the second book was no good; I do think I've got better over the years."
On writing medically themed poetry:
"I would give poetry readings from time
to time, like most poets, and on one occasion I particularly remember,
somebody collared me, and said, 'You know, you're a doctor, and I
couldn't tell from your poetry that you had any medical experience.' I
think I consoled myself at the time, in that I remembered how Keats, for
example, had terrific medical experience, traumatic medical experience
-- he was a dresser to Billy Lucas Jr. at Guy's Hospital at a time when
there were no anesthetics -- and he wrote nothing about medicine in his
poems, and in his letters.
"But then I began to think about it more deeply, and I felt that poetry shouldn't be an escape from reality, but rather an immersion into reality, and part of my reality was, indeed, my hospital life at the time. And so I became prepared to write poems which had medical undertones."
A Poet in the Family (1974)
A Strong Dose of Myself (1983)
Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve (1954)
The Strange Case of Dr. Simmons And Dr. Glas
The Dogs of Pavlov (1990)
Pythagoras (Smith) (1990)
Anti-Clockwise (1) (1990)
Anti-Clockwise (2) (1990)
Be Seated, Thou (2000)
Carnal Knowledge (1990)
Case History (1986)
In the theatre: A true incident (1977)
Millie's Date (1987)
Not Beautiful (1987)
The Origin of Music (1990)
Pathology of Colours (1977)
The Stethoscope (1989)
A Winter Visit (1987)
Audio and text of commentary reproduced with the permission of Dannie Abse.