Bridgend: Seren, 2010. 333pp. £14.99.
Not all writers, it seems to me, lend themselves to the ‘Sourcebook,’ or ‘Reader’ format. Dannie Abse, on the other hand, is a natural candidate for this kind of treatment. Over his long and distinguished career he has excelled in a variety of different forms (including plays), in most of which his writing has tended to be episodic in nature. Indeed it might even be argued that he is particularly well served by the ‘Sourcebook’ approach, because otherwise he would be liable to pay a high price for his fluent, subtle, quietly insinuating diversity: few would otherwise be sufficiently inward with his work as a whole to be able to appreciate the distinctively inflected yet faithfully integrated character of his multifaceted and variegated vision.
This companion is intended, we’re told, to highlight Abse the poet. To that end it assembles a selection of his own incidental writings on poetry, adds samples of his fictional autobiographies and journal entries that bring out the quirkiness of mind in which he so delights, includes an informative interview, and concludes with reviews and essays on his work. The materials span the fifty years and more of Abse’s remarkably productive writing life, and what is striking is the consistency of tone and outlook that is manifest across that entire period.
Documented here is his early cautious, typically equivocal attachment to the New Romantics of the forties (particularly dangerous in the case of Dylan Thomas), his ‘maverick’ dissent from the drab new conformities of ‘the Movement’ (while from the first, in a display of quiet, characteristic critical shrewdness, recognizing Larkin as a special talent), and his intelligent advocacy of a European perspective to offset the ‘little Englandism’ rampant in the writings of the fifties.
Scattered throughout these early writings are phrases and observations already maturely encapsulating the poetic credo to which he has remained true down to the present day: ‘a poetic intelligence should correlate the wedding of aural and visual elements, not a prose one’; there is the need ‘for some ceremony in the diction, for the poem itself to own the formality of ceremony’; ‘poetry depends upon unconscious engenderings and proliferations. Poetry is written in the brain but the brain is bathed in blood’; ‘Han Fei…in the third century B.C., maintained that it was too easy to paint a ghost but most difficult to paint cats and dogs’. Thrown off in Abse’s inimitable – and cunningly disarming – manner, each of these could be expanded into a weighty poetic. But expansion has never been Abse’s style. A player of cricket in his youth, as a poet he has ever favoured the verbal leg glance over the great heave-ho for some grand, and grandstanding boundary. His best writing has all the gentle elegance and grace of the strokes of Colin Cowdrey long ago, a giant, lumbering figure at the crease whose delicacy of touch therefore seemed all the more miraculous. Abse’s writing, too, is all about finesse, angles and obliquities.
Abse’s deep attachment to aphorisms, parables, Rabbinical wisdom sayings and Yiddish jokes may well, as he implies in some of these essays and interviews, be an expression of his inherent Jewishness, but it may also owe more than a little to his having been brought up in a vividly argumentative, left-wing Cardiff family, and to have spent a lot of his time in the company of his flamboyantly loud and eloquently assertive brother, Leo. An instinct for evasion tactics, for deflection of dogma, is not unlikely to enter the very marrow of one’s imagination under such circumstances. In Abse’s case it has certainly rhymed with his lifelong distaste for all fixed ideologies and for engagé writing of any stripe. ‘Outside is a lonely place,’ is the motto he has adopted as his own, and from an early age, he seems to have taken Autolychus – that snapper-up of unconsidered trifles – as his Muse for exploring what, admitting his 50s debt to Sartre and Camus (an important debt so far unexplored by his commentators), he characterizes as man’s curious, and puzzling, ‘existential’ condition. His central philosophy is that trifles can mean the world without ever ceasing to be their ordinary, unremarkable selves. Hence his revealing love of a Zen saying:
To a man who knows nothing, mountains are mountains, waters are waters and trees are trees. But when he has studied and knows a little, mountains are no longer mountains, waters are no longer waters and trees are no longer trees. But when he has thoroughly understood, mountains are once again mountains, waters are waters and trees are trees.
Many ambitious writers seem afraid of failing to see the wood for the trees. Abse has always been confident of seeing the wood in the tree.
His own writings seem naturally to take the form of parables about the strangeness of the human mind and its enigmatic world. Fascinated, as a doctor, by the astonishing power both of denial and of suggestion, he has made the indeterminable character of human imaginings the real subject both of his poetry and of his prose writings. Hence his teasingly inconclusive pursuit of the Welsh Red Indian his father claimed was his regular fishing companion.
Abse loves Yiddish stories for ‘their compass, their humour, their humanity.’ It is these qualities that have made his own work so deeply loved by several generations of readers. This useful sourcebook should not only satisfy such customers but also quietly charm, and no doubt soundly hook, even such casual readers as happen upon it.
M. Wynn Thomas
Professor Thomas is Emyr Humprheys Chair of Welsh Writing in English, founder and former Director of CREW, the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales, at Swansea University.