Dannie Abse CBE (1923-2014) was a poet, playwright and novelist whose literary career spans almost seven decades: his latest collection, Speak Old Parrot (2013) was short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize. He died on Sunday 28 September at the age of 91.
His death deprives the world of a great poet, and the 2014 Forward Prizes of a superb judge. When asked to join the jury, he wondered what it involved. “Reading just about every book of poetry that comes out this year,” I replied. “Ah! Well, it’s a good way of keeping up,” he said, brightening immediately. “I do like to know what’s going on.”
In the event, this week’s final judging and awards ceremony will happen without Dannie, though not without his contribution. He was a powerful jury member at the first meeting in June: at one point, he banged the table at the suggestion that a certain name be dropped from one of the shortlists. “That would be a shame,” he said. “Not just a mistake, but a shame.” The name stayed.
Jeremy Paxman, chairman of the judges, who has reduced many younger men to incoherent jelly, knew better then to argue back: indeed, when the judging threatened to get bogged down, the chairman turned to Dannie for a marvellously simple solution involving scrumpled paper and a great deal of laughter.
For Dannie was fearless and funny to the end: when asked how he decided whether a collection was any good, he said he would read the first ten pages and if nothing struck him as interesting, it was ditched.
“I hope to go into a poem sober and come out a little drunk. And if I do then that’s a real poem.”
We will miss him very much on Tuesday and dedicate this year’s Forward Prizes ceremony at the Southbank centre to his memory.
Director, Forward Arts Foundation
“Abse is from a Jewish background, is Welsh, and a doctor: biographical facts which feature in his poems. He has an immediately likeable poetic voice, compassionate, humorous, observant.” (Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry) You can hear him read his poetry at the Poetry Archive.