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Interview with Dannie Abse
  1. Paul K Dakin
  1. Correspondence to Dr Paul K Dakin, Woodlands Medical Practice, 54 Leopold Rd, London N2 8BG, UK; pdakin{at}

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Dannie Abse is a rare specimen—a highly successful and widely published British poet. Having written and edited more than 16 collections of poetry and several novels, he was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the 2012 New Year's Honours List. Sitting in the unseasonal warmth of the writer's North London garden, our conversation was punctuated by songbirds and interrupted by planes overhead, giving pause for Dannie to reflect. ‘You know, a lot of people don't feel comfortable with poetry. They think poets should be dead. They can only be honoured once they are dead like heroes and saints. People have respect for poets even when they are not read, but would never think of them as respectable.’

Much of Dannie's work was inspired by his experience as a doctor. Coming from a happy Jewish home in depression-era Cardiff, 15-year-old Dannie idolised his older brother Wilfred, a student at the Welsh National School of Medicine. Wilfred's idea that Dannie should apply to the newly founded Westminster Medical School appealed greatly to the teenager who had already been inspired by a film biography of medical pioneer Ehrlich, and the romantic notion of saving lives. A second strand of inspiration struck through another brother Leo, later an MP, who brought home political magazines that included poems provoked by the poverty in the Welsh valleys and the suffering of the Spanish civil war. Moved by what he now calls the ‘paradox of slums in a world of colours’ Dannie sent his first offering to Penguin New Writing prompting a kindly note from the editor John Lehmann that encouraged him to keep on writing after he was admitted to Westminster. During the holidays, he would visit Cardiff Public Library, and starting with ‘A’ for ‘Auden’ systematically made …

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  • Contributors This article is based entirely on an interview given to me.

  • Competing interest None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.