A doctor and poet
Dannie Abse is a poet and doctor. He was born into a Welsh-Jewish family in Cardiff in 1923. He studied medicine at Cardiff University College, King’s College, London, and Westminster Hospital. His first book of poetry was published while he was still a medical student. Over the years he has received many awards for his poetry, plays, and fiction. He was in the Royal Air Force from 1951-54 and he was a specialist in charge of the chest clinic at the Central Medical Establishment, London. He continued his employment there as a civilian until 1989. He married Joan Mercer, the art historian, in 1951 and has two daughters and a son. His wife died in a car crash in 2005. His book, The Presence, which won the Wales Book of the Year Award 2008, commemorates their life together. Since then he has been the recipient of a Wilfred Owen Award and a CBE. His most recent book of poems, Speak Old Parrot, was published last year and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
My mother used to say “Dannie never thinks of tomorrow.” She was wrong. I did and I do. But I rarely think of the day after tomorrow. That’s why, perhaps, I have always resisted the idea of buying life insurance and that is certainly why, also, since the question of what-are-you-going-to-be-when-you-grow-up had been solved, I thought more of being a medical student than a doctor
Did you find the training tough?
My early, intimate encounters with suffering and dependent human beings stirred me up. Of course they did. Yet, like others, gradually I became used to the recurring decimal of calamity. Occasionally though, I felt drained inside, hollow as zero. For some incidents were too touching.
When did you start writing poetry?
In the sixth form at school, but of course they weren’t real poems. It took me years to learn my craft.
It’s clear that medicine has influenced your poems. Has writing influenced the way that you practised medicine?
The novelist, Ian McEwan, asserted “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” The problem is that many poets are cursed with the gift of empathy so it wasn’t my writing that influenced the way I practised medicine, but the kind of person who I am.
What have been the highlights of your two careers in medicine and literature?
Medicine may be a career but to be a poet is a destiny. One highlight of my life was the day I qualified as a doctor. I remember phoning home to my parents in Wales. “This is Doctor Abse” I said. My father replied. “About bloody time.”
One literary highlight arrived by post unexpectedly in 1972. I opened the letter and discovered that I had been invited to be the poet in residence at Princetown University. I was given a sabbatical year from the chest clinic and enjoyed doing damn all pleasantly in the United States during the next year. I must add that coming home was also a highlight as I found another letter inviting me to go on the radio programme Desert Island Discs.
Who would you like to thank and why?
I’m indebted to so many people. My parents for instance and my elder brothers who debated over the kitchen table the ideas of an earlier time such as the theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. In medicine I am grateful particularly to that fine physician Air Vice Marshall Sir Aubrey Rumball who promoted me to squadron leader in charge of the RAF chest clinic opposite the Middlesex Hospital in London. Later when I was a civilian he employed me to supervise that same clinic.
Most of all I owe so much to my late wife, Joan, as you’ll see in the following poem.
For the unbidden swish of morning curtains
you opened wide—letting sleep—baiting shafts
of sunlight enter to lie down by my side;
for adagio afternoons when you did the punting
(my toiling eyes researched the shifting miles of sky);
For back-garden evenings when you chopped the wood
And I, incomparably, did the grunting;
(a man to good for this world of snarling
is no good for his wife—truth’s the safest lie);
For applauding my poetry, O most perceptive spouse;
for the improbable and lunatic, my darling;
for the amorous amnesties after rancorous rows,
like sweet-nothing whisperings of a leafy park
After the blatant noise of a city street,
(exit booming cannons, enter peaceful ploughs);
for kindnesses the blind side of my night-moods;
for lamps you brought in to devour the dark.
My debts continue to accumulate not least that which is owed to the poet Lynne Hjelmgaard for her love, companionship, and her poetry.Sally Carter, technical editor, Student BMJ
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2014;22:g2656