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Friday, August 19, 2011

Number 239: Dannie Abse "Three Street Musicians"

Three Street Musicians

Three street musicians in mourning overcoats
worn too long, shake money boxes this morning,
then, afterwards, play their suicide notes.

The violinist in chic, black spectacles, blind,
the stout tenor with a fake Napoleon stance,
and the looney flautist following behind,

they try to importune us, the busy living,
who hear melodic snatches of musichall
above unceasing waterfalls of traffic.

Yet if anything can summon back the dead
it is the old-time sound, old obstinate tunes,
such as they achingly render and suspend:

‘The Minstrel Boy’, ‘Roses of Picardy’.
No wonder cemeteries are full of silences
and stones keep down the dead that they defend.

Stones too light! Airs unresistible!
Even a dog listens, one paw raised, while the stout,
loud man amazes with nostalgic notes – though half boozed

and half clapped out. And, as breadcrumbs thrown
on the ground charm sparrows down from nowhere,
now, suddenly, there are too many ghosts about.

-- Dannie Abse

Hap Notes: Dannie Abse (born 1923) was born in Cardiff, Wales to Jewish parents and this gives him an extraordinary perspective right off the bat. Add to this that he trained as and is a practicing doctor as well as a poet and writer. Big intellect, lots of facets, eh?

Abse does write some "medical" poems, dealing with patients, operations, X-rays and the like but mostly he writes on a variety of subjects in a voice schooled in the classics, spiced with his own particular sensitivities. He is one of England's most famous contemporary poets and has published a couple dozen books of the stuff and won as many fellowships and awards.

In 2005 Abse's wife of 50 years, was killed in a car crash (his rib was broken in the accident also. I'll let you think on that a bit.) Joan Abse was an art historian and the love of his life. Abse's poetry is notable for its refreshing take on monogamy, love and marriage. Abse's heartbreaking memoir of his grief at her loss, "The Presence", has received much critical acclaim. His current book of verse, Two For Joy, celebrates love and marriage's passion and humor.

In today's poem we find three musicians playing old standards in a rushing modern world. But those who remember the tunes, feel memories returning like a flock of birds as they hear the songs. You know how one song can trigger a cascade of memories? The somewhat motley and strange crew of musicians has conjured up the ghosts of memories in the listeners, and win out over the loud sounds of contemporary bustling. It's a lovely poem.

We will do more Abse this year.

Here is a great Abse quote: "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 greatly. "

and another:
"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."

You can find more Abse here:

Here's his website:

The masthead is Picasso's "Three Musicians," an image that often goes through my head when I read this poem.

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