Dannie Abse’s death at the age of 91 on Sunday 28 September 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.” / Forward Prize