Biography of Harry Kemp
Harry Hibbard Kemp was an American poet and prose writer of the twentieth century. He was known as (and promoted himself as) "the "Vagabond Poet, the Villon of America, the Hobo Poet, or the Tramp Poet," and was a well-known popular literary figure of his era, the "hero of adolescent Americans."
Life and Work
Kemp was born in Youngstown, Ohio, the only son of a candymaker. He was raised by his grandmother, in a house by the local train yards. At the age of seventeen he left home to become a common seaman; after returning to the United States he traveled across the country by riding the rails as a hobo. He later attended the University of Kansas, and while a student he began publishing verse in newspapers and magazines. He spent much of his maturity traveling; he stayed in a number of planned communities for varying lengths of time, then wrote autobiographical novels about his experiences. Kemps Tramping on Life: An Autobiographical Narrative (1922) was one of the best selling "tramp autobiographies" of the 1900-1939 period. When not traveling he was a regular denizen of Greenwich Village in New York City and Provincetown on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where he was associated with the Provincetown Players. There is a street named for him, Harry Kemp Way, in Provincetown, MA. Harry Kemp was also known as the "poet of the dunes." Kemp lived on and off in a shack in the dunes of Provincetwon, Cape Cod for a period of about 40 years, and he died there in 1960. A 1934 Kemp poem titled, "The Last Return," was written for the Coast Guard men who have steadfastly worked to save the lives of those shipwrecked on Cape Cod's coast.
Kemp had a knack for self-promotion, what he called "the Art of Spectacularism," and early learned to collaborate with and manipulate journalists to attract attention to his work. He spent time in Paris in the early 1920s, along with the more famous members of the Lost Generation.
Kemp knew many of the bohemian and progressive literary and cultural figures of his generation, including Elbert Hubbard, Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Bernarr MacFadden, Sinclair Lewis, Max Eastman, Eugene O'Neill, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, and many others. Kemp played a role in the first stage production of O'Neill's earliest play. Kemp was physically imposing, "Tall, broad-shouldered, and robust," and gained a reputation as a lover, sometimes of other men's wives; he was involved in various scandals throughout his career. His part in Upton Sinclair's divorce was especially notorious in its day.
In addition to his original books, Kemp translated a play by Tirso de Molina as The Love-Rogue (1923), and edited The Bronze Treasury (1927), "an anthology of 81 obscure English poets." Kemp's views turned somewhat more conservative with age; he rejected leftist and anarchist sympathies and wrote approvingly of Jesus as the "divine hobo" and the "super tramp."
Kemp's reputation had declined into obscurity by the time of his death in 1960; but his role in the history of modern American literature and the American left has brought renewed interest and further publication of his work.
According to Louis Untermeyer (editor of Modern American Poetry), Kemp's early collections (The Cry of Youth, The Passing God) are "full of every kind of poetry except the kind one might imagine Kemp would write. Instead of crude and boisterous verse, here is precise and over-polished poetry." Untermeyer's opinion was that Chanteys and Ballads is "riper," with "the sense of personality more pronounced.
Harry Kemp's Works:
The Cry of Youth (1914)
The Thresher's Wife (1914)
The Passing God: Songs for Lovers (1919)
Chanteys and Ballads: Sea-Chanteys, Tramp-Ballads and Other Ballads and Poems (1920)
Tramping on Life: An Autobiographical Narrative (1922)
Boccaccio's Untold Tale and Other One-Act Plays (1924)
More Miles: An Autobiographical Novel (1926)
Sea and the Dunes and Other Poems (1926)
Don Juan's Note-Book (1929)
The Golden Word (1930)
Love Among the Cape Enders (1931)
Mabel Tarner, An American Primitive (1936)
The Left Heresy in Literature and Life (1939), with Laura Riding and Robert Graves
The Poet's Life of Christ (1946)
Provincetown Tideways (1948)
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Harry Kemp Poems
The Spring blew trumpets of color; Her Green sang in my brain -- I heard a blind man groping "Tap -- tap" with his cane;
A Seaman's Confession Of Faith
As long as I go forth on ships that sail The mighty seas, my faith, O Lord, won't fail; And while the stars march onward mightily
A Sailor's Life
Oh, a sailor hasn't much to brag - An oilskin suit and a dunnage bag. But, howsoever humble he be, By the Living God, he has the sea!
The Doldrums (A Still-Life Picture)
The sails hang dead, or they lift and flap like a cornfield scarecrow's coat, And the seabirds swim abreast of us like ducks that play, a-float,
When you've failed with ordered people, when you've sunk neck-deep again In the sluggish wash and jetsam of the slackened tides of men, Don't get old and mean and bitter, - there's a primal remedy - Just take a ship to sea, my lad, just take a ship to sea.
A Whaler's Confession
Three long years a-sailing, three long years a-whaling, Kicking through the ice floes, caught in calm or gale,
Tell them, O Sky-born, when I die With high romance to wife, That I went out as I had lived, Drunk with the joy of life.
A Wheat-Field Fantasy
As I sat on a Kansas hilltop, While, far away from my, Rippled the lights and shadows Dancing across acres of wheat,
Going Down In Ships
Going down to sea in ships Is a glorious thing, Where up and over the rolling waves The seabirds wing;
Shanghaied! . . . I swore I'd stay ashore And sail the wide, wide seas no more! . . . Shanghaied! Shanghaied!
A Poet's Room (Greenwich Village 1912)
I have a table, cot and chair And nothing more. The walls are bare Yet I confess that in my room Lie Syrian rugs rich from the loom,
At Sea I Learned The Weather
At sea I learned the weather, At sea I learned to know That waves raged not forever,
There's not much in the fo'c'sle of a ship But old sea boots and chests that stand in rows While up above a smoky lantern glows,
These are the songs that we sing with crowding feet, Heaving up the anchor chain, Or walking down the deck in the wind and sleet
A Whaler's Confession
Three long years a-sailing, three long years a-whaling,
Kicking through the ice floes, caught in calm or gale,
Lost in flat Sargasso seas, cursing at the prickly heat,
Going months without a sight of another sail.
I've learned to hate the Mate, and I've always cursed the Captain.
I hate the bally Bo'sun, and all the bally crew, -
And, sometimes, in the night-watch, the long and starry night-watch,
Queer thoughts have run wild in my head - I've even hated you!