Sunday, April 26, 2015

National Poetry Month—The Self-inventing Harry Kemp

Harry Kemp circa 1920 in a suit two sizes too small....

In the visual arts stuff variously labeled folk art, outsider art, and primitive art has become a hot commodity, as any addict of Antiques Road Show can tell you.  Collectors pay big prices, galleries and museums host  hot shows, and serious critics and academics  review and analyze. 
Alas it is very different in the literary world, especially with poetry.  There are at any time hundreds of thousands of folks in this country committing poetry who have no academic training, no association with established schools of poetry, no publication in highly regarded literary journals or little magazines.  Yet they write any way and seek public attention any way they can get it.  In the old days they deluged the columns of local newspapers that were grateful for free space fillers and maybe hopeful of a few extra copies sold to be given to the writer’s friends or relatives.  Some self-published collections, which despite the success of Walt Whitman and others, were generally dismissed and vanity projects.  Once in a great while some of these books would catch on with the public and the poets would go on to some success—think of the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley or Vachel Lindsay’s Poems to be Traded for Bread—but their reputation with the literary establishment would be tainted by their origin.
In more modern times, they pay entrance fees for mostly bogus poetry contests and pay through the nose for copies of anthologies including their work and made up of submissions by anyone who could lick a stamp and seal an envelope.  These days they post to any of dozens of poetry web pages, or in their own blogs and web pages.  That would include the proprietor of this pop stand.
Admittedly the vast majority of all of this feverish work is not very good.  In fact, much is downright painful.  But the law of averages tells us that there must be native genius among the dross.  In fact, exceptional poets and poetry can be found.  But they will seldom get recognized unless they also follow more traditional academic and literary paths. C’est la vie.
All of this yammering  prologue is by way of introducing Harry Kemp, a poet who with great self-promotion went out of his way to portray himself as an outsider and naïve scribbler.  In that guise he defied expectations and became quite popular with the public.  His books sold briskly and like Robert Service—although very different from him—became a favorite of the demographic usually most averse to verse—adolescent boys.
Before his death, Kemp had faded back into obscurity and is virtually forgotten today.  That obscurity is largely due to that self-created image.  But Kemp was in fact a polished and accomplished poet who was associated with many of the leading figures of the avant garde over a long period of time and thus a member of a “school” and even got his necessary academic ticket punched albeit at a Midwestern university and not an Ivy League bastion.  If he hadn’t tried so hard to obscure all of that, he might be better remembered today.
Kemp was born December 15, 1883 in Youngstown, Ohio, the only son of a candy maker.  He was raised mostly by a grandmother and was evidently restless.  At age 17 he left home and made his way to the east coast where he shipped out as a merchant seaman in 1900 after a few short years at sea he took off across America, riding the rails as a hobo.  Thus he came by the experience on which he built a persona honestly. 
He ceased his travels long enough to attend the University of Kansas.  Although he did not graduate, he stayed long enough to pick up an interest in poetry and refine his skills.  While still in Lawrence, he began to have success in selling poems to newspaper and national magazines.  His early poems were formal and traditional, but showed great technical master and a willingness to undertake unusual subject matter. 
After leaving school, he came to Greenwich Village in New York City, even then the epicenter of avant garde artists, intellectuals, and radicals, all of whom were soon his companions, comrades, mentors, and peers.  Supporting himself at odd jobs and by sales of verse to magazines, he was able to publish his first collection, The Cry of Youth and a long poem The Farmer’s Wife in 1914.  Kemp would still strike out on rambles, but returned to the village.
If the West Coast writer and Socialist Jack London had been an inspiration for his early adventures at sea and  on rail, in the village he fell under the spell of Eugene O’Neill, who had also gone to see.  Both were associated with the Provincetown  Players and Kemp was cast as one of the seamen in O’Neill’s first play, Bound East for Cardiff.  He began to spend summers with the troop at Provincetown on  Cape Cod which would eventually become his year round home.
Amongst the places Kemp visited on his rambles, and sometimes stayed at for a while, were various utopian communities he came across beginning with Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, New Jersey in 1906 or ’07, when it burned down.  The two would remain close until Kemp, a strapping six-footer with blonde hair and a notorious ladies man, had an affair with Sinclair’s first wife Mett Fuller resulting in their divorce in 1911, and lending a touch to titillating scandal to Kemp’s name.
In 1920 Kemp published the collection that made his reputation, Chanteys and Ballads: Sea-Chanteys, Tramp-Ballads and Other Ballads and Poems.  His style was fresh and conversational and he had colorful stories to tell.  Taking to the lecture platform like Vachel Lindsay, Kemp began to promote himself as the Vagabond Poet, the Villon of America, the Hobo Poet, and the Tramp Poet.
This reputation was cemented two years later when Tramping on Life: An Autobiographical Narrative —thought to be “enhanced”—was published.  There were a slew of hobo memoirs published in the years after World War I and well into the Depression years—think of Boxcar Bertha and Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, a late entry in the genre—but Kemp’s entertaining book was among the most popular, as was his 1926 follow-up More Miles: An Autobiographical Novel. 
Tramping on Life was successful enough to finance Kemp’s early ‘20’s sojourn to Paris to hobnob with the expatriate crowd there.

Harry Kemp's shack in the Provincetown dunes.

By the late ‘20’s Kemp made Provincetown his home base permanently, although he continued to travel.  He built a little shack out in the dunes of Cape Cod.  Hardly a hermit, he encouraged visits by the summer people who flocked to the Cape in season, regaled them with stories, and was always willing to sell them volumes of his verse.
Over the years he published several more volumes of poetry, although none ever had the success of Chanteys and Ballads, as well as a collection of short plays and a novel, Mabel Tarner, An American Primitive in 1936.
During the World War II years Kemp abandoned his radicalism and self-proclaim anarchism and turned much more conservative.  He adopted Christianity, a path followed almost simultaneously with the IWW poet, artist, and editor Ralph Chaplain.  In 1946 he published The Poet’s Life of Christ in which he described Jesus as a divine hobo and the super tramp.  All of this alienated Kemp from most of his former circle of writers and artists.
He published two more books of poetry, Provincetown Tideways in 1948 and Poet of the Dunes in 1952. which he mostly peddled in Provincetown in his adopted role of local color character.
He died in obscurity on August 15, 1960 in Provincetown at the age 76.  He is locally recalled there by a street, Harry Kemp Way.  Tourists can still purchase copies of his books about the Cape and the Dunes at local souvenir shops.

Portrait of Harry Kemp in middle age by S. Edmund Oppenheim.

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,
Stand statues poised on flying toe,
Hang tapestries with folk a-flow
As the wind takes them to and fro,
And workman fancy has inlaid
My walls with ivory and jade.

Though opening on a New York street
Full of cries and hurrying feet
My window is a faery space
That gives on each imagined place;
Old ruins lost in a desert peace;
The broken fanes and shrines of Greece;
Aegean islands fringed with foam;
The everlasting tops of Rome;
Troy flowing red with skyward flame,
And every spot of hallowed fame.

Outside my window I can see
The sweet blue lake of Galilee,
And Carmel’s purple-regioned height
And Sinai clothed with stars and night.
But this is told in confidence,
So not a word when you go hence,
For if my landlord once but knew
My attic fetched so large a view,
The churl would never rest content
Till he had raised the monthly rent.

—Harry  Kemp
I’ve Decked the Tops

I’ve decked the tops of flying cars
That leaped across the night;

The long and level coaches skimmed
Low, like a swallow's flight.

Close to the sleet-bit blinds I’ve clung
Rocking on and on;

All night I’ve crouched in empty cars
That rode into the dawn,

Seeing the ravelled edge of life
In jails, on rolling freights

And learning rough and ready ways
From rough and ready mates.

—Harry  Kemp

At Sea I Learned The Weather

At sea I learned the weather,
At sea I learned to know
That waves raged not forever,
Winds did not ever blow.

I learned that, ‘mid the thunder,
Was nothing might avail
But lying to and riding
The storm with scanted sail,
Knowing that calm would follow
Filled full of golden light
Though hail and thunder deafened
The watches of the night.

And, now today I’m sailing
The changing seas no more,
But tied up to a woman
And snug and safe ashore,
With pipe and ‘baccy handy
And Sal still loving me -
I tell you that I’m thankful
For things I learned at sea!

—Harry  Kemp

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