Obituary: Harry Kemp

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Henry Vincent Kemp, poet: born 11 December 1911; twice married (one son, one daughter); died 2 September 1994.

Harry Kemp was a teacher of mathematics with a lifelong dedication to poetry. A lively raconteur with a roving and satirical eye, he was a small, ruddy-faced man, old-fashioned in his dress, credulous in his judgements.

Always short of funds, he nevertheless remained hospitable and spent what he could save on publishing more than 10 books of his cool, well-shaped poems.

A surviving testimony to his generosity is the statue in the headmaster's garden at Stowe School which Kemp donated in memory of the writer James Reeves, his closest friend for many years.

Reeves's own admiration for Kemp's poetry caused him, in 1935, to send 10 of his poems to the American poet Laura Riding, who was living with Robert Graves in Majorca. Riding was sufficiently impressed to publish them in Epilogue III, the literary publication edited and, to a large extent, written by her, while it was financed by Graves, her associate editor. So it was that Kemp became a part of their circle. When Riding and Graves returned to England in 1936, Kemp found them a secondhand car - a 'sit-up-and-beg' Austin - and a house, which they shared with Kemp and his wife for several months. Subsequently, the couples took nearby homes in London and continued a close association. Kemp visited Graves in Majorca during the Fifties, but acquaintanceship soon lapsed into a sporadic correspondence.

While Graves and Kemp themselves were never close, although they shared a taste for archery and solitaire, Kemp's relationship with Riding was more complex. When Riding compiled The World and Ourselves in 1938, a book which aimed to prevent war by the collaborative mental endeavours of 'inside' people, Kemp was one of her prize contributors. Introducing his letter, one of 65 responses from the 400 people she had approached, Riding described it as 'characteristically inside', a term of high praise.

Harry Kemp was born in southern England in 1911, the son of an engineer in the Far East. He was educated at Stowe and Clare College, Cambridge, where he read Mathematics before supporting his poetic vocation by working as a part-time schoolmaster. In the Thirties, when he had a brief flirtation with Communism, he married Alix Eierman, the refugee daughter of a German-Jewish industrialist. While Alix applied her practical nature to starting a cheese-importing business, which failed, Kemp renounced his former political views in The Left Heresy (1939), a book on which he had the daily critical assistance of Laura Riding, who joined him as co-author on the title-page.

Riding, according to Kemp, did her best to dissuade Kemp from sleeping with his wife, believing that sex should only be undertaken for reproductive purposes; her advice was not followed.

In the 1950s, after leaving his first wife, Kemp made a second marriage to Eunice Frost, one of the founding editors of Penguin. It did not endure.

In later life, Kemp came to believe that Riding had grown actively hostile to his work. The poet and novelist Robert Nye had agreed to work with him on an anthology of 20th-century poetry, in which Kemp proposed to include some of his own work. Nye, who had enthusiastically reviewed Kemp's Collected Poems in 1985, then withdrew from the project and retracted his praises, apparently after communicating with Riding - or Laura (Riding) Jackson, as she was by then awkwardly styling herself.

Both Riding and Nye, as poets of the highest integrity, were distressed that Kemp should have displayed more self-interest than they considered appropriate to his vocation. Riding's letters to Kemp in the late Eighties accuse him of being bitten by 'the animus of poet-egotism'. Fortunately, Kemp retained a sense of humour. One old friend recalls that, less than a year before he died, Kemp was describing how Riding had caused Nye to revise his opinion of a poet he had once admired when the funny side or it suddenly struck him and he burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Kemp's own account of his relationship with Riding was delivered to a publisher three months before his death. Denied permission to quote her letters, he was still expecting it to make 'quite a stir, as I have told the factual truth as I know it, come what may. Poem-wise,' he wrote, 'I'm still at it.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments