James Kirkup

While I was in South Shields (in the North-East of England) in August, I was lucky enough to attend a memorial reading of James Kirkup’s poetry at the local museum.  James Kirkup was a prominent British poet who was born in South Shields in 1918 and died earlier this year.  My interest in him was sparked by my friend Jean, who sent me a book of his poems after noticing we were both born in South Shields.

James Kirkup wrote dozens of poetry collections, several volumes of autobiography, plays, haiku, tanka and many translations.  He was the UK’s first poet-in-residence at an academic institution (at Leeds University in 1950) and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  He held numerous awards, including the Atlantic Award for Literature from the Rockefeller Foundation, the P.E.N. Club Prize for Poetry, the Scott-Moncrieff Prize for Translation and the Japan Festival Foundation Award. 

James Kirkup lived in Japan for many years, but spent the last part of his life in Andorra.  He was a conscientious objector during the second world war and one of his collections is titled ‘No More Hiroshimas’.  In “Not Cricket”, he writes about those experiences:


“I, too, remember brutal overseers

In the labour camps of Britain, men

Who could only relish power

If they could degrade, mock, punish


With violence as sad as any commandant’s

With anger that reveals the heart of war.”

and in “White Shadows”, he commemorates a man “annihilated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima” who left only his white shadow:

 “Your shade – poor forked human creature – fled

Like a mist of dew on morning glories.  Your breath

Evaporated, taken away, lost soul, before

You even had time to scream.  Your shade was white.”

 Another collection, ‘The Body Servant’, contains a sequence of poems about parts of the body:


Box, barrel, bastion

of the heart and lungs,

rigid with side-

winding ribs, yet


bagpipes, bellows of bone

breathing like the sea…”

James Kirkup was gay and the publication of one of his poems in Britain’s Gay News in 1976 led to Britain’s last successful prosecution for blasphemy.  Amazingly, it is still banned in Britain today.  If you want to read it, you can find it here http://www.annoy.com/history/doc.html?DocumentID=100045, but the poet would probably rather be remembered for such poems as “A Correct Compassion” (dedicated to Mr. Philip Allison, after watching him perform a Mistral Stenosis Valvulotomy in the General Infirmary in Leeds), which begins:
“Cleanly, sir, you went to the core of the matter.
Using the purest kind of wit, a balance of belief and art,
You with a curious nervous elegance laid bare
The root of life, and put your finger on its beating heart.”

The memorial reading I attended was organised by Red Squirrel Press, who published one of Kirkup’s collections (Marsden Bay) recently and who have a reprint of one of his other books coming out soon.  At another Red Squirrel Press event, publisher Sheila Wakefield kindly pointed us to some places where we’d be likely to see red squirrels – fast being edged out of their habitat by the American grey squirrels (though I gather this is as much about diseases as it is about competition) – but alas, they proved elusive on our searches.  Next time, maybe. 

More about James Kirkup and Red Squirrel Press here: http://www.redsquirrelpress.com/index.php?marsden

and a nice painting of him here:


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