On 26th October 2010, Dorothy Fleet gave a paper at the The Japan Foundation in London.
To read a copy of this paper please click here to download a pdf.
 James Harold Kirkup was born in his Grandmother Johnson’s house in Robertson Street, South Shields, United Kingdom on April 23rd 1918, the only child of James Harold Kirkup, a carpenter and joiner, and his wife Mary (nee Johnson). As a child Kirkup attended Baring Street Infants’, Westoe Elementary and Secondary Schools in the town. He then went on to Kings College in Newcastle (which was part of Durham University at that time) graduating in 1940 with a B.A. in Modern Languages. True to his principles, he refused to be conscripted during the Second World War and was sent to forestry and agricultural labour camps in Northumberland and North Yorkshire. After the War he taught briefly at the Downs School, a Quaker preparatory school in Colwall, Herefordshire and at Minchenden Grammar School, Southgate, London. In 1950, he was appointed Gregory Poetry Fellow at Leeds University, making him the first resident university poet in England. When his parents moved south to Gloucestershire in 1952, he became the ‘Writer in Residence’ and Head of English at Bath Academy of Art for the next three years.


It was in 1956, when Kirkup began teaching abroad, that he began to realise his potential both as a teacher and writer and he took up the following posts in Europe, America and the Far East:


1956 - 57 Visiting Lecturer in English, Swedish Ministry of Education
1957 - 58 Professor of English Language & Literature, University of Salamanca, Spain
1959 - 61 Professor of English Literature, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan
1961 - 62 Lecturer in English Literature, University of Malaysia
1963 - 64 Literary Editor of Orient/West, Tokyo
1964 - 68 Professor of English Literature, Japan Women’s University
1968 - 69 Poet in Residence and Visiting Professor, Amherst College, USA
1969 - 71 Professor of English Literature, Nagoya University, Japan
1974 - 75 Arts Council Fellow in Creative Writing, University of Sheffield
1975 - 76 Morton Visiting Professor of International Literature, Ohio University, USA
1976 - 77 Playwright in Residence, Sherman Theatre, University College, Cardiff
1977 - 89 Professor of English Literature, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Japan


Apart from his two posts in America and returning to England for a couple of years in the early 1970s when his mother’s health was failing, Kirkup was drawn to the Far East and, finding that the Japanese people accepted him and appreciated his work, he settled there. The Oriental way of life suited his temperament and periods of contemplation increased his self-awareness, as illustrated in one of his poems from that period: 'To My Master in Zen', Zen Contemplations (Kyoto Editions, 1978).


Amongst the honours gained throughout his career, Kirkup held the Atlantic Award for Literature from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1950; he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1962; he won the Japan P.E.N. Club Prize for Poetry in 1965 and The Mabel Batchelder Award from the American Library Association in 1968; and he was awarded The Keats Prize for Poetry in 1974 and the Scott-Moncrieff Prize for Translation in 1992. In 1997, he was presented with the Japan Festival Foundation Award and was subsequently invited to the Imperial New Year Poetry Reading in the presence of the Emperor and Empress at the Palace in Tokyo - possibly this was the most treasured honour of all as foreigners are rarely invited to attend.


On his retirement, Kirkup settled in Andorra, continuing his links with friends around the world through his letters. As the Tyneside publisher, Michael Thorp described:


A ‘letter’ from James might consist of all or some of the following: autumn leaves, a postcard of a painting, a newspaper cutting, a poem he had written, a poem he had translated from French, German or Japanese… a letter. The envelope would be part of the letter, alive with stamps. A host of butterflies through the letterbox would signal a letter from James. It was an unfolding and interfolding of gift.


With the support of his assistant and fellow poet, Makoto Tamaki, Kirkup continued sending letters from his home in Andorra and writing and translating every day until he passed away on May 10th 2009, aged 91.


Since writing simple verses and rhymes from the age of six and the publication of his first poetry book The Drowned Sailor in 1947, Kirkup’s published works encompass dozens of collections of poetry, as well as inclusions in numerous poetry collections and school books worldwide; five volumes of autobiography although one is still unpublished; a myriad of monographs of original work and translations, not to mention hundreds of shorter pieces in journals and periodicals. He was also a novelist and dramatist, a literary critic and reviewer, a children’s writer, an essayist and an obituarist. As a travel writer, he guided us through Europe, Russia, Japan, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Macao, Malaya, the Philippines and America. He gained international recognition for his numerous transcriptions of Japanese poetry as well as his many translations of the works of both contemporary and classical authors, and now has several ‘virtual’ books published on the internet by Brindin Press (http://www.brindin.com).


Although Kirkup has written several poems about his faith it is unfortunate that he is probably most known for his poem, in the June 1976 edition of Gay News, about a Centurion’s feelings for Christ upon the cross. The Editor was tried and fined but Kirkup was not allowed to speak out about what he later described as not a particularly good poem.


A lifetime of writing as profuse and varied as Kirkup’s can only be achieved by someone who sees inspiration in almost every situation and who has a desire to make the most of every opportunity that life has to offer. Kirkup was an unusual child with astonishing powers of observation and he was blessed with a far reaching and retentive memory. His first two autobiographies tell of his childhood days spent in South Shields during the 1920s and early 1930s. He affectionately describes events and customs, the tramcars and the mournful atmosphere of the News Room in the library, the Saturday market, the excitement of a visit to the cinema, his boredom at the interminable sales, and trips to the coast and the park. Although the family had a hard life in harsh surroundings, he remembered much laughter and true happiness. During the depression his father was often out of work and tramped the streets of County Durham looking for jobs. Even when his father was working he never earned more than three pounds a week, but his parents’ spirit at these times was not uncommon:


However hard my parents tried to conceal this struggle from me, I always sensed the strain at the end of the week, when there would be no pennies for the gas, or just enough to buy a two ounce packet of Brooke Bond’s tea at the corner shop. Those were the times when my mother would not answer the insurance man’s knock; we would sit quietly in the kitchen, holding our breath till we heard him go away.
James Kirkup, The Only Child (Collins, 1957), p. 56.


In sharp contrast to the bliss of this sheltered infancy in the love of his parents, a growing awareness of his ‘difference’ gave rise to his long held sense of isolation and the relationship between the lonely poet and the world became a recurring theme in his writing.


This brief biography is not the place to go into the complexities of James Kirkup’s life but is intended to clarify the dates and details that have so often been misrepresented. Similarly, the accompanying catalogue is not a complete bibliography but is an inventory of his works held in The James Kirkup Collection in South Shields Central Library and Museum & Art Gallery, which will be occasionally updated with new publications and documents.


© 2010 Dorothy Fleet