JAMES Kirkup, a North East poet whose work brought admiration and unwelcome notoriety, has died at the age of 91. Born a carpenter's son in Cockburn Street, South Shields, he studied at Durham University, and became a respected poet, translator and academic.
Much of his life was spent abroad, particularly in Japan. But more recently he lived in Andorra with his companion, Makoto, which is where he died in hospital on Sunday.
Prof Kirkup was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and later attained unwanted headlines when his work fell foul of Mary Whitehouse, a campaigner against material she deemed offensive.
In 1977 she took umbrage at a Kirkup poem in The Gay News and took out a private prosecution on the grounds of blasphemous libel. It was the first such case for 56 years.
The poem, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, concerns a homosexual centurion’s love for Christ at the Crucifixion.
The defence argued that it glorified Christ, the prosecution that it was “vile” and “perverted”.
The case resulted in fines for the newspaper and its editor, Denis Lemon. The National Council for Civil Liberties condemned the verdict as a form of censorship.
There is plenty of evidence that Prof Kirkup felt more at home abroad.
As a child, he wrote in his autobiography, he felt “an aching sense of lonely apartness from others”. Anaemic, he was nicknamed The Holy Ghost.
Returning to Tyneside in 1971, after a long absence, to read from The Bewick Bestiary, a new work celebrating engraver Thomas Bewick, he cut a dash by wearing a kimono.
Many poets have been influenced by James Kirkup’s work and in the autumn a new volume of his poems was published by Red Squirrel Press, of Morpeth.
Last night publisher Sheila Wakefield said she had been given James Kirkup’s address at a conference in Durham.
“I plucked up the courage to write to him and he very kindly wrote back with the collection that became Marsden Bay.
“Although I only knew him for a short time, I was very lucky to have published him at all.
“I feel hugely honoured to have published him. I think he deserves more recognition than he has had and I’ll continue to try to raise his profile.”