Poems by Will Kemp


Poems by Will Kemp have appeared in a wide range of national journals, newspapers and magazines, including: Acumen; Aesthetica; Ambit; Envoi; The French Literary Review; The Guardian; The Interpreter’s House; Iota; Magma; The North; Obsessed With Pipework; Orbis; Other Poetry; Poetry News; The Rialto; The SHOp; Smith’s Knoll; The New European; The Times.

Poems available on-line


Poems by Will Kemp available on line include:


Fountains Abbey – see: Guardian Poetry Workshop Monday 9 February 2009


The pirate inside – see: Poetry Society Members Stanza Competition 2011


After my father died – see: Abegail Morley Featured Poet 23 May 2012


Guitar – see: Guardian Poetry Workshop 30 May 2008


Dear Ugly – see: Poetry News Winter 2010


The poets who watched the sky at night – see: Poetry News 28 September 2015


English Journey – see: Poetry Society Members Stanza Competition 2014


July 1976 – see: Poetry Society Members Stanza Competition 2013


GW Hurtle, Family Butcher -​ see: Danny Earl Simmons' Poetry Blog 2 December 2015


Driving to work at 5am while listening to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – see: The Saturday Poem The Guardian 16 April 2016



Other selected Poems


A selection of other poems by Will Kemp appears below.




Taking the dog out


The village takes its time to form,

as a clinking chain-lead draws me      

into the deep blue paper of the night,

where touches of chalk mark gleaming   

roofs, the church’s limestone tower. 


High above, an arctic moon:

mottled white and oyster-grey, far away 

from pub-talk of tax, law, driveways

parked with four-by-fours.  It frosts the lane,

limes the surrounding hills and fields.


By a gap in the broken hedge,

Evie inspects her patch – noticing perhaps  

those hollow woods beyond the farm,   

whitewashed land and barns – then looks  

at me to start the way back.  But tonight 


I step right through, onto a sled

with pelts of lynx and snowshoe hare,

hauled by a pack across this open veld

sloped on either side with dark firs    

grazed by elk or caribou, headed for 


the tundra of the great white North;

frozen air streams against my face

as we slice over the hushed Mackenzie –  

where no salmon leap or drivers holler

above log booms rolling way down-river –


whose ice core now shoulders

this ghost rush towards the Pole Star

of an oil lamp by a trading station,

so that only our tracks lead back

to the pale field-hedge, cars and walls.






You can hear it now, long and low,



as the moon clears  


and the great unknown spreads out

            in silvered folds,


the frozen lake a star-sprinkled glow,


stalagmite trees pointing north

            like Inuit whalebone spears,


where the shadows seem to move

            with something faint –


but there,


            through the powder snow –


that percussion of panting


                        with padded feet.




Harvesting at night


That low hum in the darkness becomes

a chatter throughout this prairie field – 


the combine’s arm extended like a claw, 

long lights floating with corndust stars;


the driver lit up in his cabin too,

as if suspended in mid-air, or peering out


some submersible on the ocean floor,

watching for uncharted wrecks through


a shaken snow-globe of drifting silt,

where a deep sea fish might think him


a lost crustacean searching for a mate – 

possibly the loneliest creature it ever saw.




Swan Lake


I wake at four, right arm dangled artfully overhead, 

left foot behind the other knee in a horizontal pirouette, 

as if I had not lain awake half the night fretting 

over the job and pension, but dreaming of ballet. 


Perhaps it is just my body telling me to quit –  

that instead of walking into the office after nine, 

I should carry on to the School for the Performing Arts,


where I will stand in a great room walled by mirrors,   

a middle-aged man looking lost in a white leotard  

among the nine year old girls wearing fairy tu-tus, 


then strain not to topple over while balancing on one leg  

as an elderly lady plays a jangling piano from behind 

her specs, and another stamps a walking stick     

on the wooden floor, shouting, Andante, andante!   


No longer will I see my sagging jowls or the paunch 

that passes these days for a mid-riff, but the gaunt tone  

of a gymnast who must live off a diet of mackerel 

and spinach to glide swan-like over the silent boards,   


so that all remains of my occupation, whatever it was,      

is the series of taunts I will suffer each night   

from my former colleagues on the way to the station –  


an ordeal I will come through perhaps by thinking    

of the framed photos that will now adorn the lounge – 

that bow at Covent Garden, those flowers at the Kirov, 


and the one of which I’m definitely most proud – 

arms flung wide, head thrown back – 

as I take off in a great leap of tighted legs   

through the spotlight of an otherwise darkened stage.   




Lying awake at 4am, I consider the social                                               and physical characteristics of Hell


The darkness much the same, but with a red glimmer

on the cliffs where the new arrivals are bull-dozed off

by rat-faced demons from a work by Hieronymus Bosch.


It comes as no surprise to see the neighbours here,

my lawyer too, thriving amid the sobs and cries of woe,

though I could do without that welcoming party of MPs

extolling the rewards and virtues of hard work.


And for that matter, colleagues I tried so hard to like,

three women on a hen-night, peeing in the street,

some hippies singing peace songs round a camp-fire –


because this is Hell: orange rivers of molten rock

and searing flames – no need to light another fire at all.


No dogs either, no trees or sky.  Just the black smoke

of burning tyres rolling across deserts of ash, basalt rock,

where the damned stoke vast furnaces then trudge 

down dead-end streets to a deluge of Saturday night TV.


No small comfort, then, to behold kings who founded

great abbeys to pray for their souls, the father of my ex – 

still shouting – a board on his back saying, KICK ME.


Which makes me think, maybe there is a God after all.



The things she gave me


I still have the things she gave me, 

hidden in a secret place.    

Letters tell how we used to be,

photos let me touch her face. 


Hidden in a secret place, 

an old tape brings back the past.             

Photos let me touch her face, 

the poems she wrote let love last.


An old tape brings back the past.

Letters tell how we used to be.  

The poems she wrote let love last.  

I still have the things she gave me




The light on the water at Rhenen


It was a Saturday in July –

the sky pale but open wide;

typically Dutch, you said,  

an unhurried cloud passing by.


We sat on rough grass,

you in my sweater, if I remember,    

bicycle wheels still spinning,

ticking, by the water’s edge.


The river slapped and plopped

again and again. Further out,

it seemed to glitter silver

the way leaves do after rain.


We watched a kahn inch forward,

lugging coal to Koblenz or Köln,

a line of shirts in surrender

from bridge to stern.


I put my head on your lap,

you fed me apricot Limburg Flan –

but only after I’d said      



You explained polders, dykes,

the need to maintain the water level.  

I kept quiet about the way

your father looked at me that morning.


I once heard that every life

has a point before which there is

always a looking forward,

afterwards a looking back.


These are the things I think of,

whenever I think of that.




The end of the world


I am last at the office tonight, about to ping  

a draft final report into the abyss of cyberspace.  

The rows of desks have been left as they were,

the phones completely quiet, dead perhaps,

as if I was the sole survivor of a nuclear error,

all my colleagues vapourised in a cloud of dust.  


Shortly I will leave for the car park, recording

my time of departure in the book on reception

like an entry at a funeral, then step out onto

the wet, still lit street, where there will be

no policeman on his beat, no smokers hunched

like conspirators outside The Wig And Mitre.


Without another car in sight, I will drive past

the outskirts of this northern town, stopping

at the garage for the milk you need for a cake,

helping myself to as much Premium Unleaded

as I like – and maybe some Mars Bars, crisps,

papers and barbeque charcoal since I’m at it.


Clutching my stash in one hand while waving

to the security cameras with the other, I will

at last head home – though starting to see now  

the door will not open to KD Lang or Handel 

playing throughout the house, nor will there be

any hint of the spicy noodles you had for lunch,  


because this is the end of the world – that time

prophets with long beards and shaking fists

always said would come: no point in anything

anymore, everyone gone. No mug by the sink,

no note on the fridge; no chance either to ask    

how your day was, or even say good-bye.





It starts with a spit jutting into the tide

to form a strand that won’t wash away,

the land little more than sea, a place for

seafarers to stop, wrecked, find at least

they can fish from this spot, or vanish

into the mist by the shore; but by now

it’s the seventeenth century, and that

clump of shacks has become a village,

harbour, port – with fields drained

by polders, dykes, windmills – and 

that port is a city, and that city rules

the world, and its ships are returning

from the Orient and Dutch East Indies,

laden with china, spices and pearls,

and its painters are doing lobsters,

lemons and carpets; and a girl stands

by a window pouring milk into a bowl.   






I scoured the atlas for Nassau,

stole a bow-tie from my father’s drawer.

In code, listed the bullies at school –

then bumped them off one by one   

with a silencer made from toilet roll tubes.


I wanted to be you.


That dark look, the chiselled jaw.

Fluent in French, a natural at skiing.

Adept at roulette, the quick-step;  

seducer of beautiful women.


Only you could get away

with smoothing, Well, hello Puss,

or jaunt into the control room 

to defuse a nuclear bomb, commenting on

the best way to serve a Dom Perignon.


One day I’d breeze through

the lab with Q, use a magnetic watch

to unzip the dress of a swooning girl.   


Or just have a quip ready for Gary Murray

as he pasted my face into the playground wall.




The afternoon before you flew back


we cycled across Midsummer Common

then took a boat    

through the unfenced fields,

the grey-green willows

of Grantchester Meadows.


You sat taking in

the swallows skimming

winking pools, their turns

like boomerang spins

about the reeds and shallows. 


Nobody came or went, 

except a dragonfly.

It lighted on the side,  

body a bamboo tail pinned

with biplane wings and goggled eyes.


Neither of us moved

as it rested to refuel –

with light or food, we couldn’t tell –

glowing coral to tinsel green,

purring through the colours of a rainbow.


It only stayed a minute or two,

then set off in a muslin whir,

a blue flame ghosting across the water –

into the light 

and the rest of summer.




The trees near Veenendaal


I’m sitting back in the garden at dusk,

low sunlight giving way to blue, 

like that time we cycled through    


cornfields, you in a floral dress,

shadows long ahead.  I weaved

round yours, you sang Eternal Flame


The next day we made love

in a wood of young ash, oak; stayed

there all afternoon.  I remember


the way we lay, the leaves 

already brown, how they sifted

with the breeze.  And now I wonder


if you ever went back – to listen

to the trees in evening light, or sit    

and think how much they’ve grown. 




The missing girl


There, by the river, a shawl with patterns of flowers –    

Persephone’s since she was a girl.  


Demeter held it as if cradling a sleeping child –

hands closed like buds, mouth a little o – 

at once breathed in hibiscus, jasmine, rose; 

recalled those first steps in the lemon grove.  


Fruit.  Persephone always loved fruit.  

Apple, melon, plum: names learnt by heart, 

practised like a song.  Bluebell, primrose too, 

all those questions on how leaves and petals grow.  


In no time she flourished: took cuttings from ash

and willow; could paint a green field yellow. 


She was a natural, down-to-earth too – laughed

as she sprinkled seeds, helped ladybirds to leaves. 


Just couldn’t be kept in: would follow

the flight of swallows over hills, vales, fields,

forever finding new paths and streams. 


But she’d return.  


The one time she did go missing, Demeter found 

her on ground lit blue by the moon – decided

then to make the shawl (even though 

in truth the girl was always a little hot); 


at once Persephone draped it round and hugged 

her mother – then promptly asked 

if she could now stay out till dawn.  


If she would only answer her name, 

Demeter could hold her again – touch that head 

the way cows nudge their young to water.


Instead, she stared at the river, remembering

stories, dances, walks: 

her smile, her songs, her warmth. 




Widor's Toccata


Such is the profusion of intricate notes 

in this wedding march for the organ 

that only an octopus could be expected

to touch all the keys and pedals at once –


tentacle crossing over tentacle, tips looping

this way and that to pull out the stops –

though the octopus concerned would be

no ordinary mollusc from the sea-bed,


but one trained at the Royal Academy

in London or Stockholm   

before joining a distinguished orchestra 

such as the Berlin Stadtskapelle,


always looking so refined in those tails

and that white crepe bow-tie, 

his head a grey balloon 

nodding pensively in time with the tune


then acknowledging the applause 

and calls of encore without a sound –

for this octopus would be nothing 

if not an octopus of few words –


finally sliding off sideways  

during the standing ovation,

with only a trail of brine across the boards  

to show he’d been there at all. 




Shopping with Elvis


I do the choosing, he pushes the trolley.  Found it   

embarrassing at first – white glitter catsuit,     

lapels bigger than the flaps on a cardboard box.   

No dress sense at all.  And that dancing in the aisle,   

expecting everyone to do the Jailhouse Rock.  

It’s the way he is.  Thank God people think  

he’s a tribute act.  But last week one old lady knew. 

Spotted him noting a special on some slippers.

Ya can do any thin bu lay offa ma blue suede shoes

he started, off again.  That were Elvis, I heard, 

whisking him away, as her friend gasped: Ye never!  

Wish he wouldn’t do that.  Though I quite like it  

when he leans over to the check-out girl,

lowers his shades and says, Thanyaverymuch.  




Fishing with Billy Collins


You warmed to the idea over a bottle of Merlot 

sipped pensively in your study     

with its angle-poise lamp, the ring-stained desk 

more accustomed to coffee, 


though it took a while longer to decide 

where to go – you bidding for the absolute calm 

of Lake Huron, me the white water

below Elk River Falls –


a matter settled in the end by the toss of a coin, 

with you stating your preference for 

this method of resolution 

to the former practice of pistols at dawn. 


It came as no surprise that hooks, floats, flies

had never been on your list of things to buy, 


or for that matter, that neither of us had ever 

gone fishing, though my father did try once   

before I ran back to my mother. 


No surprise either that you stopped 

the camper van, then eased into a description 

of the feather-soft yellows to be found

in this part of New England during the fall, 


or that we arrived after dark, too late 

to assemble the rods or man the canoe. 


Too late in fact to do anything 

but lay either side of a camp-fire 

fizzing with books neither of us liked –


you hands behind head, feet up

on a log like the end of a sofa, 

reassuring me that fishing was 

rarely about fishing, and what the hell –


maybe it was as well to continue 

with the day job and just look at the stars. 


I was unsure if the sky was lilac-blue 

or blue-lilac, though you figured 

neither was a good call since it brought  

to mind the coffee pots of ranchers in films.   


Then quiet.  The quiet that must accompany

deep-sea divers stepping onto the sea-bed

light as astronauts on the moon.


I wanted to ask how you’d like 

to be remembered, if at all, thinking how 

the Apache or Sioux might have named you 

Heart of a Bear, Watcher of Clouds, 


but by now I was drifting off, 

falling into a dream that at first light 

you slipped into the lake  

as if it were the great pool of English itself 


and had already swum a long way out, 

your head a tiny speck spearheading

an enormous V of water 

before finally disappearing out of sight. 




The startled deer


She bolted from the brake,  

a rush of brown over the road

and into the winter sun. 


I stopped in time 

to see the velvet head, 

black flecks on her back and stilted legs,

as she eased to a tip-toe trot,

then vaulted the ditch and hedge. 


At once she was gone. 


Though that outstretched leap 

stayed suspended in mid-air. 

The way she landed too,

light and soft, already moving off

towards the cover of the woods.


And now all around     

that hush,

when men with spears, moving  

through the light-streamed dark,  

must have first paused

by some pale green dots of ash or elm


and felt the need to capture 

those n-shaped leaps    

on the limestone walls of caves. 




The painters who studied clouds


From my window I am watching the sky drift by

in white and grey across the blue,   

with dabs of lemon-yellow here and there,  

where the sun glows a while  

but never quite comes into view.  


It reminds me of the painters who studied clouds, 

no camera to catch the changing scene, 

sitting alone in a field or tied 

to a mast in some howling storm,   

rolling sea and sky into one great swirl.   


How quickly they must have worked  

in silverpoint or chalk,  

sometimes snowblind from taking in the light, 

hatching rounded shapes with shade 

to give the sky its full-blown form and tone,


at others cursing it for cirrus clouds,

moving slow as ocean whales, 

to let a sweep of wash 

beach on the wet paper 

or seep into a distant summer haze.  


I wonder then if they too wondered

at Constable’s Study of Clouds

with its bulk of greys and half-greys, 

windswept with hurried brushes,

sailing across and out the frame, 


seeing how he must have looked and looked, 

until he understood 

the light, tone and shapes as one –

then took them down at once,

knowing in a moment they’d be gone.