Elizabeth Kilcoyne
Nov 22, 2019 · 3 min read

Another Way to Travel — Part 3

Harry Kemp, Poet

Back to the daily routine has delayed the finishing of this series. Enjoy.

A writing and literary culture abound in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod. My friend Bill delivered milk in Ptown many years ago, and asked me to look up Harry Kemp, a poet who lived and wrote there. I started at Tim’s Used Bookstore, tucked away from the crowd. It has a small, faded sign and a longish overgrown path to a tumbledown shingled cottage stuffed with books on every subject. The owner, Tim (not his real name), immediately dismissed Harry Kemp as the worst poet in the world, and claimed he had no books of Harry’s poetry.

Disappointed, I searched for a book about Provincetown to learn more about the history, and who do think I found in it? Harry Kemp! Turns out, Harry was a poet and a character. “Poet of the Dunes” was his title, among others. He wrote prolifically about the swelling sea, the drifting sands, the sun’s rays shining through broken boards, and the silver-shadowed moon. He isn’t a Dickinson or a Yeats, but not the worst.

Self-promotion was Harry’s marketing strategy, which he called the “Art of Spectacularism.” He acted in Eugene O’Neill’s plays, made sand sculptures out of cars, and dated numerous women in Ptown. Anything to bring him celebrity and possibly notoriety. Even at the end of his life (1883–1960), Harry rested in an urn next to the cashier in Ciro and Sal’s. It’s an Italian restaurant in Ptown with the best-baked catch of the day!

Learning that Harry spent most of his time living in a dune shack on the outer shore of Ptown, we scheduled a dune tour for our last day in a Suburban SUV that moved easily through the sand. Art’s Dune Tour is the last tour company that still has access to Cape Cod National Sea Shore, and we were not disappointed. Our tour guide Rob, Art’s son, entertained with stories that brought the dunes to life. We saw shacks used by artists Eugene O’Neill, Jackson Pollack, Jack Kerouac while rewriting On the Road, and of course, Harry.

Nineteen dune shacks remain in the Provincetown dunes, without electricity or running water. A non-profit manages the maintenance and the lottery for artists to win the option to live in one of the shacks for a week or two to hone their craft. I think I’ll take a pass on this rustic adventure. Writing in our cozy apartment works for me.

Over the next hill, we see a cranberry bog in the sand. What a treat! This is the last place I expected to find these luscious berries. The tour ended with the guide reciting, yes, a Harry Kemp poem, The Last Return, written in 1934 about the brave coast guard men who saved the lives of those shipwrecked off the Cape Cod coast.

That night a waitress in the Mayflower Restaurant proclaimed, “Ptown is the end of the world,” or maybe it’s just the beginning…

This story is dedicated to Bill Pasquina (1939–2019)

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