I haven’t heard Kate Tempest perform her poetry live (though there is a great video of her reading ‘Hold Your Own’ at Glastonbury) but I’ve just booked to go and hear her in Birmingham in April.
Tempest is very much known as a performance poet, to the extent that she has been known as reluctant to put words on the page in the conventional way. Watching the video from Glastonbury, you can see why; she’s a great performer, and not all poets are. Her meaning comes across best, you sense, when she tells you her poem, herself, directly; the video makes you feel she’s addressing everyone in the crowd. Now I am someone who mostly reads poetry by long-dead poets, and I quite empathise with whichever critic it was that said that TS Eliot’s punctuation could move him to tears. So you might think that performance poetry, by a poet who is also a rapper, is unlikely to appeal to me. Actually, I liked Hold Your Own, her collection of poems edited by Don Paterson, much more than I expected to. Even on the page, this is clearly performance poetry; perhaps that’s because it is so conversational, so direct. The first and longest poem in the collection, ‘Tiresias’, concludes:
While we assemble selves online
And stare into our phones,
You are bright and terrifying,
Breath and flesh and bone.
In these few lines we are moved at high speed from the mundane to the terrifyingly ecstatic. The fear of being something sublime, beyond understanding, is conveyed here memorably. Tempest’s poems are in simple forms, on the whole; she doesn’t seem to be a poet who would play with form in the conventional sense, churning out villanelles or terza rima, but she plays with ideas, and with language, in a way which is meaningful as well as immediately accessible. Language in particular seems to be her drug; when she writes ‘Language lives when you speak it. Let it be heard’ she really means it, and her work is peppered with assonance, misrhymes and echoes which work well both in performance and on the page. Steady beats are suddenly interrupted, making the reader (or listener) pay closer attention. These prosodic attributes can, occasionally, become predictable, but Tempest manages this well, on the whole.
The line above is taken from ‘These things I know’. The book is threaded through with the myths of Tiresias, blind prophet of ancient myth, who was both man and woman during his lifetime (inspiring Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). Tiresias, known for his aphorisms in Greek plays and his wisdom in all situations, speaks in this poem through pithy sayings, such as ‘Poetry trembles alone, only picked up to be taken apart’ as well as other more universal comments. The character of Tiresias reflects, along with a number of other voices in the poems (including, one suspects, Tempest’s own), the complexities and confusions of gender, sexuality, identity, love – but he is more than just a vehicle for reflecting on gender fluidity; he brings the ideas and poems together.
Tempest’s interest in the classics is manifest in Brand New Ancients, her previous book locating the ancient gods in families in London, for which she won the Ted Hughes poetry prize. The universality of these ancient stories is paramount in her work, and in this – a more conventional volume than her previous work – she nicely treads the line between ancient and modern. Tiresias is painted as a living, breathing figure, from a grubby boyhood to an unexpected womanhood, through lovers, prostitution, and old age. But this Tiresias has the wisdom of the age in which he is written: he is predicting not the downfall of ancient cities, but the tragedy of the modern world, godless, obsessed with image:
you were damned for the things that you did,
or if you didn’t live how the villagers lived.
You’re handed the mould and told – fit in to this.
And maybe one day you could be really big.
In many ways, Tiresias/Tempest’s condemnation of a shallow life reminds me of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, in which the psychiatrist, Dysart, says:
The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes:-alright. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills-like a god. It is the Ordinary made beautiful: it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his priest.
Tempest uses the figure of Tiresias, along with other nameless voices, to indicate that a difficult, complex, painful, fragmented life, which makes no sense, can still have a beauty, a structure, and is still a life capable of holding joy, love and intensity. This isn’t a perfect book, by any means, and some of it begins to tire one’s patience a little, and the final section is both right (in a moral sense) and a bit too tub-thumping. But overall, it’s good; I want to read it again.
There’s a great, nuanced review of the book by Dave Coates here – do read it if you’re interested in Tempest’s work.