A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Poetry is not, usually, my thing. This feels like a terrible confession from someone with both undergraduate and postgraduate literature degrees, but there we are. I’m a novel gal. I don’t mind a bit of drama, it’s in second place, but I have never quite got the hang of poetry. I’m not sure what why. Perhaps it’s that I concentrate too hard on what it is trying to say that I find it hard to just read it. It’s always just felt like hard work.
(The notable exception to this is Sylvia Plath. I was a teenage goth. I thought I understood her in a way that no one else could.)
It was Ali Smith who put me onto Kate Tempest. I went to hear her speak about her extraordinary novel How To Be Both at Blackwell’s in September last year and she talked about form and how it is possible to use various forms within one work. She mentioned Kate Tempest, who had recently been nominated for both the Mercury Music Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize at the same time. This totally peaked my curiosity and I looked her up. She’s been called a spoken word poet and a ‘poet-rapper-playwright’, and had received good reviews for her Brand New Ancients. I gave it a go.
In Brand New Ancients, the gods (and the godless) live on London’s streets. It is a “brand new mythic palette”, and while there may not be dragons to kill anymore, we have instead
the parable of the mate who could have been anything
but he turned out to be an addict.
Or the parable of the prodigal father
returned after years in the wilderness.
Or,specifically, the intertwining tales of half-brothers Clive and Terry and their very different paths through life. We have affairs, drugs, violence, and cruel twists of fate, all things that would be at home in the original mythical tales, except they are played out on rainy London streets in a time around about now. They are our Brand New Ancients.
See – all that we have here is all that we’ve always had.
We have jealousy
and tenderness and curses and gifts.
But the most important line in the book itself is not in the poem but on the title page: This poem was written to be read aloud.
I downloaded the audio version, which is not just Tempest reading her poem, but performing it. Not just in terms of passionate, swaggering delivery, more akin the rap part of her hyphenated job title that the poet, but in terms of full backing band and percussive, musical backing.
And, oh, what a performance. I listened, rapt, to the whole poem through my headphones one night and I’m not ashamed to say that it moved me to tears. Reading it is good. Hearing it is superlative.
She is not going to be for everyone. I’ve seen many a criticism saying that she “doesn’t fulfil the conditions of poetry”, that it is “just” verse or “just” rap or “just” spoken word. I don’t feel qualified to make a pronouncement on what poetry is (see my first paragraph) though I suspect traditionalists won’t love it. But other than that, I think the “just” attack isn’t fair. I think Brand New Ancients is all of those things, all at the same time, and where is the rulebook saying that isn’t OK?
Kate Tempest is unlike anything out there at the moment. And I love what she does.
Kate Tempest: Brand New Ancients (London: Picador, 2014). ISBN 9781632862075 RRP £9.99. Also available as an audio book.