Many critics will tell you that spoken word performances have the tendency to slip into parody and triteness. But it is all too easy to dismiss such poetry as the melodramatic product of raw, uncultivated sixth-form anxieties. After all, every art form contains an unfathomable range of work with varying displays of ability and quality – the tiniest proportion of it good, most of it bad and a fair share downright ugly. Indeed, for every Pollock there will be a pillock who thinks downing food colouring and pissing a rainbow onto a canvas constitutes contemporary art. And for every John Cooper Clarke there will be thousands of insipid ‘poets’ who lull audiences to death with their take on the middle-class-life-is-so-damn-hard genre.
So when a genuine, glistening diamond emerges in the rough we must prick our ears and listen up. Kate Tempest is one such voice. She dextrously weaves powerful musings on class, poverty and love into a compelling meter that boasts all the careful craft of a Shakespearean sonnet imbued with the pace, purpose and seething wit of an Eminem putdown. Indeed, it is in Tempest’s whirlwind delivery – a sprawling supercharged South London lilt inflected with pathos and wit – that transforms her poems into powerful performances. It is hard not to think of Charles Olsen or, more famously, Allen Ginsberg’s poetic performances when Tempest launches into her captivating prose in a distinctive clipped, intimate brogue. Like her American predecessors, Tempest is a writer who knows that the way a story is told is just as important that the story itself. The result is a performer who immediately arrests audiences and provokes strong reactions – no mean feat in the often inaccessible and opaque world of modern poetry.
Seen this way, there is something refreshing in Tempest’s ability to wrestle poetry from the establishment’s old library bookshelves and put it on view for all to see. This is not to throw centuries of literary cultivation and technique into the dustbin, however. Tempest draws on and reworks literary and cultural myths to fashion an accessible verse that speaks to (and with the language of) the present, but that is also rooted firmly in a historical literary tradition.
Here, is it tempting to compare Tempest to the original democratic poet-of-the-people Walt Whitman in terms of content and form. Both poets share a desire to speak experience in its totality, to sing guts and gore just as much as beauty and splendor. Nowhere is this comparison felt more than in Tempest’s Brand New Ancients, for which she won the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry. The emotional force in the prose comes from the range of topics and intonation on display in a mesmeric hourly performance. And, just like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the poem needs Tempest to breathe life into its meandering dramatic lines with her distinctive time, place and, of course, dynamic delivery.
If Whitman, bemoaning a “Learned Astronomer” with his facts and figures, becomes “tired and sick,/ Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,/ In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars”, Tempest similarly calls for us to stop looking at art indoors where “it felt like shopping or watching adverts./ Out there, with the sky and the space I could see./ The colours and shapes and they burned bright for me.”
You can catch Tempest execute some of her blistering verse on Bestival’s Amphitheatre stage between 4-7th September, where she will also perform a talk ‘How to Rule the Word’ about how much diverse and varied writing she has managed to cram into her modest years. Tempest will appear as one cog in Scroobious Pip’s Satin Lizard Longue machine in which Mark Grist, Tim Clare and Josh Idehen also feature. We’ll see you – and Tempest – there.