The cover illustration by Christina Hardings captures much of the poem at a glance and is itself almost good enough to justify owning a copy of this slim volume; it just makes me smile to notice the classical images of figures subversively holding a briefcase and a fag, a beer can, an iPod, a Tesco shopping bag, with bad posture and protruding belly. These figures were not exposed overnight on any Spartan hillside and so they have proliferated in our less severe culture. Perhaps a future edition will insert more illustrations inside.
Kate Tempest is a terrific performer and I was fully prepared to love a work that is not only recommended for reading aloud (lots of poets make that appeal) but that has been performed live and to powerful effect. It is quite a challenge to produce poetry that survives live performance and this has already been achieved, not for select and refined audiences of sober academics, but for a popular, mainstream audience. This is a huge achievement already.
Tempest is still to be seen as a young poet - not a novice but one at the early stages of her career. So I have to wonder about her models, not as a benchmark to make hopelessly unrealistic comparisons, but a guide to where she might travel. There are excellent, full length novels in the form of poetry - Omeros by Derek Walcott is surely the modern ideal to aspire to, filled with references to the ancient Greeks. The idea of searching for the heroic in ordinary modern lives was put forward through Leopold Bloom in Ulysses by Joyce, himself arguably a failed poet, again looking to Homer and the Greeks. Models for live performance are too numerous to list - perhaps Bertolt Brecht would be a relevant example for the subject matter here. Poets working with music? Maybe Lynton Kwesi Johnson. I get the impression of a young poet starting her journey, not intimidated by towering ideals such as these and willing to head straight towards the very hardest challenges. I would not waste the effort of comparing most writers to such models - it is a major compliment that I do so here. But she has a long way to travel before reaching the upper limit of her chosen art form and I have to pray that early success and stardom does not divert her to less interesting goals. Stardom and popular success have destroyed as many talents and as many lives as it has ever helped. I hope and trust that there is more to her than that.
So with all these expectations the poem reads wonderfully and absolutely holds the imagination throughout. It follows a number of young people as they emerge from unsatisfactory family backgrounds to form their adult identities and it incorporates a tense and violent climactic scene. This is good story telling, accompanied by hypnotic references to the Greek heroes and their gods, possibly in a style like the chorus in Greek theatre. As it happens though, I found the story line unsettling. I am very dissatisfied with the development and treatment of the characters. I felt that redemption and final happiness was misallocated to say the least.
Once a poet lays claim to the great traditional themes, then she also takes up a pretty weighty burden. To my mind there is a reason for the importance in our culture of the ancient heroes and gods and it is not a lot different to the importance of Homer and Hesiod for the ancient Greeks themselves. By all means compare our mortal lives to those of the ancients, but that is more than a plot device and poetry is more than story telling. We look to our poets to supply the myths we can live by and this story just seems to me to miss that point. No I don't want a bowdlerized, prettified morality where the good become rich and the bad come to sticky ends, unless it is from Roald Dahl who knows what to do with such notions. And yes it is refreshing to have a female character discover her inner strength, her male admirer a passive weakling. But if Kate Tempest wants to tell me how to live and why, then I want more depth and more attention to the messages conveyed and what they mean.
Brand New Ancients as a title reads like a very brave manifesto. It touches powerful threads that stretch back through the history of poetry. But this poem is not yet big enough to justify the claim implied in that title. Maybe it points the way forward or maybe I just hope for too much. What I really want is brand new myths.