This is from my Goodreads account, but since I have a total of about 8 friends on there, I thought I’d post it here as well, so another 8 people can see it.
A quick note – this review reveals the format and tone of the overall collection, discussing the language, more than the subjects of the poems. But if you don’t want to know anything, don’t read this review.
I’ve now read all of Kate Tempest’s poetry (and I devoured this collection in 24 hours). If I was to read her plays, she would be the only author I have ever read all the existing work of. I don’t find myself disappointed, however, that all her poetry is read. I’m happy to have absorbed it and experienced it all, and I feel I can understand a complete side of her writing. As seems to be the case with me and poets, I started at the end, and have worked backwards. This means there will be constant comparisons with her latest collection ‘Hold Your Own’, but I hope these comparisons aren’t unfair, and are a way of looking at how she changes as a poet. I do wonder whether I should have read this first. I don’t regret reading her work backwards at all, but maybe coming to this fresh means that you can see her language and its power even more clearly.
As her first collection of poetry, I expected a naive and developing Kate Tempest. I think I expected to watch as she found her form, picked up her themes, and chose what to run with. In one sense, I found this. The collection has a couple of references to “ancients”, there’s the word “mancub”, which is developed and repeated in ‘Hold Your Own’, and the collection is split between poems about society, and poems about love. The naivety is shown in herself, in her insecurity, but it is not in the language.
Because in another sense, I was surprised at how strong and confident this collection of poetry is. I was delighted to find that she talks about writing; when she writes, how she writes and why she writes. These are poems that acknowledge the time in which they are being written and the reasons they are written for. Writing isn’t new to her, but it’s something she’s still trying out, wearing in. This is a recurring theme in a collection which runs off recurring themes. I didn’t find much diversity in what she writes about. Her society poems, which are quite cover broad themes, yet are lithe in ‘Hold Your Own’, are generally boiled down to being about the City. All of her poems have a strong sense of London, or escaping London. If she escapes the city, it is often to Paris, where she talks about her and love sitting on pavements. (I suppose in this sense, she is quite Joycean, and the title of this collection comes from Joyce.)
The love poems are almost exclusively revolve around mornings. Waking up, looking at the sun on the body of her lover. These occasionally stray into poems about the night before, rushing away from the city to meet them, or sitting in cafes and bars waiting. There’s a lot of doubt and a lot of waiting in her love poems – many of which are about love that is waiting to be given and felt. The key thing about this collection is that the poems are all of a similar tone. I have only read it once, however, and it is much heavier than her other work. It is very possible that the nuances in tone become larger and more developed when I reread and rediscover them, and the poems will become more individual over time. It’s similar to listening to an album for the first time and thinking that all the songs sound the same.
On the subject of an album – these poems have a strong rap element to them. Tempest is first and foremost a rapper, and she sinks into poetry as she develops. In this collection, however, stanzas are repeated, as if the poems have choruses. I was initially put off by this, and scan read many of the repeats. It wasn’t until ‘Patterns’, the mammoth poem at the end (which I was delighted to find she re-used in the song she did with Bastille, ‘Forever Ever’), that I noticed the advantage of the repetition. She repeats a stanza three times in this, and on each repeat I picked up something new. Or phrases that meant something to me the first time meant more. It’s an effective technique, and it may not work in all of her poems (something a reread will show me), but I can see why she has done it. (The book also comes with a CD and DVD, both of which I’m yet to sample, and I imagine these repeats will benefit her spoken performance well.)
It’s interesting using the word ‘stanza’ for this poetry, because only one or two poems have traditional stanzas. The others are organised into paragraphs, with what would be a line of a poem becoming a sentence. I suppose this is ‘prose poetry’, but it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like the choice was made for the formatting of the book, more than anything else. The rhyming scheme in this is carried across the majority of the poems (probably another reason why the tone feels so similar), and so each sentence is essentially a couplet, and this is subverted by extending the sentences beyond the rhymes, time to time. I’m not a great fan of prose in any form, but the rhyming and the rhythm did make the poems a joy to read, regardless of their format. For me, though, with the repetition of theme, tone, and often events, the paragraphs made the poems seem quite heavy. It’s a short volume, only 37 poems (I think), and the length of the poems is fine. But they seem to have weight – the paragraphs mean that so so much is packed in together. This can make the rhythm and the poetry all the more impressive, but it also means that it doesn’t have the lithe, free and more relaxed feel of ‘Hold Your Own’. Naturally, as a first collection anyway, there will be differences. In her latest work, she delves into new areas and shows things in different ways. This collection has poems that are glimmers of the moments I love in ‘Hold Your Own’, but this collection is more likely to produce them as poems with a more regimented structure (not that this is at all detrimental to them).
The words in this collection are magnificent. There are key phrases, brilliantly worded lines that reflect small parts of human emotion and experience, and it’s these I love. It’s these I read her poetry for. I prefer her love poems to any others, and although they are quite samey (for now, anyway) within this collection, she presents an undeniably personal way of writing. There are intense poems, but there are also pauses that she reflects on, and that she fills with words. Everything here is her though. A defence of hip hop, a poem about her sister, and discovering her writing. It’s a pleasure to read something that looks full on her own life without blinking. Yet they’re written in a way that never says too much, and allows a reader to find themselves.
Tempest has confidence in this collection, and a huge amount of pride in her own achievements (interestingly contrasted with the many doubts she feels about her love life, which is constantly fraught with insecurity). The confidence is bold and surprising, the insecurities are sort of what I was looking for. But, unlike I expected, there are few to be found in the language. Tempest knows she has the language in her control and she shows this. With this gained, she can then push further, be more brave, and most importantly, be more free in the future.
This is a bold and exciting start for her poetry, showcasing the beginning of all the themes she will explore. Tempest is like Picasso. She can write like a genius when she starts, but as she grows, she can use that genius to write in new ways and find her own styles. Her language is an incredibly powerful force in this collection, whether in louder of quieter moments, and it is a joy to read and experience.
The one thing I feel that this collection misses out on, though, is showing just how sprightly and rhythmic her words are. The formatting doesn’t help this, but I’ve no doubt the performances of her poetry will show just how these are meant to sound.
Poems I’d recommend: ‘Laura’, ‘The Mouse Hiding Out in the Lion’s Hair’, ‘Patterns’ and probably loads more. Best to buy the book.
Tempest’s first novel, ‘The Bricks That Built the Houses’, is released in 2016.