Friday 18 November 2016

Tempest fugit

The performance poet Kate Tempest is widely admired.  The Huffington Post describes her as "Britain's leading young poet, playwright and rapper . . . one of the most widely respected performers in the country – the complete package of lyrics and delivery."

In a recent interview she insisted that poetry should be more about the audience than the performer. “That’s an opinion that ruffles a lot of feathers because poets have got quite high opinions of themselves in certain circles,” she said. 

I'm not at all sure what those 'certain circles' might be, unless the Sitwells are still at it somewhere. I really cannot imagine whose feathers are ruffled, in her quaint phrase, and why. Since the so-called Poetry Wars of the 1970s - described half a century ago as 'a knife-fight in a phone booth' - Tempest's side has pretty much won, by which I mean the kind of audeince-friendly performance poetry popularised fifty years ago by the Liverpudlians Roger McGough, Brian Patten et al has more or less displaced the kind of poetry written by the type of poets  to which I suppose Tempest must be referring - quiet, private, personal and technically accomplished. It's still circulating among a small audience of appreciative readers who value that sort of thing, but let's agree that serious poetry no longer enjoys cultural pre-eminence, and does not have much popular appeal. (I realise that even using such a loaded phrase as 'real poetry' puts me beyond the pall, but if you're still reading this you'll know what I mean, and perhaps even agree with me. And you'll know what I mean by 'popular appeal'.) There is still plenty of real poetry around, written by real poets, many of whom I've featured in this blog - J. O. Morgan, Alice Oswald, Nancy Campbell, many others).

When it comes to poetry I feel, as a reader, like rather the character played by Isabelle Huppert in Hal Harley's wonderful movie Amateur.  Asked how she can be (as she claims) a 'nymphomaniac virgin' she replies briskly: "I'm choosy'.)

I'm choosy.

Tempest, born in 1985, can be forgiven for not knowing about the radical democratisation of the arts set in train after the Second World War and I assume that's why she thinks the battle has just begun. In this, to be sure, she is like any ambitious young artist making their way in the world - the established order must be challenged, and overthrown, to make room for the new. An interest in one's predecessors is a secondary consideration. The problem is that the established order she should be seeking to overthrow consists entirely of poets very like herself - public performers of crowd-pleasing tub-thumping stuff. Apart from her rapper tendencies her work seems to me very similar to those Liverpool Poets of the 1950s. Like today's rock bands doing cover versions of Beatles songs with state-of-the-art lighting rigs and sound systems. 
I don't much admire her writing or her delivery of it - it doesn't speak to me (how could it?) but when she makes disparaging generalisations about poetry I feel obliged to pick up my racket and slice back. And I think she needs to consider, at thirty, how long she can sustain her current schtick.

It's important for Tempest to believe in what she sees as her iconoclastic role - storming the ivory towers, showing by example that (hey-ho) 'poetry is for everyone'. She continues:
“Intellectual snobbery is rife in lots of artforms. What’s exciting about performance is it takes it back to an ancient time when it wasn’t about how clever, important or educated you were. It was about how well you could communicate.”
When was that 'ancient time'? The ability to communicate well clearly suggests intelligence and in all likelihood an education, or its pre-historic equivalent. Tempest (herself intelligent and educated and untroubled by doubts about her own importance) imagines some hypothetical past in which naturally gifted poets would strum their lyres and swoon at the sight of a meadow. These poets presumably had a high opinion of themselves but it took the arrival of Kate Tempest to ruffle their feathers.

It's not about how clever or important or educated you are. It's about how good you are at what you do. Tempest is good at what she does but has an essentially philistine view of culture in general and of poetry in particular - crudely put, that it's really for toffs.  If that's the case how come she enjoys such acclaim and success and commands such large whooping audiences? Why doesn't J. H. Prynne do Glastonbury?

It's not snobbish to dislike or be indifferent to Kate Tempest's performance poetry (although no doubt there are those who have snobbish reasons for doing so). It's perfectly reasonable to dislike her work on aesthetic grounds. A waspish (and very funny) critique of Tempest's performance was written by Lloyd Evans for The Spectator (8 October 2016):

Every line sounds like its predecessor, half sung on a falling note, and every word seems to exult in its contact with the dolorous and moribund.

Here are some representative Tempest lines from her Brand New Ancients:

That face on the street you walk past without looking at,
or that face on the street that walks past you without looking back
or the man in the supermarket trying to keep his kids out of
his trolley,
or the woman by the postbox fighting with her brolly,
every single person has a purpose in them burning.
Look again, and allow yourself to see them.

© Kate Tempest

These lines are flat on the page but may (let's agree) become fierce and persuasive when performed - but that's what makes them lyrics rather than poetry. They do not reveal anything on subsequent readings - and how could they? Ian Hamilton foresaw this kind of writing in the late 1970s when, writing in Poetry Review he said:

What we see today is more what poetry is not than what it is . . . . Every line doesn't count, every word hasn't been carefully chosen, it doesn't have any structure, there's no reason why this line is broken and that line is not […] You call this poetry? I think it's something, but I don't think it's poetry.

He was choosy.

Tempest's talent is difficult to separate from her confident sense of entitlement (both of which are admirable, I think, and a strong sense of entitlement is essential for all writers). But in the end it is talent that counts, not clamour and certainly not sincerity. And also ideas, of course - but there's a difference between ideas and good ideas. She seems unsure of the difference between loquacity and eloquence and the result, as poetry or simply as writing, is torrential but inconsequential.

There's also the hoary old distinction to be made between classicism and romanticism, two terms best understood in opposition. Classicism in poetry is against emotional excess (though not against emotion); it values reason, control and precision. It is determined to exercise reason. The classical temperament has no time for sentimentality. There's little place for it in our world, in these times.

In The New Book of Snobs (published last month) D. J. Taylor notes that in our relativist era accusations of snobbishness are routinely levelled by some as 'a scapegoat for their own inability to formulate or accept a judgement'. Discriminating taste based on a belief in objective aesthetic standards supporting an informed opinion is often resented and condemned and he cites the journalist and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter, whose definition of a snob seems to be anyone who disagrees with Janet Street-Porter.
Not for the first time I'd argue that poetry - even Kate Tempest's version of poetry its with lashings of candour and (literal) chest-beating - is not for everyone. It's for anyone.

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