Review of Kate Tempest’s “Hold Your Own”

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My non-genetic twin Tim was recently venting frustration about his inability to sustain attention at poetry readings. He said: how can I be riveted by radio, or by podcasts, and not poetry? Shouldn’t poetry be affecting me at least similarly? Oration is a source of conflict for poets. It’s an afterthought, or a dead zone, or it can become the dreaded, affected “poet voice”—or worse.

Auden felt that to craft your delivery was a form of propaganda, and so read his work like a flatliner. Armitage was, for a while, a beggar-bard, trudging around, offering to read his work in bars, his survival semi-contingent on how well he entertained strangers. In my city (Toronto) the lyric and spoken word communities are two solitudes—both have plenty to say, but remain largely mute to each other. One group publishes precious broadsheets and chapbooks; the other ranks each other on and offstage, their currency CDs. 

The work of UK poet Kate Tempest is an exception to all these divisions. She won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for her first book, Brand New Ancients, and the 2014 Mercury Prize for her album, Everybody Down. She’s been christened a “Next Generation” poet and was featured on CBC’s The National for our parents to process while they floss. In short, she has united critical approval and crossover appeal. Much of this consensus is because her work harkens back to the Greek tradition, while being decidedly contemporary.

In the old days
the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves.
But how can we explain the way we hate ourselves….

That’s from her first book, Brand New Ancients, an epic poem published in 2013 and dedicated to working class neighbourhoods of England. Her new book, Hold Your Own (now out in North America) , is just as rooted in place at time, and she’s aided by new eyes—those of Tiresias, a cypher, who is an ancient, gender-bending, blind clairvoyant. 

In keeping with his/her life, Hold Your Own moves through four sections: childhood, womanhood, manhood, and blind profit (note: not “prophet”). The first portion of the book involves childhood recollections—small epiphanies, inebriation, self-harm, first loves, and other rites of passage. These poems show considerable talent and ability to surprise. Tales of being bullied, getting into fights, and lying to your parents are universal. But some of these poems slip into the simpler, more slight, or less poetic language of a writer’s younger self:

You sat beside me, finding new
ways to look away.
You kissed me. It was lighter fuel.
It burnt the night away.
And when I took my eyes off you
I saw that it was day.

The kiss as lighter fuel is a decent metaphor, though it doesn’t excuse rhyming away with away! Some of these stanzas are too tentative, or precious, and lack her distinctive flow. 

However, the book quickly gains force and intensity. Formally, the poems feature more rhyming than many of us are accustomed to in contemporary work, but Tempest integrates entertaining colloquialisms:

You stagger on regardless, 
Swaying in the street 
Summoning an oracle 
That can’t be arsed to meet. 

By darting between formal, casual, and slang speech, Tempest creates tension and sustains our interest. Tempest’s work is like water, not rope—at its best, it’s fluid, expansive, unpredictable. (At its worst, it can gush.) There is admirable control that results in many pleasing sonic (and hypervisual) moments, such as:

Snakes. Two snakes! 
Coiling, uncoiling 
Boiling and cooling 
Oil in a cauldron 
Foil in a river 
Soil on a mood ring.     

The fiercest poems in Hold Your Own deal with a broad range of contemporary issues, including soldiers with PTSD, global warming, and sexual violence. And the most moving poems circle back to Tiresias and his/her transitions—both as a body and a seer, which are of course metaphorical for Tempest’s own identity:

The boy in her is strong some days 
And calls out for a girl to touch 
The girl in her is full of rage 
And craves the things she hates so much. 

She must be more than sex and body? 
Sex and body’s all she’s got. 
Like all hard lessons, learn it softly. 
It only is until it’s not. 

This, like so much of Hold Your Own, is poignant, accomplished, and fresh. Tempest’s poems cross-cut categories—past vs. present, highbrow vs. lowbrow, male vs. female, page vs. stage, story vs. song. But what makes her voice so striking is her verve and daring. Surely, this book will prompt discussions about whether performance poetry translates to solitary reader and vice versa; but the skill she shows, and the risks she takes, create music out of the lyric. 

Tiresias’ ancient recommendation was to aspire toward the “life of the ordinary guy,” but Tempest cautions us: there is no such thing. Hold Your Own, as a project, is equally concerned with integrating the self and becoming resolved about being torn. These are things most of us are still working on, if we’re honest.

Originally published May 19, 2015, on Partisan (later retracted).