For an ancient art, the epic poem has experienced a long and slow near-demise. In preliterate times, the bardic storyteller traditionally served a variety of purposes: historian, entertainer, propagandist, even prophet—functions that bound a community together and offered a common narrative and identity. Today, however, epic poems are usually taught only as a segment in broader coursework—Beowulf, the Iliad and Odyssey, or the Aeneid getting a nod, possibly Chaucer or the Gawain poet for medievalists. In just a few centuries, what was once poetry’s central, founding mode of presentation has been relegated to its fringe, a mode that few today read, much less write.
This is not to say the form deserves a postmortem. Every literary generation from Dante forward has given us its own renditions of the epic, and in the modern era (20th century), poets such as William Carlos Williams (Paterson), James Merrill (The Changing Light at Sandover), Frank Stanford (The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You), and Derek Walcott (Omeros) have each composed lengthy works of remarkable lyricism and grace. More recently, in the past decade, Anne Carson (Nox, Autobiography of Red) and Alice Oswald (Memorial) have each reinvented the epic in new ways, taking classical mythology as their inspiration for a subsequent radical departure from it. To that list add one more female Anglophone poet: Kate Tempest, arriving in New Orleans next Monday, June 1, for a show at One Eyed Jack’s (tickets here or at the door).
Much ink has already been spilled over Tempest’s rise to fame, including ample puns on how she has taken the literary world by storm. Though Tempest had been performing on a regular basis prior to Brand New Ancients, this work, first published by Picador UK in 2012 (now by Bloomsbury US this year), shot her to prominence after its widely-heralded production at the Battersea Arts Centre in London. An unapologetic entry into the genre, Ancients is a thrilling, powerful account of the lives of ‘everyday’ gods in South London, people whose heroic and tragic lives at once illuminate the specific place where they live and offer a stage on which Tempest (or Tempest’s narrator) can claim a latent divinity in every individual. Raw, visceral, passionate, and searching, the book-length poem articulates a vision of humanity untethered to traditional mythologies, clawing out instead a new one of its own set in tenement flats, empty streets, and strip clubs.
True to its genre, Ancients employs certain formal features of an epic. A clear structure alternating between the content of the story and a regularly recurring choral refrain establishes Tempest as both the teller of the story and its interpreter, a double function common in ancient epics. Such structure helps the listener understand their position and offers mental signposts through an otherwise lengthy piece.
More to the point, however, is Ancients’ sound. Bringing all her skills as a performance poet to bear, Tempest has composed a lyric that seems to be stitched together one word at a time, each word bearing a sonic relation to those that came before and those that come after. At times this relation is subtle, linking line to line almost in a lullaby; at others it is short and staccato, like a machine gun burst shooting rhymes into the skull:
the gods are in the supermarket
the gods are walking home,
the gods can’t stop checking Facebook on their phones
the gods are in a traffc jam
the gods are on the train
the gods are watching adverts
the gods are not to blame –
they are working for the council
now they’re on the dole
now they’re getting drunk pissing their wages down a hole
the gods are in their gardens
with their decking and their plants
the gods are in the classrooms
the poor things don’t stand a chance
Overall, the effect is captivating, even mesmerizing, and in her expert linkage of sound with sense—particularly with sustaining it over time—Tempest most confidently joins her forebears.
To be fair, Ancients is not flawless. Every epic has a message to its audience over and above the factual details of the story, details that to a knowing community would have largely been common parlance. This message can be political (as in Omeros or the Aeneid), personal (Sandover or Battlefield), or somewhere in between, but ultimately such insights and revelations separate the poetic epic from mere documentary history in verse. For Tempest, the message is that even if the gods of, say, the Greek and Roman pantheon no longer suffice for our modern age, they have been replaced by new ones. Yes, there are the ‘permatanned Gods’ of the television screen, she acknowledges, but her interest is in locating and championing the lesser gods of the chip shop and the corner pub, the everyday gods of—wait for it—you and me.
This, along with the moral (albeit poetically rendered) that ‘love is all we need,’ leads to the articulation of a kind of secular divinity, a divinity that for all its charged manifestation suffers from some confusion. At varying times in Ancients, these gods are described as other people, as we ourselves, and as in us—a divinity that verges either on narcissism on one end or on pantheism on the other, a doctrine that is established simply by declaring it to be so. Obviously, saying it don’t make it so, and moreover, if everyone is a god, or godlike, then what special aspects are thus reserved for the notion? That question remains unanswered, and it would have been fascinating to see her grapple with it in more depth. Granted, part of Tempest’s project is to identify the heroism, beauty, and tragedy in all our lives, and in this she succeeds brilliantly. Part, too, of that success is that Ancients understands absolute moral clarity to be a chimaera: two of her ‘gods’ are degenerate youth, violent offenders whose victims who never saw the upbringing that led to their acts. By giving her audience an account of how Spider and Clive came to be who they are, an account sympathetic to even the most moralistic of observer, Tempest refuses their easy dismissal even as they commit their fateful deed.
Tempest’s more recent work in her collection Hold Your Own also works with mythology in novel ways, adopting the figure of Tiresias, the blind seer, as a guide through her own biography. Structure and craftsmanship aside, one of the few formal features of an epic that Ancients lacks is the invocation to the muse, traditionally an opening sequence in which the poet asks for a blessing from the muse of poetry as he (usually he) does his work—a blessing for himself as he recounts his story, and a blessing for his audience as they receive it and adopt it as their own. Fascinating to observe is Tempest’s omission of what is otherwise the handle on the door to the poem. Perhaps she was more interested to dive headfirst into the story; perhaps, she is saying, as a female epicist, she has no need of such outside help that the blokes are after. The narrative offers no clues. Either way, however, what Tempest has woven is a tapestry worthy of the gods themselves, one even to make Arachne jealous.