Brand New Ancients – I think now approaching the end of its tour – is a very unusual, ambitious and startling piece. Kate Tempest has put together a long, performed poem, set to music, partly social commentary and satire but with a narrative arc that aspires to epic. Having seen it – and thoroughly enjoyed it – I feel I now need to read it (it was published by Picador last year). Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Poetry Award in 2013.
The overwhelming power of Brand New Ancients comes from its call not to lose our histories and not to settle for the present. We are at risk of forgetting our myths, says Tempest, not in the sense of grand narratives, as such, but in the sense of losing grand patterns in ordinary narratives. We are making the mistake of believing that ‘the present is all that there is’. The story of the poem concerns two families, the friendship between two boys as they grow up in south-east London, where Tempest herself grew up. The families and friendship have quirks and twists and, at times, there were echoes of Achilles and Patroclus (but that might have just been me). We hear them talk; Tempest has a good ear for dialogue; there are some shocks; plenty of jokes, some nicely filthy. There are other characters and other rhythms. And then at times, we hear a chorus-like voice, more Tempest-as-poet or storyteller but also commenting on the action and urging us to see, in the small details, the mini-triumphs and little tragedies, the underlying dignity and ordinary heroism of the human species. It was, as I said, an extraordinary and ambitious project quite unlike anything I have seen. Sometimes Tempest is referred to as a performance poet (rather like John Hegley or Attila the Stockbroker); Brand New Ancients is in an entirely different genre. Perhaps it creates one.
It’s also a tour-de-force by Tempest herself. She not only delivers a strong, passionately performed reading of her text but manages to subvert the performer-audience barrier at several points in the show. Whether or not she is actually comfortable on stage, she certainly gives the impression she is and manages to combine intimate, apparently improvised conversation with the audience with the epic storytelling of everyday heroics underscored by violin, cello, tuba (yes tuba, wonderfully played) and drums. The extract below is so worth your while clicking on.
Brand New Ancients is brilliant and I am sure it will live its own life beyond Tempest’s performance. Kate Tempest has huge amount to offer poetry in the years ahead – not in the trivial sense of ‘making poetry cool’ or appropriately regionally accented but in coming up with new genres and forms of poetry that fuse classical and contemporary modes and speak to a wide audience. Brand new and ancient, indeed.