Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Gawain Poet, translated by Simon Armitage
This week I spent a couple of days in Lorne, a lovely town on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. My parents go there every year, and whenever possible I try to join them.
When in Lorne I never miss the chance to visit the wonderful Lorne Beach Books. I was trying to find some other books by Kate Milford because I’m currently reading and enjoying Greenglass House, but they didn’t have any in stock. Instead, I bought Brand New Ancients, by performance poet Kate Tempest.
Tempest has been a huge name in Australia since her appearance on Q&A last year. She is a rapper, poet, musician, and novelist who won the Ted Hughes Poetry Prize in 2013 for Brand New Ancients, a narrative poem set to music which follows the fates of two families in London. The title page proclaims that “this poem was written to be read aloud”, but to be honest I read it from cover to cover silently and found it compelling and devastating – so much so that sometimes I needed to put it down.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. I was having a discussion with my friend recently about rap music (about which I know nada), and he was arguing that rappers need to be more skilled than poets, because they have to weave magic with words and set it all to a beat. Sure, I thought, but the songs you’re making me listen to would hardly stand up as poems alone. Poems on the page have nowhere to hide: an awkward rhyme or or tired image can’t be glossed over through a nice musical phrase. I thought that Tempest’s poetry might be similar – average on paper, electrifying in performance – but I found the words themselves pretty electrifying, to the point that when I did listen to excerpts of the performance, I didn’t feel that it added much. I didn’t need, for instance, swelling strings and Tempest’s rising voice to conjure up a sense of menace in the scene where Gloria is attacked, because that menace is already conveyed by the words. Perhaps it would have been different if I’d listened to the performance first, before reading the transcript.
I didn’t love every moment of Brand New Ancients. At times I found it a bit preachy – songs that repeatedly instruct the listener “You gotta…” or “We need to…” have always rubbed me up the wrong way, and this poem was no different. And all that preaching about our need to reconnect with our mythical roots is unnecessary, because the story speaks for itself. In the often-tragic tale of Brian, Clive, Tommy and the other men and women who drift in and out of their lives, we feel keenly the disconnect between contemporary society and the beings who populate it – beings with ancient needs, drives, and desires. This is brilliantly captured in the cover artwork by Christina Hardinge, which depicts ancient-looking figures sporting the traps of modernity and zombie-like gaits to match:
Tempest’s brand of poetry is often touted as new and unique (and it is unique), but of course performance poetry is as old as poetry itself (critics of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize might disagree). While in Lorne I also visited the little second-hand bookshop below, and picked up a copy of a very different performance poem: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in a modern English translation by Simon Armitage.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a brilliant narrative poem from the 14th century, written by an anonymous author in a Northern dialect of Middle English. The poem begins during a Christmas feast in Camelot, which is interrupted when an enormous knight, completely green in both attire and skin, walks into the hall. The stranger challenges the knights to a bizarre game, and Gawain – nephew of King Arthur – accepts the challenge. A fantastic adventure ensues, and the plot is riveting in its own right: masterfully shaped and containing a fantastic twist at the end. But Gawain is also a deeply complex poem which invites a multitude of interpretations: it has been read as a Christian allegory, a romance, a treatise on the nature of value, a battle of the sexes, and an exploration of man’s relationship with nature.
I am taking liberties a little by describing Gawain as a performance poem. The gorgeously-decorated manuscript in which Gawain was found along with three other poems suggests that it was also intended to be enjoyed on the page. However, during that time it was common for poems and stories to be read aloud for entertainment, and there is certainly much to be gained from reciting Gawain aloud. Simon Armitage has prioritized the poem’s alliteration in his translation, and argues that this technique is most powerful when read aloud:
On the subject of alliteration, it should be mentioned that within each line it is the stressed syllables which count. A line like ‘and retrieves the intestines in time-honoured style’ might appear not to alliterate at first glance. But read it out loud, and the repetition of that ‘t’ sound – the tut-tutting, the spit of revulsion, the squirming of the warm, wet tongue as it makes contact with the roof of the mouth – seems to suggest a physical relationship with the action being described… This is a translation not only for the eye, but for the ear and the voice as well (from the introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).
I already owned a copy of Armitage’s translation, but what I stumbled upon in the bookstore was not just any old copy, but a stunningly illustrated Folio Society edition, in perfect condition! A poem for the eye indeed!