Review: Brand New Ancients

Since April is National Poetry Month (in some parts of the world at least), it seemed appropriate to review one of the poetry books on my list. I’d been looking to read some contemporary poetry, and Kate Tempest’s name kept coming up, as did recommendations for Brand New Ancients.

Brand New Ancients is not a collection of poetry, but rather a single, epic poem in free verse. The book begins with a warning that this poem is meant to be read aloud, and if you watch the following clip of Kate Tempest performing the opening stanzas, you’ll soon understand why:

From this opening, which sets the scene in the manner of a Greek chorus, the poem narrows it’s subject to two interconnected families, and traces how their lives play out. In showing the highs, lows, vulgarities, and nobility of these ordinary people, Tempest posits that such people are as worthy as poetic treatment as the gods of old. It’s a stirring, powerful poem – like Eastenders inhabited by Greek Gods – grimy and unflinching about the way life wears us down and moulds us into undesired shapes, and yet so hopeful about the power and creativity, the potential, within each one of us.

I initially read the poem in one sitting. I’m not generally a fan of long poems, but I found this one compelling, because it dealt not just with ideas, but a story. I began to care about the characters and wanted to know what would happen to them. The pulsing rhythmn seems almost to pull you along with it, which also helps to keep you reading, but did make it harder to find convenient stopping places when I went back to read it at a slower pace over several sittings.

To my mind this poem is in a tradition of poets writing about, and challenging, the state of the world (such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound for instance, although I find Tempest’s work more readable), and while I enjoyed that aspect of the work I can see how it might be off-putting to some readers – this is not ‘fireside book of poems’ fare. On the other hand, the storytelling, and the rhythmn, which is reminiscent of rap music, will mean that Brand New Ancients appeals to those who wouldn’t normally choose to read poetry.

And ‘read’ really is the key word, as this poem works much better as a performance piece. I’ve not taken the trouble to quote from it because excerpts of Kate Tempest’s performance are available on YouTube courtesy of the Battersea Arts Centre (Part 1 is embedded above, and here are the links for Parts 2 and 3). I’d be interested to hear what you think of it. Enjoy!

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