We live in a time when the written word is just so available, so accessible, that it has naturally become the seat of our expression. When a poet writes down and publishes their poems, they expand their reach beyond that open mic in the back of the pub, and they can share their creation with thousands. This has, however, somewhat removed the performative element of poetry, encouraging us to read in silence. It served, then, as a potent reminder of the value of taking the time to read poetry aloud, when I picked up a copy of Kate Tempest’s latest release Let Them Eat Chaos.
For those who don’t yet know, Kate Tempest is a not only a poet, but also a spoken-word performer and rapper, with Let Them Eat Chaos out as an album as well as a poetry book. In fact, Tempest is becoming ever more significant in the world of contemporary poetry, recently performing on BBC Two. Whilst what I’ve heard of the music isn’t to my own taste, the poet’s latest book is a strong and interrogating work. Indeed, I highly recommend that everyone pick up Let Them Eat Chaos, as it will probably turn out to be one of the best poetry books released this year.
When Tempest writes in the front of her book ‘this poem was written to be read aloud’, it is an incredibly easy note to ignore. To do so, however, seems somewhat bizarre when one considers that, from the very earliest times, poetry was not something read off the page, but something listened to; an intimate connection forged between a poet and their immediate audience. Whether we are talking about the oral tradition of the ancient Greek-speaking peoples or of the Anglo-Saxon poets, recited verse has throughout history compelled and engaged listeners in a most powerful manner. Of course, most poetry today is written precisely to be read and reread; its ‘literariness’ is an essential part of its makeup. This is not new: in 3rd century BCE Alexandria, poets such as Callimachus were already playing with these ideas, creating highly-wrought, intensely literary poems. What Tempest shows, however, is that poetry spoken and heard can have an impact as powerful as any read in the head.
the process of taking on a narrative voice entails discovering and understanding that narrative voice
This time, I forced myself to put aside the time to read the poetry in the proper sense; to sit and speak aloud each verse. In doing so, I discovered that Tempest’s writing is not only highly readable, but it gains its expressivity from its mimetic qualities, from her ability to take on different and various personas and then to switch seamlessly and intriguingly between them. For instance, Tempest can change from bored and aimless Bradley to downtrodden Zoe moving homes in less than a page. Her style is closely related to the dramatic monologue (think Robert Browning); if you just sat and pored over each word, considered them only in your brain, the weight of feeling and character behind each voice would be completely lost. By speaking it, we begin to act and to engage with the work; the process of taking on a narrative voice entails that of discovering and understanding that narrative voice. Simply reading through the text bypasses all of this.
This is something that Kate Tempest clearly understands well. The writing is full of beautifully worded phrases, ones that stick with you (‘No isle is an island / unsure and divided / just one little clod off the mainland, sinking’) and that beg to be uttered, repeated, and considered. Let Them Eat Chaos is proof that poetry is not purely a literary exercise; reading aloud can reveal hidden depths and delights, and it is an essential part of enjoying poetry.