By Katy Goodwin-Bates
I am a poetry snob. There, I said it. As an English literature graduate and an English teacher, I feel like I have read enough poems, and written and marked enough essays on the subject to confess this without fear of recrimination. My snobbery has one particular target: the new, seemingly ubiquitous type of confessional, deeply personal poetry that has no punctuation and titles in weird places. I can’t help it; it’s what my training has taught me.
My modern-poetry-phobia, however, is thoroughly defeated by the work of the wonderful Kate Tempest, whose brand of terrified cynicism, combined with the occasional comma, runs through Let Them Eat Chaos, a lengthy poem “written to be read aloud,” as the title page informs us; more on that later. Tempest’s previous poetic works, Brand New Ancients and Hold Your Own, have both explored themes of modern anxiety, the emptiness at the heart of society and the innate terror of living in 21st century London. Common to all Tempest’s works, also including her debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, are the characters fretting for their future, usually unable to see the world beyond themselves. Let Them Eat Chaos continues in this vein, setting us firmly in London, a city whose inhabitants, in Tempest’s vision, are awake at night wondering, “Is anybody else awake?/ Will it ever be day again?”
People meet by chance, fall in love, drift apart again.
Underage drinkers walk the park and watch the dark descend.
The workers watch the clocks, fiddle with their Parker pens
while the grandmothers haggle with the market men.
There’s a real force and impetus to Tempest’s poetry, in no small part driven by her rhymes, which leap off the page and embed themselves in the reader’s mind. I’m astounded by the way she takes the most mundane of concepts and crafts them into something so lyrical. As I’ve mentioned, the poem is meant to be read aloud, although there’s no point in any mere mortal attempting this feat when Tempest herself provides such a gripping and irresistible rendition in her own performance; there can’t be many artists both nominated for the Mercury Music Prize (the award given to the “best” British album of the year) and in possession of the Ted Hughes award for poetry, but it’s abundantly clear that Tempest is a very special artist indeed. I read Let Them Eat Chaos when it was released in 2016 but have listened to the recorded version in preparation for writing this review, and it’s fair to say that I am now extremely, completely and utterly jealous of Tempest’s talent.
construct a self and psychosis
meanwhile the people are dead in their droves
but nobody noticed
The skewering of modern culture is savage in Let Them Eat Chaos, from selfies to “the Boredofitall Generation.” After a rallying call to “follow the light with your tired eyes,” Tempest focuses her attention on a handful of Londoners awake at 4.18am, ranging from Alicia, unable to forget her dead partner, to Pete, lost in his drug-infused nightlife, and Zoe, whose sense of being left behind by the progress of the city around her is palpable. I’m no stranger to an early-hours panic myself, and Tempest accurately reflects the intense solitude and helplessness of that moment.
There are broader concerns here too, and they’re particularly timely. There’s seldom been a more important time for Tempest to “come to remind you/ that you’re not an island” and that “life is much broader/ than borders;” in a time of protests on both sides of the Atlantic, lines like this in Let Them Eat Chaos could be seen as a comment on the isolationist leanings of governments, as well as the solitude of the individual. And, if Tempest is trying to inspire us to action, she ends with a message of hope that inspires us to keep fighting. Bleakness is a recurring feature of Tempest’s work, but just as prevalent is a call to look for the positive and resist the lure of apathy.
Having experienced Let Them Eat Chaos twice, I now officially want to be Kate Tempest. The lack of sentiment but abundance of meaning in her poetry is quite unique, while the brutal, insistent nature of her words is pretty unrivalled in contemporary poetry. Read it, listen to it – just make sure you pick it up.