Only an aching heart,” wrote William Butler Yeats in his mighty 1923 poem, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, “conceives a changeless work of art.” Of course, there’s more than a slim chance that Yeats might have had himself in mind when he penned those lines; by this point in his career he had proposed marriage to his muse Maude Gonne no less than four times and her daughter Iseult twice, and had been rejected every time. He was also, it’s fair to say, a poet who gave a certain amount of thought to his artistic legacy. Still, even if he had been looking outside his own oeuvre to prove his point, Yeats would have found plenty of evidence in the work of other poets, from Catullus to Oscar Wilde. Over the centuries many writers have produced some of their most enduring work just as they are suffering unbearable emotional turmoil in their personal lives. That said, however, Yeats’s rule is not universally applicable, and a great poet living through a period of great unhappiness will not necessarily turn out great verse.
Born in 1985, Kate Tempest is unquestionably one of the major poets of her generation, beloved of both the poetry establishment (she won the Ted Hughes Award in 2013 for her epic poem Brand New Ancients) and the performance poetry set (Scroobius Pip once described her as “annoyingly good”.) Her latest collection, Running Upon The Wires, was born out of a period of heartbreak, as she split up with one partner, but also a period of joy as she fell in love with somebody else, and a period of immense confusion in between. To reflect this, the book is divided into three sections: entitled “the end,” “the middle” and “the beginning.”
If we were to go hunting for Yeats’s changeless works of art, we might reasonably expect them to occur in the first third, where the poet is at the point of maximum despair. However, the majority of the poems here feel tentative and insubstantial. Tempest tends to be at her best when she builds up a head of steam, as in Brand New Ancients, where lines and lines of tightly-coiled verse come tumbling out of her with a cumulative force that’s impossible to resist.
By contrast, poems like “Headfuck” and “Getting Out More” feel almost throwaway, not just lacking in scale (both are less than ten lines long) but also in terms of intellectual ambition. It’s hard to imagine either of them being accepted for publication in a literary magazine if they didn’t have Tempest’s name attached. In “Not now but soon,” Tempest shows that she can pack a lot of ideas into a few lines when she chooses to, and in “Awake all night thinking of you” and “Things I do in our house since you left” she at least recaptures some of the rhythmic energy that makes her best work so compelling, although both of these poems culminate in whimpers rather than bangs.
Things get more interesting, if not necessarily more artistically satisfying, when we reach “the middle.” Two poems here – “Moving on, crawling back” and “I don’t want to go backwards with her any more, I want to go forwards with you” are highly astute studies of the minute but significant nuances that can make or break adult relationships.
It isn’t until “the beginning,” however, that Tempest seems to rediscover her equilibrium, both emotionally and artistically. No one poem stands out, but as a group the work in this final selection provides an honest, witty, mosaic-like view of love in the 21st century.
Running Upon The Wires, by Kate Tempest, Picador Poetry, 54pp, £9.99