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3D Poetry Collections in the Embrace of the Digital Age (Sound, Image, Network)

Performance, Hybridity and Convergence in the Poetry of Alice Oswald and Kae Tempest

Performance, hybridité et convergence dans la poésie d’Alice Oswald et de Kae Tempest
Bastien Goursaud


Cet article s’intéresse aux œuvres d’Alice Oswald et de Kae Tempest, qui ont pour caractéristique d’être très largement influencées par la performance orale et d’exister à travers une pluralité de médias rendus aisément accessibles par internet. Il fait l’hypothèse que chaque version du poème (sous forme de livre, d’enregistrement, de vidéo, ou de performance publique) a une valeur égale aux autres et doit être étudiée comme faisant partie du recueil poétique. Ce dernier terme est dès lors défini comme la mise en commun de toutes les versions disponibles du poème et leur mise en relation. Il examine ensuite la poétique d’hybridité que produisent ces poèmes utilisant plusieurs médias, ainsi que l’expérience poétique plurielle qui en découle. Les poèmes sont alors étudiés à la lumière du concept de « culture de la convergence » élaboré par Henry Jenkins, la convergence étant décrite en lien avec l’émergence d’une communauté poétique, communauté produite par le poème oral et ses versions plurielles, dont le poème lui-même se fait le reflet. Pour finir, il est suggéré que cet intérêt pour la communauté peut fournir une manière pertinente de rassembler et de comparer les œuvres au sein d’une poésie britannique contemporaine marquée par une grande diversité.

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  • 1 In proposing twelve categories of contemporary British poets, Fiona Sampson’s Beyond the Lyric: A M (...)

1Contemporary British poetry is often said to be characterized by a form of atomization. In 1998, Sean O’Brien described the poetic consequences of two decades of social, political and economic deregulation by underlining the “variousness of contemporary poetry” (O’Brien 1998, 9). Twenty years later, this “period of tremendous richness and variety,” also described by poet and critic Fiona Sampson (Sampson 2012, 2), is still going on, but categories, filiations, let alone schools, seem even more difficult to spot. One possible explanation for that is the exponential development of the Internet: blogs and personal websites have provided a convenient platform for new writers, while the easy access to video and audio platforms have renewed the interest for aural and visual performances of poems beyond bookshops and public readings. The Internet has therefore participated in fostering a new surge of creativity, while increasingly underlining the inability of the poetry book to do justice to the full scope of the poetic experience. Faced with such an expanded field of inquiry, it may also seem harder for critical discourse to propose convincing links and comparative approaches.1 Yet, the increased diversity of the poetic experience may also be envisaged in a more positive way, for the multiplication of the actualisations of the poem is an opportunity for both poets and critics to build original convergences where meaning may emerge, and where unexpected communities allow us to broaden the poetic sphere.

2I believe that the works of Alice Oswald and Kae Tempest provide such an opportunity. Because Tempest is originally a spoken word artist and Oswald’s poetry seems radically different from the aesthetics and modes of reception of spoken word poetry, the comparison may seem surprising at first. However, in spite of very different poetics, both poets invite us to look at what happens to the poem and the poetic experience when the poetry collection is made plural and abandons the traditional boundaries of the page. One may indeed find a common ground or point of intersection between these two poets in the fact that they both interrogate the relationships of the poetry book and the text to their aural, live or recorded performances. They both validate poet and critic Charles Bernstein’s argument that “[t]he poem, viewed in terms of its multiple performances, or mutual intertranslatability, has a fundamentally plural existence” (Bernstein 1998, 9). A relevant comparative approach should thus involve an intermedia perspective that takes into account the book, the performance and the recordings. In this paper, I will study three types of relationships: a) moments when the traditional poetry book fails to fully render what its aural realisation (as recording or live performance) adds to the poem; b) elements of convergence or equivalence between the different media; c) moments when the poetry book itself seems to perform the performance, so to speak, and thus produces a sort of typographical and visual body of the performed text.

3I will start by underlining more precisely the intermedia nature of these poems. I will then investigate how their plural nature, as described by Bernstein, creates a common poetics of hybridity at every level of the poem’s existence: within the poetic voice itself, as a text or performance, and as a poetic experience. I will therefore propose a conception of the poetry collection – as distinct from the poetry book – as the convergence of the various actualisations of a poem and their interconnections.

The Locations of the Poem

  • 2 His introduction to the rather partisan anthology New British Poetry (2004) is a violent critique o (...)

4Kae Tempest’s artistic career is in itself a surprising hybrid. Having started as a rapper and performance artist, their debut as a poet seemed hardly predestined to meet the mainstream of contemporary British poetry. Yet, it was partly the influence of Picador poet and editor Don Paterson – a self-confessed proponent of the British poetic mainstream2 – that led them to write three collections for the prestigious publisher. In fact, the influence of their oral and performance-based works is still evidenced by their poems. All three of their collections were, according to their subtitles, “written to be read aloud,” and all three are the texts used, with additional music, during their performances. Their work Let Them Eat Chaos (2016) is, for instance, a snapshot of the seven inhabitants of a South-London building still awake at 4:18am. It is available as a Picador poetry collection, as a record, as a recorded performance by the artist, and one can of course see it live during one of Tempest’s numerous rap/spoken-word gigs. In the recording and on stage, Tempest alternates moments of cool, almost mechanical spoken delivery with moments of rapping or singing, to which the book seems to propose an equivalent with its alternation of relatively regular display, free-verse and typographic atomisation on the page. The status of such polymorphous work is immediately problematic where the status of the poetic text is concerned and therefore questions our common representations of the poem, the poetry collection and its contents.

5At first, Alice Oswald’s work seems less focused on crossing the boundaries between the poetry books and the poem’s other actualisations. Oswald is a mid-career poet whose work is steeped in literary tradition, from Homer to Ted Hughes. Yet, her poetry never settles in the purely written word and is always also a performance. Her long poems – Dart (2002), Memorial (2011), “Severed Head Floating Downriver” and “Tithonus: 46 minutes in the life of the dawn” from her collection Falling Awake (2016), as well as her 2019 poem Nobody, originally a collaboration with the artist William Tillyer – are certainly part of the tradition of post-war poetry whose sound patterns Charles Bernstein describes as “made up – that is, [they] do not follow received or prefabricated forms.” According to Bernstein, “the sound shapes of the poems of such practitioners are often most immediately and viscerally heard in performance (taped or live), even if the attuned reader might be able to hear something comparable in her or his own (prior) reading of the text. The poetry reading is a public tuning” (Bernstein 1998, 6).

6One way to look at Alice Oswald’s long poems is to consider them as the equivalents of musical scores: from that perspective, the poetry book becomes a potentiality that is only ever actualized when the performance takes place, which, as I shall demonstrate later on, is sometimes materialized typographically by the text. When questioned about her relationship to the written word, Oswald explained her attachment to the live performance, comparing her poems with “tunes,” and the performer’s body with a musical instrument:

I’m a real believer in live performance. […] To me there is a real value in getting a human body, like a musical instrument, to stand up and play. That’s better than anything, but if you can’t do that, I think there is great value in recording. I’m worried about the kind of arrogance of not wanting other people to read my poems. That’s a big failing of mine – but if they could read the tunes right I wouldn’t mind. (Oswald 2014b, 42:40-43:20, my transcription)

  • 3 A recent example is her 2019 collaboration with musician Joanna MacGregor for a performance of her (...)
  • 4 In fact, Oswald and Mount created a small publishing association called The Letter Press, described (...)

7That interest in performance is evident in Oswald’s poetic practice: an acclaimed performer of her work, Oswald often collaborates with musicians and artists to produce original interpretations of her poems.3 At one point in the same conversation, she related the “tunes” to the shapes of the natural world: “the outlines of landscapes, I see that as a tune” (Oswald 2014b, 38:03-38:06). Such correspondence between the aural and the visual echoes the “sound shapes” mentioned by Bernstein. It also calls up the typographical equivalence that underlies the dynamic relationship between the written poem and its performance in both Oswald’s and Tempest’s works. Like Tempest, Oswald investigates that relationship and, since Memorial, she has collaborated with typographer Kevin Mount4 for the conception of her collections.

8A quick look at Oswald’s complete body of work confirms this interest in the aural existence of her poems, since complete recordings of her collections Dart and Memorial are easily available on iTunes and have been published as CDs by Faber & Faber. In her preface to Memorial, she describes the poem as an “oral cemetery” (Oswald 2011a, 2) for the anonymous dead soldiers of the Iliad. Each death is presented in a brutal, sometimes gruesome snapshot description and associated with a simile describing the natural world, which is always repeated. That is because, as Oswald explains, the poem is written in reference to the “Greek tradition of lament poetry” (Oswald 2011a, 1), a tradition that she goes on to describe in the same preface:

When a corpse was layed out, a professional poet (someone like Homer) led the mourning and was antiphonally answered by women offering personal accounts of the deceased. I like to think that the stories of individual soldiers recorded in the Iliad might be recollections of these laments, woven into the narrative by poets who regularly performed both high epic and choral lyric poetry. (Oswald 2011a, 1-2)

9According to performance critic Stephe Harrop, Oswald’s own mode of performance draws from a more modern tradition of performance, where the audience is more of a passive receiver of the work (Harrop 2013, 79). In that sense, her work in performance differs from Tempest’s own hybrids of rap and spoken word poetry, in which their mostly standing audience often adopts the attitudes of the concert, or even the rave, by clapping, shouting and often dancing.

  • 5 This is particularly evident in Let Them Eat Chaos, where the time when the seven characters meet f (...)

10Yet, Oswald’s reference to the ancient tradition of call and response lament suggests that an attention to the direct involvement of a listener was central to the conception of the collection. In performance, Oswald’s long, repeated silences (made all the more noticeable by the repetition of the similes), as well as the way she continuously looks at her audience (Oswald recites Memorial by heart and therefore never needs to look at the book) suggest a form of address, or even dialogue. The audience, though quiet, is involved in the poem’s antiphonal structure – a structure that is in fact reminiscent of contemporary religious rituals such as, for example, the call and response of Baptist preaching, whose influence on Tempest’s spoken word work is also striking.5

11Both Tempest’s and Oswald’s works question the place of the poem: where do we find it? On the page, at the performance, in the recordings? If we follow Bernstein’s analysis, the answer seems to be in all of those media at once, since those poems may be considered as examples of intermedia work. They exist as hybrid or polymorphic creations that critical discourse should examine as such.

12Asked to comment on her relationship with the Iliad, Oswald once made a similar point regarding her poetic status:

I’ve heard people reading poems slackly like loose rubber bands and that’s one of the reasons I almost can’t bear to put poems in books any more. But this is quite different from being an oral poet in the Homeric sense. The Iliad for example was composed in performance, not just performed orally with a text in the background. That’s not something I could ever do but in fact I’m happy to be a hybrid, somewhere between the two traditions. (Oswald and Porter 2014)

13Oswald here is suggesting that her own process of composition is partly oral. In order to preserve what in Memorial she calls the poem’s “energeia” (Oswald 2011a, 1), i.e. the tension and dynamism of an oral work, the poet has to be wary of the book form. Similarly, at the beginning of her long poem Dart, she explains that her book’s polyvocal nature has its origin in three years of recorded sounds and conversations along the eponymous river. In the same way that her poems are characterized by their plural existence, Oswald significantly positions herself as an uncertain poetic figure, somewhere between a writer, an oral composer and a documentarist recording local voices and natural sounds.

14An interesting example can be found in Oswald’s collection Falling Awake and especially her poem “Tithonus: 46 minutes in the life of the dawn,” which at first seems to suggest that the book is a rather inadequate form. Based on the myth of the eponymous character, the poem was originally commissioned by the Southbank Centre for the London Literature Festival, and performed several times with a musical background. Its introduction reads as follows:

  • 6 This is my pagination since “Tithonus” does not include any, which it is tempting to read as anothe (...)

It is said that the dawn fell in love with Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal, but forgot to ask that he should not grow old. Unable to die, he grew older and older until at last the dawn locked him in a room where he still sits babbling to himself and waiting night after night for her appearance.
What you are about to hear is the sound of Tithonus meeting the dawn at midsummer. His voice starts at 4.17, when the sun is six degrees below the horizon, and stops 46 minutes later, at sunrise. The performance will begin in darkness. (Oswald 2016a, 446)

  • 7 See a blog post by poet Clarissa Aykroyd for a clear and enthusiastic depiction of the performance (...)

15As suggested by the second paragraph, this work was primarily conceived as a performance piece. It was first published as a booklet accompanying the performance and included a diagram of the sun's progressive rising, which was represented with striking lighting effects that had been designed for the show (Oswald 2014).7 The booklet also contained a slightly different version of the poem, and featured a watercolour of a cricket on its cover, which echoes Tithonus’s final metamorphosis in certain versions of the myth. When Oswald later introduced the poem into her collection Falling Awake, she added a sort of scale, a five-dotted line on the left-hand side of the page measuring the time of the poem, that somehow created a visual equivalent to her delivery, with its careful timing of words and silences. That scale may easily read as yet another instance of the musical metaphor for the poem, where the text and the book offer the basis for an oral performance of the text.

16The performance of Oswald’s “Tithonus” was (to my knowledge) only given twice. It was broadcast on BBC4 and made available on its podcast platform for no more than a month, a technological constraint which nonetheless emphasizes its radically ephemeral nature (especially since Oswald’s previous works have remained easily available), as if the written version of the poem were a mere trace of the performance. In that sense, “Tithonus” reverses the relationship to the performance that existed for Dart and Memorial, since the order of publication suggests that the text is secondary. In an interview for the Canadian public radio CBC, Oswald herself made the link between the Dawn and the fleeting nature of oral poetry:

[The Dawn is] an image of the oral poem, that thing that is always a becoming thing, it’s always on the point of being complete, but just as it begins to complete itself it vanishes, so it’s always a performance that’s kind of set up and then melts away and then leaves no trace. (Oswald 2016b, 26:02-26:20, my transcription)

17Presented in characters that fade from black to grey, the typography of the final words of the text in the collection is certainly in keeping with Oswald’s idea of a poem that “leaves no trace” – the poem attempts to perform its own disappearance on the page in the same way that it instantly disappears as an aural object. Yet, on the page, the trace remains, which in turn might suggest that the typographic effort and the poetry book are merely substitutes for the real thing – traces of a moment that in reality leaves none.

18However, despite the strong influence of orality in both Oswald’s and Tempest’s works, it is also important to note that in almost all of their books, one can find ways in which the poem is performed by the medium of the book itself. Each collection contains instances of not just equivalences, but also unique intensifications or developments of the poem’s project, themes, and metaphors through the use of the book form. For instance, Memorial’s introductive list of dead soldiers, which seems to turn the poetry book into a sort of written monument to those anonymous figures, echoes the second meaning of the title: the poem is therefore not just the record of a ceremony to honour the dead, it is also a physical space for remembrance. In Falling Awake, “Tithonus: 46 minutes in the life of the dawn” is preceded by a piece entitled “Evening Poem,” which is precisely about dusk and the brutality and heaviness of night falling upon the speaker; between that poem and “Tithonus,” the collection presents the reader with a black page.

19One may be tempted to read the black page as an equivalent to the fact that the performance of “Tithonus” begins “in darkness,” (Oswald 2016a, 44) which in turn is obviously a representation of the night that precedes the appearance of the personified Dawn. But this equivalence has a supplementary quality, as it also materializes a singular sequence within the poetry book itself. It adds an intertextual note to the text, for the black page may be read as an echo of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Even though the worlds of the eighteenth-century novel (where the presence of the black page responds to the death of a character while echoing the marbled page placed further in the book) and Oswald’s collection may seem far apart, the presence of the black page anchors Falling Awake in a tradition of typographic manipulation, where the book is envisaged in its materiality. As a collection, Falling Awake responds to the parallel existence of the performance by producing its own modes of signification.

20Similarly, Tempest’s collections Hold Your Own and Let Them Eat Chaos clearly demonstrate a new interest in the typographic space of the page. In an interview for the Guardian, Tempest mentions the impact that Don Paterson has had on that aspect of her work: “Don helped me see the possibilities of the page, as opposed to its limitations. But I am aware that there are different rules and so I'm working out how to find a nice route through the collection and what will work in a gig setting” (Tempest and Wroe 2014).

21On the first page of Let Them Eat Chaos, the apparently random typographic display may at first be construed as a visual equivalent to the poem’s evocation of the erratic movement of atoms, as well as a way of rendering Tempest’s own pauses and silences. But the words themselves actually force the reader to perform the visual experience of that random fall – an experience that has no direct equivalent in either the recording or the performance – which, once again, brings us back to the necessity of conceiving the poetry collection as a plural and hybrid experience.

Gender/Genre Shifting Voices and Hybrid Visions

22The hybridity of the media employed (their mutual intertranslatability) is not the only form of hybridization at work in Tempest and Oswald. The plural nature of these poems is also the foundation of a general poetics of hybridity within each poem.

  • 8 Deeply informed by a questioning of traditional gender identities, Hold Your Own was published by t (...)

23In that respect, it is tempting to look at Tempest’s choice of the gender-shifting and clairvoyant character Tiresias, in the very autobiographical Hold Your Own, as an oblique reflection on their own personal and poetic trajectory.8 The beginning of the poem presents us with a boy “Singing out Wu-Tang. / Hating himself. // Into the woods, he takes the old path” (Tempest 2014b, 2). The mention of the famous American rap band (The Wu-Tang Clan) anchors Tempest’s rewriting of the myth in a contemporary context, at the same time as it echoes their own beginnings as a rapper on the streets of South London. Yet, the following allusion to the well-known opening lines of Dante’s Inferno – often read as a reference to existential uncertainties at the beginning of a poetic journey – adds a new dimension to the figure of Tiresias in the poem: the transgender character’s itinerary goes hand in hand with the conjuring up of a hybrid voice – between popular culture and high art, rap music and (classic) literature.

24Of course, the figure of Tiresias itself is an echo of The Wasteland, where Tiresias is described by T.S. Eliot in one of his notes as “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest” (Eliot 2002, 60). Hold Your Own is similarly united by the prophetic figure. It opens on a modern retelling of the story, and the collection is subsequently divided into four sections entitled “Childhood,” “Womanhood,” “Manhood” and “Blind Profit.” Each of the sections seems to resonate with the initial poem, while many of the texts take on a more obviously confessional nature. The figure of Tiresias becomes an absent/present voice, as well as a double of the poetic “I.” Like Eliot, Tempest is interested in the paradoxical presence of the blind seer, but the Eliotian reference is also a representation of Tempest’s own hybrid, transcultural voice, uniting rap, performance art, and poetry. As was the case for Eliot, Tiresias here becomes a poetic double whose hybrid identity allows him to travel through the cultural waste land, which in turn seems to give way to clairvoyance and prophetic speech.

25In addition to the intertextual network it opens for the poem, the mythological figure of the poet as an all-encompassing prophetic voice is also central because, like Oswald, Tempest is fascinated with archaic forms of speech and oral poetry. Both Brand New Ancients and Let Them Eat Chaos start with a positioning of the poetic “I” sharing a vision, as is the case here in Let Them Eat Chaos:

                      Picture a vacuum

                                        An endless and unmoving blackness

         Or the absence, at least
                                of terror

                 in amongst all this space,
see that speck of light in the furthest corner,
                                 gold as a pharaoh’s deathbox

Follow that light with your tired eyes.
           It's been a long day, I know, but look –

                                                          watch as it flickers
                                              then roars into fullness

                                              Fills the whole frame.
                                 Blazing a fire you can’t bear the majesty of

Here is our Sun!
(Tempest 2016a, 1)

26In the recorded version of this poem, Tempest’s voice goes from a quiet, cool delivery to a warmer, more enthusiastic (though never exactly expressive) mode (Tempest 2016b, 00:00-00:40). They seem to be coaxing the listener into the appropriate state of mind. Moreover, with the use of direct address and the imperative, with the methodical depiction of the image, the ironical concession to the listener/reader’s “tired eyes” and “long day,” this introduction to the poem clearly aims at creating the conditions for hypnotic speech. Added to that is the parallel depiction of the big bang as the birth of the poem, which gives the poetic voice, despite its quiet, slightly ironic tone, a demiurgic role. It is both Pythian and inviting, as it is symbolically ushering us into a fresh vision of our world.

27The conception of the poem as vision is omnipresent in Tempest’s work, whose epigraphs are often borrowed from William Blake. In an interview with Don Paterson they indeed mentioned their interest in ancient cultures where “the musician, the artist, the performer were speaking for and with their communities” (Tempest and Paterson 2015, 07:09-07:15, my transcription).

  • 9 “It’s very important for me to believe that there’s a kind of huge, massive poem out there that you (...)

28Likewise, Oswald, who is fascinated by Homer, has often stated her interest in a conception of the Iliad and the Odyssey as collective works aggregated through the ages, and for a conception of the poem as a dialogic, anonymous voice of the community.9

29However, in both Oswald’s and Tempest’s works – though more frequently in Tempest’s –, the archaic and/or the ancient are closely interwoven with the contemporary. In addition to the cosmic image, it is tempting to read the “blackness” combined with the progressive appearance of light at the beginning of Let Them Eat Chaos as a depiction of the screen where the poem is now likely to appear. In such a reading, the light on the screen becomes, rather ironically, the equivalent to “our sun,” while Tempest proposes a fragmented poem which might suit – but also at times criticises – the increasingly fickle nature of our attention.

30By staging the appearance of the poem as light on a screen, Tempest echoes the potentially obsolete nature of the poetry book. But as they celebrate the advent of this digital and intermedia poem, they simultaneously echo its most archaic function as collective vision (note the possessive in the previously quoted line: “Here is our Sun!,” my emphasis). As if, despite or because of the very contemporary nature of the collection, they needed to rely on the a-temporal nature of their poetic voice. In that light, both the notions of innovation and of visionary poetics are associated in a quest for a prelapsarian (predating the book form?) poetic wisdom.

31Similarly, in Oswald’s Memorial, the poetry book appears to be always pointing at something else: while the preface and the antiphonal construction of the poem signal its destination in the performance, the opening list of the dead recalls a monument or a tombstone. In both cases, the poem’s desire to exist at the centre of a collective ritual leads it to attempt a departure from the book form.

32The reference to the archaic function of the poet as a Pythian visionary is not the only element of Tempest’s interest in ancient or archaic modes of expression. Ancient Greek myths and their renewal as tools for understanding the world are central to her work: as I mentioned before, Hold Your Own is a reworking of the myth of Tiresias with an autobiographical twist. Similarly, Brand New Ancients is made up of vignettes of anonymous men and women depicted as ancient gods or demigods. One of its choruses – for lack of a better word – is a list of anonymous, collective subjects (“the stories,” “the gods,”) based on an anaphora that presents them as gods:

The stories are here,
the stories are you,
and your fear
and your hope
is as old
as the language of smoke;
the language of blood,
the language of
languishing love.
The Gods are all here.
Because the gods are in us.

The gods are in the betting shops
the gods are in the caff
the gods are smoking fags out the back
the gods are in the office blocks
the gods are at their desks
the gods are at sick of always giving more and getting less
the gods are at the rave –
two pills into dancing –
the gods are in the alleyway laughing
the gods are at the doctor's
they need a little something for the stress
the gods are in the toilets having unprotected sex
the gods are in the supermarket
the gods are walking home,
the gods can’t stop checking Facebook on their phones
(Tempest 2013, 4-5)

33Tempest’s use of anaphora combined with their characteristic mixture of social commentary, irony and tenderness brings us back to their beginning as a rapper and spoken word poet more influenced by the Wu-Tang Clan or Gil Scott-Heron than by William Blake. Yet, the use of repetition, especially associated with the vision of the ancient myths as atemporal metaphors, is also a specific mode of oral composition that needs to be analysed on its own terms.

34In Orality and Literacy, philosopher and critic Walter Ong famously distinguishes nine major traits of primary oral cultures – i.e. cultures which developed entirely or almost entirely without the aid of the written word, such as the Homeric culture –, among which three are particularly relevant to this type of passage:

  1. Oral cultures are, to quote Ong, “additive rather than subordinative” (Ong 1982, 37).

  2. Because of the anaphoric basis, which we also find at the beginning of the excerpt, oral composition is redundant or “copious” (to use Ong’s term again) because in an oral culture “Redundancy, repetition of the just-said, keeps both speaker and hearer surely on track,” and because “the public speaker’s need to keep going while he is running through his mind what to say next also encourages redundancy” (Ong 1982, 40).

    • 10 See, for instance, the famous “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) by poet, rapper and spo (...)

    Lastly, and more originally where the poetics of this text is concerned, oral composition is “aggregative rather than analytic” (Ong 1982, 38), i.e. it relies on compounds, stock phrases – such as “in the caff,” “smoking fags out the back,” “always giving more and getting less” – which actually sound like overheard clichéd expressions. This mosaic of existing stock-phrases in an anaphoric context is typical of the sense of semi-improvisation given by certain rap songs and spoken word compositions.10 The writing of this poem is thus informed by a fundamentally oral mode of composition.

A Plural Poetic Experience

35In a video version of Brand New Ancients produced with the Battersea Arts Centre, the passage quoted above shows Tempest in front of an organ, emphasizing their priestly diction in this part. These shots alternate with brief extracts from the video scenes that will accompany the rest of the poem: each of the characters’ lives is anticipated and exposed at its most climactic moment, thus emphasizing the visionary quality of the poetic voice (Tempest and Batterseas Arts Center 2013). In another recorded version of the poem available on iTunes, a discreet drum beat and then a cello are introduced during the enumeration, before fading out when Tempest starts the next narrative part (Tempest 2014a, 08:15-09:20). The clip and the music add what Charles Bernstein calls iconicity, since they seem to perform certain elements of the poem itself by underlining a moment of intensity, of Pythian vision or revelation. But such iconicity works as a supplement – it both supports and adds to the poem by insisting on its hybrid cultural nature, for both the beat and the video also gesture towards the poem’s ties with rap music.

36Additionally, Tempest’s delivery in both aforementioned versions is significantly quickened – it seems to hesitate between the restrained mode of the previous recitation and the more emphatic chanting of rap and spoken-word delivery. Even at the level of the aural version, the existence of the poem’s various performances fosters an oscillation that reinforces its poetics of hybridity. As a result, Tempest synthetizes the tripartite repartition of oral poetry established by Paul Zumthor between saying, chanting and singing. In the studio-recording of Hold Your Own, where no music is added, for instance, their voice often comes close to psalmody as they prolong the final syllables. Tempest’s relationship with the rap and spoken-word tradition allows them to depart from a mere recitation of the poem, and they often flirt with singing.

  • 11 Like Hold Your Own, Brand New Ancients was also published under the name Kate Tempest (see note 8).

37It thus seems impossible to approach collections like Kae Tempest’s Brand New Ancients11 and Hold Your Own as purely reading material. Despite their existence as written objects, they are, once again, hybrid and can only be fully appreciated with the recording or, at least, with the memory of it or of a live performance in mind. The experience of the poetry book itself is a hybrid one, its ideal audience being not just readers but plural media users, able to appreciate, compare and possibly remember several versions at once.

38Likewise, the hybridity of Oswald’s work implies a plural way of experiencing it, which may explain why she has sometimes been misunderstood. When Memorial was published, the poem was sometimes criticized for what was perceived as a pointless repetition of its similes. Critic and poet William Logan wrote for example in The New York Times that “[Oswald’s] similes are printed twice in succession, as if the reader were too dim to get them. Such a homage to the oral origins of the poem probably works well at a poetry reading; on the page the choral effect is merely tedious. (Logan) That might be because the collection is as much an oral work as it is a poetry book. The repetitions might indeed have been unnecessary had Memorial been conceived as primarily a traditional collection of poems. But what Logan seems unwilling to take into account is the hybrid nature of Oswald’s work that calls for a plural way to experience the poem.

39One only needs to look at its opening to understand the complexity of the poetic experience offered in Memorial and better grasp why Mathew Logan’s reading completely fails to do justice to the poem:

The first to die was protesilaus
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus    Iton    Pteleus    Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads
(Oswald 2011a,

40This passage, with its metaphoric echoes of the crossing to the underworld, is an introduction to the series of deaths that make up Oswald’s entire collection. The initial description is suffused with a sense of incompleteness (“he died in mid-air,” “his house half-built”) that recurs throughout the poem, and the following simile therefore comes as an answer.

41Yet, the counterpoint remains enigmatic – the assonances (“murmur,” “rumour,” “louder,” “water”) create a rumbling effect, as of something gathering strength in the distance, emphasizing the impression that this is an invocation, a voice warming itself to life. The relationship of the two passages is oblique but still present, as the “land-ripple” may echo the intermediary place, between land and sea, that was the site of the warrior’s death. The west-wind and the field are reminiscent of certain visions of the Elysian Fields, while the anthropomorphic depiction of the corn-stalks “shak[ing] their green heads” works as a reminder of the absence created by the man’s death already evoked at the beginning of the passage.

42Contrary to Logan’s misguided response to Oswald’s poem, the repetitions seem to insist on the necessity of a careful reading of the poem in order to grasp its internal echoes. They also gesture toward the work of memory, rehearsal and incorporation that the entire poem performs, which means that, within the written artefact, the repetitions also underline the poem’s preparation for its oral performance.

43Within the performance, however, the repetitions may be described as support for another work of memory, of immediate memory in this case. The echoes and links that we pointed out are indeed quite difficult to grasp when first listening to a performance of the poem. As Stephe Harrop has noted:

The poet speaks a line that lasts only as long as her breath and, once spoken, is unrecoverable. Under these conditions, the challenge of correctly receiving and appropriately evaluating and interpreting the poet’s similes becomes increasingly urgent, and a simile’s repetition provides a crucial opportunity for an audience unused to the rigours of epic spectatorship to process the connections between Memorial’s narratives of death, and each answering simile. At times, Oswald’s vocal delivery of Memorial’s similes even seems to acknowledge, and respond to, the ephemerality of the spoken poetic phrase. Often, a simile’s second iteration is slower, pitched lower, coaxing listeners into a second attempt at comprehension, and with a downward intonation in its closing syllables that suggests achievement and completion. (Harrop 2013, 85)

  • 12 In 2012, I attended a performance of Memorial in Oxford, during which Oswald introduced similar sig (...)

44This echoes Ong’s view on oral culture as characterized by redundancy – the repetitions have a pedagogical value that helps the listener make some sense of the poem’s images. But that is not their only function: in addition to being a response to the antiphonal tradition of Ancient Greek lament poetry, they are also quite simply a mode of production of poetic meaning through the use of variation in performance. When performing the simile a second time, Oswald sometimes adds a very short pause after the word “Nothing,” which changes the meaning of that sentence from the absence of the dead to a positive vision of nothingness – a nothing that one must find – therefore referring to the initial narrative passage and the soldier’s apparent impatience when he is described as having “hurried into darkness.”12 Through this subtle shift in the performance, Oswald announces one of the constant themes of the collection – the appetite for self-destruction that characterizes many of her portraits, and thus probably echoes more recent narratives of the traumatic experience of war and its aftermath. Such addition of meaning is of course a possibility of the written collection, but the performance by Oswald provides an authorial seal to it.

45However, the variation between the two renditions of the simile is extremely discrete, and its relationship with one of the thematic threads of the collection is almost imperceptible for someone who has not read the text in its entirety at least once. Which suggests, once again, that the experience of the poem is a translational one, in which each medium brings equivalents for the others as well as its own mode of performing the poem’s meanings, emphasizing the necessity of a plural and hybrid approach to the poetry collection.

The Poetry Collection: Convergence and Poetic Communities

46Because of its intermedia nature, the idea of a poetry collection as a plural artefact echoes media culture specialist Henry Jenkins’s view that ours is a “convergence culture.” If Jenkins’s idea applies primarily to Internet content and popular culture, I believe that it is relevant to the works of Tempest and Oswald. With poems like theirs, we are indeed encouraged to go beyond the text, the recording or the performance – we are in fact invited to add new layers of experience to the poem by making its various actualisations interact.

  • 13 It is still available on YouTube (see Tempest 2014b).

47Among the poems in Tempest’s Hold Your Own, “Ballad of a Hero” was originally commissioned as a rap song to be performed with the jazz band Tongue Fu. In that version13 Tempest alternates between rap delivery, chanting and a near singing mode, which links the poem to the original meaning of its title in the book, i.e. the medieval ballad, an originally sung poetic form. But the hybridity of the poem is also manifested by its more traditionally literary reference to Christopher Logue’s contemporary rereading of the Iliad in his collection War Music, which was the poem’s original title. Tempest’s work is a dramatic monologue in which a woman tries to explain to her son the reason for his father’s strange behaviour since he came back from the war. While the text and the audio-book insist on the grim reality of the traumatized soldier returning home, the recorded version of the performance is more explicitly political, as images of the Iraq War (never mentioned in the text) are merged with the video of the concert, and an ironical military drum beat is discretely played by the band. Moreover, the live version is slightly longer than the published text. In italics are the four lines added at the end by Tempest in the musical version:

It seems so full of honour,
So valiant, so bold,
But the men that send the armies in
Do it in the name of gold,

Or else for reasons we can’t know,
And then they tell us it’s for Britain,
And then the men come home like Daddy,
Angry and spend their days just drinking,
Trying to get perspective on the thoughts
they can’t stop thinking,
While the sons stare at their Daddies’
And watch the medals twinkling.

(Tempest 2014c, 3:37-4:03, my emphasis)

48The suppression of these lines in the book and the audio-book increases the reality effect produced by the voice in this dramatic monologue, since the last very precise detail probably sounds less realistic coming from the speaker. However, it does add a note of irony: the “twinkling” of the medals underlines the meaninglessness of the decoration considering the veteran’s desperate situation, while the detail may also serve to suggest admiration from the sons, an admiration focused on those symbols of heroism, but forgetful of the reality of the father’s current behaviour, which in turn tragically echoes and contradicts the mother’s earlier advice: “Don’t go fighting wars” (Tempest 2014c, 3:30-3:34). In the musical live version, the poem becomes grimmer, more political, and the mother’s voice sounds closer to the poet’s.

49The notion of convergence does not imply that the poetry collection has to be envisaged as a harmonious and unified experience. On the contrary, its plural nature produces supplementary qualities, effects of difference and opposition, variation and equivalence. It also encourages a different experience of the poem where several media may be present at once.

50But that is not the only way in which these poetry collections question our idea of the poetic experience. Because Oswald’s and Tempest’s poems insist on the inherent value of the different live versions of the poems, they question a view of the poetic experience as solely or primarily individual. Whether it takes place in a bookshop, a poetry festival, a concert hall or somebody’s living room, the performance of the poem involves the creation of momentary communities – which is another characteristic of oral culture according to Ong, it is inclusive – like those that a play might create. They create a “we,” and the words of the poem become the common material experienced by all participants. In that sense, the insistence on live experience of the poem also carries a political value.

51As such, it is no wonder that the previously quoted passage from Brand New Ancients may be read as an echo of Ginsberg’s orgiastic celebration of the community in his “Footnote to Howl” (1955): like Ginsberg’s poem, it is built, through the use of anaphora, around a systematic attribution of holiness to an anarchic community where distinction and individualities seem abolished. Besides the left-wing politics that Tempest shares with Ginsberg, the poem is also political in the sense that it establishes a radical form of democracy, where hierarchical distinctions are erased in the light of a common sacredness. In both cases, the performance becomes a sort of secular ceremony where the words of the poem, through the body of the speaker, perform a consecration.

52Moreover, like Ginsberg’s poem, which deliriously declares that “Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy! […] The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!” (Ginsberg 2013, 12), Brand New Ancients also produces a representation of a community within the poem, since it depicts a series of anonymous lives that intersect in a clearly situated location. Through the use of direct address the listeners/readers are involved as witnesses and inhabitants of the projected London of the poem – “The stories are here, / the stories are you” (Tempest 2013, 4). In Let Them Eat Chaos Tempest guides the listeners/readers of the poem through the streets to the scene of the poem:

We start on the corner
with our backs against the wall
next to the old phone box
where the tramp leaves his bedding.

The road runs ahead of you
houses and flats either side.
Walk down it;
go past the yard with the caravans,
there behind the hedges.
(Tempest 2016a, 8)

53It is a relatively common storyteller’s strategy to play with the threshold between reality and fiction. But it may also be read as another attempt at creating a sense of unity by projecting the internal community and location of the poems onto the community of their readers and listeners.

  • 14 In Nobody and “Tithonus,” however, Oswald plays with the ambivalence of the pronoun “you” (sometime (...)

54Alice Oswald’s performances are very different from Tempest’s. They are often given in universities, sometimes at literary festivals or in small bookshops, where the audiences are sat and quieter. Perhaps for that reason, direct address is never as clearly used.14 Yet, her poems also reflect on the community they construct, a reflection renewed by each performance. Memorial focuses on the community of the anonymous dead from the Iliad. As we already mentioned, the first pages, with their list of the dead, work as a monumentalisation of the collection, while the title recalls the link with the collective work of mourning that took place during the Greek antiphonal ceremony. In fact, the repetition of the similes is a trace of the participatory nature of that lament, during which people experienced collective grief. Therefore, the collection also suggests a community with the anonymous mourners of the past, while echoing more recent memorial ceremonies for the fallen victims of war, disaster or terrorism. In the same way that Tempest united the archaic and the contemporary with a medieval form and a rap song in “Ballad of a Hero,” Oswald constructs an atemporal community through the performance.

55Furthermore, in “Tithonus,” Oswald goes even further in the reflexive presentation of the ephemeral community produced by the performance. This might partly account for the poem’s constant insistence on the ungraspable nature of its poetic voices: “she never quite completes her / sentence but is always almost” (Oswald 2016a, 52). At many points in the poem, the identities of the speaker and the personae referred to by the pronouns are unclear. In this passage, “she” may refer to both the personified Dawn and to a poetic “I,” which appears several times in “Tithonus.” The uncertainty of this metapoetic comment is interesting since, as mentioned earlier, part of the poem’s ambition consists in presenting a “tune,” a sound pattern which creates an uncertainty regarding its origin. The very Beckettian Tithonus is a figure of expectancy, doomed as he is to wait every day for a short moment between night and day – a particularly Sisyphean position since dawn is in itself a moment of transition and change. It is therefore tempting to read Oswald’s take on the character of Tithonus as a distorting mirror for the audience attending the ephemeral and ungraspable event of a changing aural and visual performance. The confusion between the personified Dawn and the poetic “I” would also therefore take on a new significance. At the same time that it emphasizes the sense of expectancy – Tithonus’s and ours – pervasive in the whole poem, the absence of an attribute at the end of the sentence also turns the adverb “almost” into a potential adjective, thus underlining the elusive nature of both the Dawn and the poetic “I.” In any case, the poem contains a representation of itself as an ephemeral and changing poetic object – it is “always almost.”

56In the same way that no final version of these performance poems can be found, what “Tithonus” underlines is that the community of their listeners and readers is characterized by expectancy and uncertainty regarding the poetic experience they offer. That is why I would suggest that the aesthetic community produced by those intermedia poems is comparable to what Giorgio Agamben describes in The Coming Community. In the same way that Agamben’s coming political community never coincides with one specific regime of instituted political community while it experiments with all of them, the community created by both Tempest’s and Oswald’s collections never fully coincides with one regime of poetic experience, while involving several at once. Because they value the live performance of the poem, their poetry collections, conceived as the relationships between all the actualisations of the work, produce a supplementary convergence of media. That convergence relies on a hybrid, ever uncertain poetics, as well as a figure of the poetic community, both within and without the poem, characterized by its ungraspable and anonymous nature. Therefore, in spite of the increasingly diverse nature of contemporary British poetry, I believe that the works of Alice Oswald and Kae Tempest demonstrate that an open conception of the poetry collection is indeed a valuable tool if critical discourse is to envisage new and unexpected communities of poetic works amid such unmapped territory.

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Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Aykroyd, Clarissa. “Alice Oswald Performs Tithonus.” The Stone and Star, 12 October 2014.

Bernstein, Charles, ed. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Eliot, T.S. Selected Poems. London: Faber, 2002.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems. London: Penguin, 2013.

Harrop, Stephe. “Speech, Silence and Epic Performance: Alice Oswald’s Memorial.” New Voices in Classical Reception Studies 8 (2013): 79-91

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised edition. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Logan, William. “‘Memorial,’ Alice Oswald’s Version of the ‘Iliad.’” New York Times, 21 December 2012.

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1 In proposing twelve categories of contemporary British poets, Fiona Sampson’s Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry (2012) boldly embraces the challenge, which might account for its apologetic opening sentence – “This is a book of enthusiasms” (Sampson 2012, 1) –, as well as the introduction’s description of the book as an eminently personal enterprise despite its scholarly tone.

2 His introduction to the rather partisan anthology New British Poetry (2004) is a violent critique of those he called “The Postmoderns,” who were excluded from the anthology because, according to him, they lacked the ability to enter into dialogue with the tradition.

3 A recent example is her 2019 collaboration with musician Joanna MacGregor for a performance of her poem Nobody at Dartington Hall (England). Nobody was originally a response to watercolours by the painter William Tillyer, and a large part of the poem was first published with the artworks (Oswald and Tillyer).

4 In fact, Oswald and Mount created a small publishing association called The Letter Press, described as follows on its own website: “The Letter Press designs and publishes poetry by Alice Oswald and Kevin Mount in the form of letters, postcards, small packets, aerogrammes and other ephemera, usually to coincide with readings and performances. It is also the vehicle for related work with other artists, and for a continuous collaboration that prepares Alice Oswald’s poetry for publication elsewhere.” (Oswald and Mount, n.d.)

5 This is particularly evident in Let Them Eat Chaos, where the time when the seven characters meet for a common epiphany (4:18am) is also the verse number for the collection’s Biblical epigraph.

6 This is my pagination since “Tithonus” does not include any, which it is tempting to read as another typographical equivalent to the notion of a self-contained moment of live performance where the audience does not have any similar point of reference.

7 See a blog post by poet Clarissa Aykroyd for a clear and enthusiastic depiction of the performance (Aykroyd 2014).

8 Deeply informed by a questioning of traditional gender identities, Hold Your Own was published by the author as Kate Tempest. However, in 2020, Tempest announced that they would now use the gender-neutral pronoun “they” and changed their name to Kae.

9 “It’s very important for me to believe that there’s a kind of huge, massive poem out there that you’re kind of partaking of, and it’s not to come out of yourself, it’s something which you’re allowed to listen to. […] I think the single voice is never enough, and I mean, one of the reasons Homer heads my list is that Homer wasn’t one poet, it was a series of shoplifters.” (Oswald 2008, 45:25-47:10, my transcription)

10 See, for instance, the famous “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) by poet, rapper and spoken-word precursor Gil Scott-Heron, which alternates between the repetition of the title as a sort of motto and an ironical reworking of political and journalistic clichés of the time.

11 Like Hold Your Own, Brand New Ancients was also published under the name Kate Tempest (see note 8).

12 In 2012, I attended a performance of Memorial in Oxford, during which Oswald introduced similar significant pauses in the second occurrence of the simile. Unfortunately, it was not recorded. Such a disappearance of primary material reminds us of the necessity of an archive that might compile not just one but several versions of the poem, especially live versions, where the poet is more likely to depart from a standard delivery of their work.

13 It is still available on YouTube (see Tempest 2014b).

14 In Nobody and “Tithonus,” however, Oswald plays with the ambivalence of the pronoun “you” (sometimes referring simultaneously to a character, to the speaker-as-poet, and to an inclusive, universal “you”), thus recalling the reader/listener’s inclusion in the experience of the poem.

15 All Web sources last accessed 1 September 2022.

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Référence électronique

Bastien Goursaud, « Performance, Hybridity and Convergence in the Poetry of Alice Oswald and Kae Tempest »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 33 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2022, consulté le 31 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Bastien Goursaud

Université Paris-Est Créteil

In 2020 Bastien Goursaud (bastien.goursaud[at] completed a PhD in English literature from Sorbonne Université. He teaches literature and translation at Université Paris-Est Créteil. His work focuses on the interplay of page and performance in contemporary British poetry.

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