Progress: Kate Tempest’s Electrifying Spoken-Word Meditation on Kindness, Fear, and Our Fraught Fillers of Existential Emptiness
“You’re handed the mould and told — fit into this.”
By Maria Popova
Partway between poem and public service announcement, the spoken-word masterpiece “Progress” by English poet and playwright Kate Tempest, found in her altogether terrific poetry collection Hold Your Own (public library), is the finest, sharpest thing written about why religion exists since Bertrand Russell, the most sobering case against the cult of consumerism since E.F. Schumacher, and the most piercing take on the violence of image-culture since Susan Sontag.
The creative ferocity that leaps from the page comes alive with tenfold more power in Tempest’s extraordinary performance on the Australian television program Q&A:
Once there was a purpose,
so I hear: there was a God.
It made it all less worthless
and it gave us the because
we’d all been searching for.
An unarguable truth.
A reason to be kind and just,
a reason for the noose
that sent the sinner off to sinnerland
and made us all feel better
in the knowledge that the righteous
would be right and just forever.
Once there was religion,
and it ruled. We had it bad.
We fooled ourselves to sleep at night;
This was This, and That was That.
And if our morals ever shook,
we looked no further than The Book.
But over time we felt the pressure;
it became the great oppressor.
And without God, the wars seemed crueller
life seemed bleaker. Art seemed foolish.
Death seemed stranger now than ever.
What was mankind for? What terror
flooded us to understand
there was no point, no grander plan.
There was just living out each day.
Work. Eat. Sleep. Fuck. Pass away.
Without the fear of retribution
we found guilt-free pleasure
but we lost the sense of union
that had kept us all together.
We needed something new to fill
the emptiness that grew;
and what’s better to believe
in than all-you-can-eat Freedom!
The joy of being who we are
by virtue of the clothes we buy.
The dream of getting rich enough
to live outside the common life.
And now, there is no purpose
that exists beyond our needs.
Now there is the worship
of convenience and speed.
We run around the circuit,
pit our grace against our greed
And all we have is surplus
to what’s needed and we feed
our callous little urchins
in the best way that we can.
And then wonder how they’ve grown
to only know what’s in their hands.
Now we have the Screen,
and it rules.
Our kids are perma-plugged into its promise,
admiring all its jewels.
And couples eat their dinner,
in the glimmer of its rays,
we stare until we’ve learned
the world’s ways.
Pre-teens learn what heart-throbs are.
Heart-throbs gorge on hot pork and watch sport.
Reality played for us to sneer and weep at —
here is morality at last! See us caught
in full colour, high definition.
Look — a cripple on a blind date.
Look — young people getting fucked in Magaluf,
look — the mother of a dead son, weeping, irate,
look — a celebrity eating shit and singing Agadoo.
We used to burn women who had epileptic fits.
We’d tie them to a stake and proclaim them a witch.
we’ll put them on a screen if they’ve got nice tits,
but they’ll be torn apart if they let themselves slip.
We’ll draw red rings round their saggy bits.
And flick through the pictures while we eat bags of chips.
You can either be a beauty or a beast or a bitch,
you can either be cool or kooky or kitsch.
you were damned for the things that you did,
or if you didn’t live how the villagers lived.
You’re handed the mould and told — fit into this.
And maybe one day you could really be big.
of a famous last gig.
of the singer’s last twitch.
Before she pulls her gun out
and blows herself to bits.
The world is your playground,
go and get your kicks,
as long as you’re not poor,
or ugly, or sick.
We never saw it coming,
like all the best tricks.
Once we had the fear;
now we have the fix.
For more brilliantly disquieting spoken-word genius, see Lee Mokobe’s terrific piece on what it’s like to be transgender and Sarah Kay’s electrifying “If I Should Have a Daughter.”
Published May 20, 2016