Amy Winehouse At Cambridge

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No, she wasn't actually staggering around the hallowed halls. But a Cambridge English professor caused quite a stir last week when a question on his final exam asked students to compare the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) to song lyrics by Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday and, you guessed it, Amy Winehouse.

The British press is still buzzing about it, with critics accusing the school of dumbing down its exams and focusing particularly on Winehouse--one of their favorite targets. What was the drug-addled starlet's work, they asked, doing in a Cambridge English class?

It was holding up quite well, actually. The professor explained his choice by using a definition of lyric poetry that helps put the matter in perspective, that lyric poetry is "of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung." It reminds us how close song is to poetry's roots. Even the old university brushed off the criticism and defended its professor, replying that the test merely showed that the school is in touch with contemporary society.

Care to judge for yourself? Here are the "poems" from the exam. First, an excerpt from Sir Walter Raleigh's As You Came from The Holy Land:

Know that Love is a careless child,
And forgets promise past;
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,
And in faith never fast.

His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy ;
He is won with a world of despair,
And is lost with a toy.

Of womankind such indeed is the love,
Or the word love abusèd,
Under which many childish desires
And conceits are excusèd.

But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.

And here are the Winehouse lyrics (from Love is a Losing Game):

For you I was the flame,

Love is a losing game

Five story fire as you came,

Love is losing game

One I wish I never played

Oh, what a mess we made

And now the final frame,

Love is a losing game

Played out by the band,

Love is a losing hand

More than I could stand,

Love is a losing hand

Self professed and profound

Tilter tips were down

Know you're a gambling man

Love is a loosing hand

Tho' I battled blind,

Love is a fate resigned

Memories mar my mind,

Love is a fate resigned

Over futile odds,

And laughed at by the Gods

And now the final frame,

Love is a losing game

Sure the Winehouse lyrics are a bit simpler and clunkier. But they're also more immediate, more raw and, some would no doubt say, more powerful. Her rhyme is a little suffocating--but that might be deliberate--it suits the subject matter.

Billie Holiday's Fine and Mellow strikes a different chord:

My man don't love me
Treats me oh so mean
My man he don't love me
Treats me awfully
He's the, lowest man
That I've ever seen.

He wears high trimmed pants
Stripes are really yellow
He wears high trimmed pants
Stripes are really yellow

But when he starts in to love me
He's so fine and mellow

The song isn't complex, but even reading it on paper, I admire how tightly wrought and light-hearted it is. The final couplet is rewarding.

The Bob Dylan selection, Boots of Spanish Leather, should be the least controversial of the three as it's already included in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Not only does it stand up against the dumbing down charge, but it shows that Dylan was very aware of the ballad tradition. Here's an excerpt:

I got a letter on a lonesome day,

It was from her ship a-sailin',

Saying I don't know when I'll be comin' back again,

It depends on how I'm a-feelin'.

Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way,

I'm sure your mind is roamin'.

I'm sure your heart is not with me,

But with the country to where you're goin'.

So take heed, take heed of the western wind,

Take heed of the stormy weather.

And yes, there's something you can send back to me,

Spanish boots of Spanish leather.

It's a beauty, which I've written about before here. I flat out prefer it to the Raleigh poem.

What makes Raleigh so much more artful anyway? No doubt it helps that he wore puffy shirts and has been dead for five centuries. No doubt it helps that he had such a dashing life, rife with espionage and an illicit love affair. He was even accused of trying to kill the king before being jailed and finally beheaded. And you thought Winehouse was a rebel.