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The Irony of Winehouse

It's ironic that Cambridge English students are being asked to compare a lyric poem by Raleigh with the pop song lyrics of Novello-winner Amy Winehouse. The irony is not that one is an established, canonical poet, and the other is a controversial contemporary singer-songwriter - or that one text is "traditional" and the other words meant to be set to music and sung (as the lyric was always connotative of a musical association). Instead, it's that the question seeks a moribund comparison rather than provoking a far more relevant and pressing point of dispute - the exam should have been a comparison between "Language Writing" by, say, someone like Cambridge poet Prynne, and Faber poet Don Paterson. Or, Bernstein, say, and Billy Collins.

Both sets are figures who exemplify, in their writing practices, interest in reviving and redefining what the lyric entails, for the 21st century. Indeed, it's a shame such an old-fashioned debate between high and low art has been inscribed by this exam, when the deeper concern is - what is poetry speaking through, and for, now? The very threshold of the lyric - is it communal, or individual, or both - welcomes discussion at this time. Hopefully Cambridge, the seat of so much vital innovation in poetics over the last 80 or so years, will have even more fascinating poetry questions next year. I've been reading Nerys Williams' new book on Language Writing and lyric poetry, which has occasioned these thoughts - it's one of the recommended books at the moment here.


brian salchert said…
Todd Swift, Sir,

I may be a maverick in this; but I
think every poem is both individual
and communal, whether the author of
a poem proclaims "This is a poem
because I say it is" or simply
relates "This is a poem because
most of those I show it to tell me
it is." An author's aesthetic has
nothing to do with it. If that
someone who makes a poem signs his
or her name to it, it thereby is
assigned to that someone; and if
that someone then shows it to
another someone, it thereby also
becomes communal. Even the poems
by Anonymous are both individual
(however vaguely) and communal.
Even if, say, indeterminate poetry
is better suited to this historical
period, that shouldn't nullify the
writing of subject-object poems.
To me the so-called Language poets
I prefer are quite lyrical, just
not in a "traditional" way; and
the lyric poets I prefer are quite
into language, just not in an overt
avant-garde way.
Todd Swift said…
Yes, well, mostly, I agree with your wish to see a dialogue between self and community, subject and language, in poetic writing. As for whose property poems become when written / published - that depends also on the economic and political constraints of the period. I've sometimes suggested more poems should be "free" and copyleft, rather than fewer - as opposed to free-marketeers who use a marketing model for how they disribute and publicise their poets.
brian salchert said…
As you may know, Bill Knott is
freely distributing books of his
poems, and Simon DeDeo favors the
copyleft idea; and I've posted most
of my books of poems in my AOL
journal, but haven't been able to
get off the yes-no fence regarding
ownership. The last time, except
for one recent attempt, I sent
poems to a magazine was in the mid
1980s. Not sure, but it may have
been the magazine that took all
four of the poems I sent. Yes,
that did please me, as such events
always have; but over the years
seeing my poems so published
lured me less and less.

No doubt a period's constraints
impact ownership.

Perhaps too many of us are
possessed by the need to possess.

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