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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

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.
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