Tuesday, June 03, 2008

June that breathes out life for butterflies

Do you know anything about Amy Winehouse? I was only vaguely aware of her existence until some lyrics she wrote turned up on a web page devoted to John Keats. Turns out she's won umteen awards and gets enormous press coverage for her troubled life as much as her musical achievements. She also has a striking appearance with trademark beehive hairdo. She's a Londoner to the core, and not posh West End.* The web page is good: Amy Winehouse.

The Keats site on which her name appeared is Keatsian News. I began tracking it after reading a book of Keats' letters, a short biography on him, and re-reading the poems. I recommend the letters; despite the too-frequent horrors of his brief life, he was a prolific and wholly engaging correspondent. The web site quotes from one of these letters:
I heard that Mr L Said a thing I am not at all contented with - Says he 'O, he is quite the little Poet' now this is abominable - you might as well say Buonaparte is quite the little Soldier - You see what it is to be under six foot and not a lord - ' (John Keats in a letter to his brother George, February 1819).
The web site entry for June 1 gives a quote for the day from his poem, To the Ladies Who Saw Me Crowned: 'June that breathes out life for butterflies', which evokes the month well does it not?

The Keats news site led me to Winehouse when its author got snide about an article in which a student was quoted as saying: 'Poetry doesn’t have to mean Keats and Byron.' Of this he says, 'Indeed, it does not. On that note, let's all wallow in some crappy modern stuff.' He goes on to say: 'And kudos to the English prof who compared the Bee Gees to King Lear. Way to encapsulate the sad decline of your discipline with one smudgy quote.' It was in following up on the Bee Gees comparison that I wandered into Winehouse-land.

The student was quoted in an article in The Times (UK of course): Amy Winehouse gets into Cambridge, by Nicola Woolcock. A blog on digitaljournal.com covers the same story:
Cambridge Exam has Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Raleigh and Amy Winehouse?

Cambridge University students were surprised when they had to compare Amy Winehouse lyrics with Sir Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth for their exams.
The final-year English literature students at Cambridge University were surprised to find Amy Winehouse in their practical criticism exams.

The students received the following lyrics from the song “Love is a Losing Game” from her album “Back to Black”.
Though I'm rather 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.
The students were then asked to compare these lyrics from Winehouse with Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Milton and Wordsworth for literary analysis.

There were mixed reactions from the students; some were surprised, some were irritated and the others praised the teachers who prepared this exam.

One student told AFP:

"It was really bizarre…I sat there looking at the paper in shock. I wouldn't consider a controversial pop singer a literary figure."

The exam asked students to compare a Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem “As You Came from The Holy Land” from 1592 with the song lyrics from Amy Winehouse, “Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holiday and “Boots of Spanish Leather” by Bob Dylan.

Winehouse's "Love is a Losing Game" won a British Ivor Novello (music) award for Best Musical and Lyrical Song, last week.

One student told AFP:

"I think it's cool…Poetry doesn't have to mean Keats and Byron. That said, there were a lot of surprised people."

Winehouse, best known for her song Rehab, was arrested after being secretly filmed at her home in East London, apparently taking drugs. Police decided not to press charges, for lack of evidence. Her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, is in jail awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Amy and Will

OK, so what about the Bee Gees and King Lear? A site called beegees-world.com explains:

In July 2001 undergraduate students at Cambridge University were asked to write about Bee Gee lyrics in their final exam.

The question, one of 27 on a three-hour English finals exam, asked students to discuss: "Tragedy, when you lose control and you got no soul, it's tragedy," with reference to characters and plots from Biblical and Greek stories. They were also told to make use of the writings of Nietzche, Dostoevsky and Racine.

John Kerrigan, the chairman of the English finals examination board, said that the question was intended to examine the forms tragedy takes in the modern world.

He said: "We wanted to see how far tragedy survives into modernity; whether it has died in the face of science and rationalism. Tragedy is essentially an archaic form. We wanted to see if it had metamorphosed into different forms.

"There are elements to the Bee Gees songs that could have directed you to the great central canonical texts. The line in the Bee Gees song where he sings 'the feeling's gone and you can't go on' is a fair summary of the end of King Lear," he added.

A spokesman for the Bee Gees said the brothers would be proud at being compared to great literary figures. "They have been compared with songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach, but never Ibsen and Shakespeare."
(The Telegraph)
Here's the whole of Winehouse's lyric plus Raliegh's for comparison:
Amy Winehouse

For you I was a flame
Love is a losing game
Five storey fire as you came
Love is a losing game
Why do 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 . . .
Taken from
Love is a Losing Game

Sir Walter Raleigh

As you came from the holy land
Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
How shall I know your true love,
That have met many one,
As I went to the holy land,
That have come, that have gone?
She is neither white nor brown,
But as the heavens fair;
There is none hath a form so divine In the earth or the air . . .
Taken from
As You Came from the Holy Land
Here are two Youtube videos of Amy singing the song:

*From wikipedia: "Amy Winehouse was born in the Southgate area of Enfield, London to a Jewish family who shared her love of jazz music. She was raised in a family of four: her father Mitchell (a taxi driver), her mother Janis (a pharmacist), and her older brother Alex. She attended Southgate School before leaving to go to Ashmole School.[citation needed] At age ten, Winehouse founded a short-lived rap group called Sweet 'n' Sour with childhood friend Juliette Ashby. She was trained initially at The Susi Earnshaw Theatre School from the age of eight years old. She stayed for four years before seeking full time training at Sylvia Young Theatre School, but was allegedly expelled at fourteen for "not applying herself" and for piercing her nose. With other children from the Sylvia Young School, she appeared in an episode of The Fast Show in 1997. She later attended the BRIT School in Selhurst, Croydon."


What is there in the universal earth
More lovely than a wreath from the bay tree?
Haply a halo round the moon--a glee
Circling from three sweet pair of lips in mirth;
And haply you will say the dewy birth
Of morning roses--ripplings tenderly
Spread by the halcyon's breast upon the sea--
But these comparisons are nothing worth.
Then there is nothing in the world so fair?
The silvery tears of April? Youth of May?
Or June that breathes out life for butterflies?
No none of these can from my favorite bear
Away the palm--yet shall it ever pay
Due reverence to your most sovereign eyes.

My images are from The Times, digitaljournal.com, and the Keats news site.

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