Understanding new poetry: Amy Winehouse – ‘Back to Black’

Back to Black

Back to Black

I remember recently reading a sniffy article on the use of lyrics from an Amy Winehouse song, ‘Love is a Losing Game’ as a way of introducing accessible and commonplace ‘poetry’ to novices, undergraduates in this case, embarking upon a close reading of poetry for an exam. Untypically outmoded for The Guardian, it suggested that these lyrics would compare unfavourably with the other poets on the syllabus, including Walter Raleigh.

Have you heard her lyrics? – I thought. Have you reckoned at their poetry? Her lyrics are not always as good as ‘Love is a Losing Game’ – in some cases, they are better. In ‘Back to Black’ we find in its lyrics many of the elements of poetry clearly identifiable, employed with sophistication – and they’re beautifully effective, too. Here are the lyrics in full, and then I’ll do a quick close reading of some of the most salient bits as I see them:

Back to Black – Amy Winehouse

He left no time to regret
Kept his dick wet
With his same old safe bet
Me and my head high
And my tears dry
Get on without my guy
You went back to what you knew
So far removed from all that we went through
And I tread a troubled track
My odds are stacked
I’ll go back to black

We only said good-bye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to…

I go back to…
us

I love you much
It’s not enough
You love blow and I love puff
And life is like a pipe
And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside

We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to (x2)

Black
Black
Black
Black
Black
Black
Black
I go back to…
I go back to…

We only said good-bye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to…

We only said good-bye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black

First of all, there are local instances of poetic language. In the second verse/stanza we find: ‘And I tread a troubled track’. The repeated use of the sounds ‘tr…’ at the beginning of more or less successive words is a sound equivalent of the steps she takes, an aural approximation of her path of recurring steps, one after the other, that lead her ‘back to black’. (Important for the undergraduate, it’s called ‘alliteration’ and along with assonance – the repetition of vowel sounds, often at the beginning of works – and a technique best used sparingly.)

What precisely does ‘black’ mean in this song? An advanced paper might argue whether this is an example of metonym or metaphor (do we literally go back to ‘black’?) but we understand that ‘black’ represents or stands in for depression, bleakness and unhappiness. And widening the poem’s use of poetic language, we find that Winehouse rhymes ‘black’ with ‘back’ in that recurrent motif, suggestive of the monotony, inevitability even, of her return to darkness as a result of the loss of her lover. The verbal nearness of ‘back’ and ‘black’ echo the tired movement from happiness to sadness as he returns to his ‘old safe bet’.

But this is not just a poem, it’s a lyric, and just as theatre loses some of its power when not performed, so this song is diminished when read solely as poetry divorced from its music. (If you can use Spotify, the link is at the bottom). When Winehouse sings: ‘And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside’ much of the power is lost without its vocal incarnation, her intonation reminiscent of the path a penny might take as it rolls around the sides of the pipe, like a water drop gradually slipping down a drain, or one of those circus motorcyclists that trace an ever decreasing circle around a turning wall as they brake and slowly come to a halt. In another example, present in the doleful repetition of the single word ‘black’ several times in the middle eight, perhaps more obvious in the way it achieves its effect, but no less powerful for it.

I’m not the first to discuss the matter and the whole idea that song lyrics represent some of our most vibrant poetry is an oldie, and a goodie. I could have written this for a number of songs – the lyrics to Elvis Costello’s ‘Beyond Belief’ are astonishing, and I’m a fan of Midlake’s lyrics on their new album, too. No doubt you’ve your own examples. Which all goes to show – we’re lucky in our post-modern age that we are not limited by the genre and perceived seriousness of the artform when we consider what is, and what isn’t, art – and poetry.

Link via Spotify: Amy Winehouse – Back To Black

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2 thoughts on “Understanding new poetry: Amy Winehouse – ‘Back to Black’

  1. I agree that lyrics deserve as much appreciation as poetry – but do we do them a disservice by treating them as a subset of poetry? Lyrics are a multimodal form and, as you mention above, much is lost when you divorce them from their tune, their timing and their volume. I think if ‘Back to Black’ were covered by the Spice Girls (for instance) – it would be less rich than Amy Winehouse’s version, although the words would remain the same.

    • I only think we’re doing lyrics a disservice if we retain a narrow view of what ‘poetry’ is, otherwise I think it’s fine generally to call song lyrics ‘poetry’. But you’re on to something – I wonder if classification is either necessary or feasible – for example, we enjoy art, but we can’t defined it? I think you’re right in that lyrics have elements that conventional printed poetry doesn’t have (and vice versa). I think if it were sung by the Spice Girls it would definitely be different – for example, we’d have the problem of authenticity, since we tend to admire works that are original and performed by their original artists (maybe less true of songs, but certainly of the plastic arts). Winehouse’s image plays a part, too – we might believe he anxiety. Perhaps the Spice Girls would add something we’d never considered in performance, a new angle (like re-interpretations of Shakespeare do?) But their are so many similarities, I think it’s ok to compare them, especially in a close reading like this, where elements that we normally put aside for poetry are used to discuss lyrics, especially when you recognise (as I have done here) that without performance, poetry and lyrics suffer and are incomplete, as you rightly say.

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