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In 2008, Cambridge included lyrics from Amy Winehouses’s Love Is A Losing Game in its final year practical criticism exam for English students. While ignorant pundits tended to criticse Ms. Winehouse’s claim to be compared with the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh, I strongly urge all readers of the Arts blog not to take the same stance that some of the tabloids did. Not only because Love Is A Losing Game is a beautiful song by an exceptionally talented artist, but that even for selfish reasons, dismissing music and contemporary lyricism will hurt you in the long run. Since this exam, Cambridge have also come under fire for including extracts from Morrissey’s autobiography and a poem entirely composed of punctuation in their exams, and this doesn’t appear to be something that they will stop.

The practical criticism paper, which threw up some of these more left-field questions than you might expect, is a compulsory part of the English course at Cambridge. It’s the same as an unseen section of your English syllabus, where you are tasked to apply your methods of analysis and comprehension to pieces of literature you may not have seen before, or are able to contextualise. So, first, let’s breakdown the Cambridge question, and then understand why being able to break it down is so important.

“Played out by the band
Love is a losing hand
More than I could stand
Love is a losing hand

Self-professed profound
Till the chips were down
Know you’re a gambling man
Love is a losing hand

Though 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”



Structure. The poem is neat; carefully constructed. If you look at the line length, there are no overly extended lines, no particular lines that visually stand out. Even while the poem speaks of hopeless love, which we will explore further later, it’s written formulaically. Each stanza is four lines, each quatrain ends with a variation on the same line; “love is a ___” So what can we tell from this? Firstly, that it is meant to sound lyrical. Read it out loud: there’s a rhythm to each line, every other stanza has an AAAA rhyming structure; the ones in between have an AABB structure. The poem isn’t private and confessional in that sense – it’s meant to be heard.

Content. In the same line of thinking, this poem is meant to be communicated. While the poet speaks of this lost love, a typical lament, the content is clear, structured. The poet wants their ideas to be clearly communicated; while it is metaphorical in parts, each quatrain ends with a statement about what love is – not what love is like, or obfuscating simile, but what love is. It’s highly conventional in this sense. As for the content, there’s a continuous metaphor of gambling, and with it, loss. The man in the poem gambled; he was the risk taker, and the poet lost.

Meaning. While some people think this is the same as content, it’s not. I’ve tackled this slightly in reverse to give you a sense of how to break down the text, but you need to declare what it is the text is about. Here? This is a lament to lost love; a love that never had a chance of succeeding. Knowing what you think the poet is writing about can help you to think critically about the evidence you need to provide to support your analysis.

Being able to break down any text like this (and in much more depth) is important. And it’s even more important to take it seriously and not take the path of the tabloids and sniff at Cambridge bringing contemporary artists to practical criticism. An appreciation for words, above anything else and no matter the source, is crucial. ‘Having A Coke With You’ by Frank O’Hara should make anyone with a soul see the world with new eyes; but then again, I can pinpoint why the brutalist simplicity of the beat poet’s language is the same reason that ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac will never fail to make me wish I could write something as brilliantly to the point as “I’ve been afraid of changing because I built my life around you.”

If you are studying an art, at a time of severe cuts and a society telling you it’s less important than science, then be passionate. Read around your subject, read books, read poetry, read read read. But also listen, and watch, and consume as much of what interests you as possible. Be able to analyse your favourite song the same way that you would a Hardy novel. Admissions tutors want to teach engaged, switched-on students – so if you can explain why Amy Winehouse is as worthy of being read, appreciated and understood as Walter Raleigh (as Cambridge asked of its students in 2008) you’re already on the right track.

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