James Fenton Essay - Critical Essays


James Fenton’s public reputation is firmly connected to his occasional poems based in twentieth century political chaos. The occasional poem is a form with a long history in English literature, in which a historical incident is used as a basis for the work; John Dryden (1631-1700) was a master of the form. Fenton’s use of a historical event, however, is less formal and more emotional than that of Dryden, and there is a strong sense of humanizing the occasional, making those works attractive to a contemporary audience. Fenton does, however, have several other distinct and attractive subjects for his art.

“In a Notebook”

Three poems from The Memory of War are examples of Fenton’s reaction to war in Cambodia: “In a Notebook,” “Cambodia,” and “Dead Soldiers.” “In a Notebook” is in two sections, the first describing the idyllic village life before the war reaches the Cambodian people. “There was a river overhung with trees/ With wooden houses built along its shallows/ From which the morning sun drew up a haze.” These passages are printed in italics and juxtaposed against the brutal truth of a later time: Some of the lines are the same, picked out of the earlier passage; again, “There was a river overhung with trees” but with a difference: “The villages are burnt,” and the speaker is “afraid, reading this passage now,/ That everything I knew has been destroyed,” and “most of [his] friends are dead.” Fenton does not judge but simply reports the facts of disaster.


“Cambodia” is even more terse and uncommitted, a short poem of five sets of couplets: “One man shall smile one day and say goodbye./ Two shall be left, two shall be left to die./ One man shall give his best advice./ Three men shall pay the price.” The numbers laconically mount until “One man to five. A million men to one./ And still they die. And still the war goes on.”

“Dead Soldiers”

“Dead Soldiers” is distanced from the slaughter, as the poet recalls a drunken meal “When His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey/ Invited [him] to lunch on the battlefield.” The tension between the ambition of the narrator, a correspondent eager to get a good interview, and the political cynicism of the participants involves the “Jockey Cap,” the brother of the infamous Pol Pot, who caused the murder of millions of his fellow Cambodians. Jockey Cap is proud to show that he is in “the know:” “did they show you the things they do/ With the young refugee girls?” Time passes, and the correspondent begins to realize that the war is simply a business; “It was a family war,” and “there were villains enough.” It is a sour, frank exploration of the higher levels of political corruption, indifference, and cruelty, ripe with irony and punning asides.

“A German Requiem”

The exploration of twentieth century political disasters is not always expressed in the hard-boiled language of the war correspondent; it can look quite innocent. “A German Requiem” is a poem about forgetting as a way to survive after World War II. A group of German widows, once or twice a year, takes a bus, the “Widow’s Shuttle,” to visit the graves of their war dead. In nine short sections, the women are viewed, picking and choosing with...

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