Fenton, James (Martin)
James (Martin) Fenton 1949–
English poet and critic.
An accomplished and significant poet, Fenton writes in several distinct styles. His fascination with information and vocabulary has led him to write "found poetry," which John Bayley describes as "a static composition evolved out of large and yet delicate quantities of semi-quotation." Fenton has based found poems on various sources, including anthropology, science, and history, and even, in the case of "The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford," on the contents of a museum. He also writes light verse: some of these poems are topical, such as "Letter to John Fuller," which satirizes A. Alvarez's criticism of poetry; others, such as "Kingfisher's Boxing Gloves," are nonsensical in the style of Lewis Carroll. In a third category are Fenton's analytical, political poems, many of which relate to war. Fenton's poetry reveals his proficiency in difficult and unusual English literary forms. For this reason, and because of his attention to detail and his creation of mysterious, imaginary landscapes, many critics compare Fenton with W. H. Auden, whom Fenton has acknowledged as a major influence.
Fenton's first literary success came at the age of nineteen, when he gained recognition for his sonnet sequence Our Western Furniture (1968), a satirical, anti-imperialist poem about Commodore Perry's mission to Japan. The poem was first published in pamphlet form and was later one of the most critically acclaimed poems included in Fenton's first full-length collection, Terminal Moraine (1972). Terminal Moraine was hailed by critics for its technical accomplishment, literary erudition, and intelligent treatment of serious subjects.
During the years between the publication of Terminal Moraine and Fenton's second major collection, The Memory of War (1982), Fenton worked as a journalist, traveling extensively in Indochina and in Germany. Some of the poems based on his experiences were published in various periodicals and in pamphlets entitled A Vacant Possession (1978), German Requiem (1981), and Dead Soldiers (1982). Shortly after returning to England, Fenton published The Memory of War, which includes poems from his entire career, and Children in Exile (1983), which contains eight new poems in addition to all of The Memory of War. Fenton is now the theater critic for London's Sunday Times and has published a collection of his reviews, You Were Marvellous (1983).
Fenton's work elicits warm admiration from critics, although early reviews noted that technical virtuosity sometimes dominates his poetry. Many critics see an improvement in Fenton's later work; in his war poems he communicates feelings of sorrow and desolation while still making the most of his gift for satire and language. Two of his most highly praised war poems, written in different styles, are "Dead Soldiers," a bitterly humorous poem which comments on the devastations of war by using images of a feast which takes place on a battlefield, and "Children in Exile," a serious, straightforward poem about Cambodian refugee children who cannot escape nightmares of the horrors of the Pol Pot regime. In Julian Symons's opinion, "Fenton's work, ironic, elegant, aware of yet always a little detached from the suffering it deals with, is the truest social poetry of our time."
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102.)
['Our Western Furniture', one of the poems in Terminal Moraine], is an astonishing piece of work. Fenton's theme is the commercial opening-up of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century by Commodore Perry, and he uses it to provide all sorts of brilliant pictures and to strike off a variety of attitudes. The sequence shows Japanese and American reactions to each other, Perry's dreams of the distant country after his return, his death, and in the final sonnet a non-moral reflection on history's contradictions….
Such a writer gives the impression of being so accomplished that he has nothing to learn. It is true that with all this ingenuity and inventive power goes a certain quirkiness, a determination to have fun, which is exhilarating but has its dangers. A long poem called 'The Fruit-Grower in War-Time (and some of his enemies)' uses passages from a book on fruit-growing to point the moral that the dusts or washes used to destroy bugs are also indirectly destructive of our own life-patterns, and that the larger implications of this are horrifying….
Admiring the poem, one is still inclined to ask whether the same thing couldn't have been said more directly, and without so much quotation from Tree Fruit Growing, as one questions the dragging-in elsewhere of terms about fungi like 'a pezizaform hairy sporochodium'. But perhaps this is being a bit crabby—I suppose similar complaints might have been made...
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Fenton works for the front half of the New Statesman, and is said by the blurb to be a member of International Socialism. He has kept this from the part of him that writes poems; Terminal Moraine is uncommitted and affable…. On the evidence of a poem like "The Kingfisher's Boxing Gloves", Mr Fenton seems to be a cross between a Parisian dandy and the heavyweight champion of Oxford. This poem has been praised in another paper for its obscurity. The poet notes for us that it has come "from the French." It has in fact been rendered from Mr Fenton's French: the poem was written in that language and then brought back to English. Brilliant? Fatuous? The fatuousness of brilliance? I'm not sure which. There can be no doubt, however, about the poem's pleasing accuracies…. (pp. 59-60)
More satisfying is "The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford", a poem about "the fabled lands where myths / Go when they die …" or "this boxroom of the forgotten or hardly possible." Fenton uses the grotesque or strange exhibits—a musical whip, a dowser's twig—as catalysts to his sense of humour; but the poem transforms the museum and its chaotic piles of souvenirs into a darker place—where "The lonely and unpopular / Might find the landscapes of their childhood marked out…." The moral drama which a reader might experience in the poem—partly the result of cadence as well as imagery—is taken a step further:
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[In A Vacant Possession, Fenton's] starting point is Auden's statement: 'Present in every human being are two desires, a desire to know the truth about the primary world, the given world in which we are born, live, love, hate and die, and the desire to make new secondary worlds of our own or, if we cannot make them ourselves, to share in the secondary worlds of those who can.' Those who can, do; those who can't, leech. Fenton can. His fictional worlds impose themselves on us (and on him) as they might on the mind of a madman—which is why the poems are prefaced by an extract from Rasselas where the astronomer complains that he has suffered 'chimeras to prey upon me in secret'.
'Song', for instance, continues the nonsense mode of 'Lollipops of the Pomeranian Baroque' and 'The Kingfisher's Boxing Gloves' in his previous collection. It is a short humoresque that examines the night-life of slugs and spiders…. 'Song' is, however, distinguished from other nonsense poetry by the way in which it constantly flirts with meaning: we almost take it seriously because it almost takes itself seriously. The other poems, though very different in tone, are partly about the relationship of the purely imagined to the real. The last, 'In a Notebook', repeats the same description of a Vietnamese village during the war but offers two alternative endings, the first imagined, the second real. Here, the imagination is seen to be irresponsible....
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All five poems in James Fenton's A Vacant Possession show the expertise evident in his first collection, Terminal Moraine—but the mood is very different. There is a feeling of desolation, of loneliness and hurt, which is both moving and disturbing. Even the opening poem, "Song", the closest in spirit to Terminal Moraine, has an undertone of menace, and the path described in the final stanza offers little reassurance…. (p. 59)
It is the theme of friendship, with its obverse of loss and betrayal, which links these poems. Both the title poem and "Prison Island" depict situations haunted by unreality and inadequacy. "Nest of Vampires" suggests that even childhood, in retrospect, has forbidden mysteries whose solution could only be unpleasant. "In a Notebook" reinforces the twin trap of hollowness and encirclement implied in the pamphlet's title, by re-using lines from the first three stanzas to construct the fourth. The fifth stanza seems to close the circle almost completely, with its grim answer to the question asked at the end of "Song"—
And I'm afraid most of my friends are dead.
These are sombre poems, but they have a fine and honest intensity which commands respect. (pp. 59-60)
Lawrence Sail, in a review of "A Vacant Possession," in Poetry Review, Vol. 68, No. 4, January, 1979, pp. 59-60.
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[Fenton] projects force and conviction …, and has done so since his earliest poems appeared at the beginning of the Seventies. After 'Terminal Moraine' (1971), his poetic course has been chequered, but now he has swum into clear view with ["The Memory Of War"], a book made up of the strongest parts of his earlier work and several striking new poems of weight and length…. [It] is not too soon to hail his achievement and celebrate his voice.
What is he saying in his poems, or, put another way, what is the nature of the force inherent in his invention? The answer won't come pat. He is political in a sense, writing about war-devastated countries, such as Germany and Cambodia. He has taken over Auden's playful extensions of psychoanalysis and finds in social pictures maps of moral decrepitude ('The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford'). He is master of the palimpsest, putting bits of scholarly arcana together, which he calls here 'Exempla,' and making elaborate collages, such as 'Chosun,' a masterpiece built up from bizarre detail taken from a nineteenth-century book on Korea. He is always brilliant when he writes Nonsense Verse. Each poem in the section 'The Empire of the Senseless' is beautifully poised. His light verse, represented by 'Letter to John Fuller,' deflates hysteria in the wittiest of numbers. Then there are his Horatian, discursive poems, which create imaginary landscapes of exile and loss, as in 'Prison Island' and 'A Vacant...
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The impact of James Fenton's best poems comes from the surprise of encountering the unexpected within his otherwise careful formal strategies. This seeming contradiction is a two-edged sword, however, for in Fenton's poetry there is also a distance between the poet and the poem, which is created by artifice, and which robs his most accomplished verses of their effect.
The Memory of War begins with a sequence of poems titled 'A German Requiem'…. The poet is presented as the observer of decay, the chronicler of a process of fading. From this stance comes the poet's detachment, for though he is himself a builder, he is working in a style which has been subject to considerable decay; he uses this fact consciously in the echoes he evokes. It is a war with memory, as much as a memory of war.
This tradition which Fenton follows was once described by Donald Davie as being 'decadently subtle', tending to accept scenes or historical situations as givens. The poet fits experience into an accepted world-view, rather than forging his own outlook. Such verse is more at home with decay than exploration; each striking image stands out against a reflective background, in which the intuitive collides with the academic.
In 'Dead Soldiers', the spiritual centrepiece of this book, Fenton superbly portrays the insanity of war through the use of images that are chillingly out of place. But, as if to soften that...
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Fenton is as clever and ingenious as anyone around, but he is alone among his contemporaries in having a great deal to write about. He has all the civil virtues, the wit, the technical cunning, the seductive fluency but he has subordinated them to something much larger and more powerful; a vision of recent history, and his own personal place in it, that is at once intellectually demanding, morally and politically complex, wide in its human sympathies, and shot through with a sane and sober humour. Fenton's poems have a very high relative density….
[The] poems in "The Memory of War" date back as far as his student days at Oxford…. His work then was sprightly, cultivated, domestic; thoroughly Oxonian in manner, even down to its nervous brushes with International Socialism. A jaunty air of fun-over-the-teacakes clings to Fenton's early poems…. Fenton was entertainingly tough on the notion that poetry had any pressing business with madness and despair; certainly his own verse at the time, with its nursery and suburban references, its elegant metrics, was far too well-bred to flirt with such extremities.
Yet, ironically, his poetry really came alive after he had himself gone to an historical extremity…. He left literary London to set up house in Cambodia. Journalism paid his fare (I assume), but Fenton apparently lived through that war more as a local inhabitant than as a foreign correspondent. His Cambodian...
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The best British theatre critics have generally been, like James Fenton (who [in You Were Marvellous] is clearly offering himself for judgment only by the highest standards), provocative, opinionated and bookish rather than theatrical by training. But Fenton's peers in the past—Cibber, Hazlitt, Shaw, Beerbohm, Tynan—have also nearly all been wits, smooth, sharp, cutting, often killingly funny and, to a man, dab hands at description.
Fenton belongs to an altogether more puritanical tradition. Evocation is not his forte. His verdicts, often just and sometimes memorably offensive … are always magisterial. His style is high-minded, heavy-handed and, when it comes to performance, direction and design, so uninformative that his column reads at times like an end-of-term report….
For Fenton, the theatre holds nothing in the way of fashion or frivolity, little passion and absolutely no sensuous appeal….
But the great virtue of this eccentric critic is precisely the seriousness with which he takes himself, his trade and the theatre which it is his delight to study and evaluate. He thinks, reads, compares, weighs and judges, in a word he ponders; and, in an age so conditioned by and to snap judgments, ponderousness has its points. Fenton brings a clear and concentrated intelligence to bear on matters not usually thought worth assessing at this level. Above all, he minds about the theatre so...
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[This essay was originally published in The Listener, August 25, 1983.]
James Fenton's nature doesn't appear to be vindictive, though wiser playwrights would run miles from such a risk as I now take. I declare my interest: two of my plays have been the subject of his comments. Those for Caritas I'd heard were not favourable and did not read. The practice of the craft is pain enough without subjecting oneself to the cruel ephemerality of a reviewer's opinion. When I've written this I'll read it and add a postscript. Those for Annie Wobbler, my latest play, were generous.
Criticism is crucial to democracy. So crucial it must be checked and weighed and constantly open to counter-criticism. Assembling one's critical opinions after only four years may seem like immodest haste to claim posterity's attention, but four years is four years. The problem of evaluating theatre is that no one dares make, or quite knows, the distinction between the lovely lady, showbiz, and the embarrassing slut, art. Criteria become jumbled. 'You were marvellous' is a showbiz expression. It does not reflect Mr Fenton's serious criteria. Where are we?
The cosy argument is that artists hate criticism. Not true. We are relentlessly self-critical, and most of us have at least one acerbic friend whose criticism is invaluable. Criticism from colleagues involved in theatre is constant up to and beyond...
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There are three poetic Fentons, two of comparatively minor interest. One offers botanical, psychological or medical "exempla" taken from books or other printed work as poems, rather in the whimsical manner of the surrealists exhibiting "found objects" as art. Another produces light verse that is always lively, sometimes funny, and often marked by a deadly topicality…. The third Fenton, however, has fulfilled what "Our Western Furniture" promised, in a dozen magnificent poems. It is notable that almost all of them have their origins in his Cambodian and German experiences.
The title poem of ["Children in Exile"] is one of them. In elegant, almost casual four-line stanzas Fenton tells the story of four child refugees from Pol Pot's Cambodia….
"Children in Exile" is not exactly a narrative poem, but it "tells a story" in a way that is so unfashionable to-day as to be called bold. The directness and simplicity of speech, the rhetoric firmly under control, are necessary to the story's telling, but Fenton has other styles equally effective, like the linked prose passages of despair and destruction in "Lines for Translation into Any Language" or the unstressed symbolism of "Wind"….
"Dead Soldiers" and "In a Notebook", with its various images of peace destroyed by war … are particularly fine. In such poems Fenton fulfils what the socially conscious poets of the Thirties intended but hardly ever...
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James Fenton is a brilliant poet of great technical virtuosity. His poetry is plunged in the real life of the kind that we see on television screens, read about in the newspapers, and (a happy few) discuss at High Tables. In the first two sections of [Children in Exile: Poems 1965–1984] there are poems about recollections of the bombing of Germany in 1944 and 1945, about Vietnamese refugees haunted by terrible memories of their bombings, about his own experiences as a political journalist visiting Vietnam in 1972–73. After these poems of great immediacy, there are poems in the manner of Auden's poetry of psychoanalytic parables mixed with an ominous sense of the neurotic forces moving thorugh contemporary history. In this section Fenton, like Auden, seems to be drawing strongly on memories of his own Anglican upbringing in Yorkshire….
In this phase of Fenton's poetry, as with Auden's in the 1930s, one feels, at one and the same time, that the poet has created within the poem a mysterious world with mysterious laws which work by their own logic, and yet also that there is a need of some ideology or system of belief which would make everything clear. One feels, too, that there are occasional references to some private area of the poet's life—perhaps to childhood memories—which are withheld from the reader. The feeling of Auden in some of these poems is so strong that it seems more like identification with his work than...
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