James Fenton began his poetic career as a prodigious youth, publishing his first two chapbooks—Our Western Furniture (1968) and Put Thou Thy Tears into My Bottle (1969)—while he was still a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. As did W. H. Auden, the poet to whom he is most often compared, Fenton published his first book of poems at the age of twenty-three: Terminal Moraine (1972). This book brought him immediate attention and acceptance in British poetry circles, but it was the publication of his The Memory of War: Poems, 1968-1982 (1982) that triggered what his American publishers call “an extraordinary onrush of critical enthusiasm” in Great Britain. Children in Exile: Poems, 1968-1984, his first American collection, contains all of the poems in The Memory of War with the addition of poems published in the chapbook Children in Exile (1983).
The comparison to Auden is an apt one, not only because of their parallel starting points and the high pitch of critical excitement generated by their work, but also because Fenton is, for all his individuality and genuine freshness, a thoroughly Audenesque poet. He shares Auden’s diction, his formal virtuosity, his seriocomic tone, and what Stephen Spender referred to in a review of Fenton’s book as “the manner of Auden’s poetry of psychoanalytic parables mixed with an ominous sense of the neurotic forces moving through contemporary history.” Fenton’s poems are, when they take a political stance, quietly leftist, but he has few illusions and finds himself (to use Auden’s words in “Sonnets from China”) “Chilled by the Present, its gloom and its noise.” Also like Auden, he is an Englishman who went out to view the world (as a journalist in Indochina and then in Germany) and found it a dangerous and often senseless place in which children are forced by war into an exile made bearable only by the absurd dreams by which people, all of mankind, manage to thrive amid the continuing memory and fact of war.
Fenton’s ways of dealing with this world may bring poets other than Auden to mind. His “Letter to John Fuller,” a brilliant and hilarious demolition of A. Alvarez and the cult of poetic suicide, will certainly remind readers of Lord Byron or, among more recent poetry, of George MacBeth’s “Doctor Crippen’s Elimination Kit” and of David R. Slavitt’s “Another Letter to Lord Byron.” Fenton’s nonsense poems will surely bring to mind those of Edward Lear, his Victorian countryman, as well as the American nonsense poems of William Jay Smith, who made similar discoveries in the uses of nonsense in dealing with a dark world, and whose Poems, 1947-1957 (1957) offers many interesting parallels with Children in Exile, both books by poets at the same point in their respective careers. None of these comparisons does more than show readers that James Fenton is a poet whose work is of the great tradition of English and American poetry; the distinctive use he has made of that tradition is what has brought him the acclaim of the critics and of his fellow poets in the United States and in Great Britain.
Fenton was born after the close of World War II and the direct experience of devastation from the air which was the major event in so many twentieth century British lives. The first poem in this collection, “A German Requiem,” is concerned with that war and bombing raids, not on London or Coventry, as one might expect of an older poet, but rather of the British and American aerial attack on Germany. The epigraph from Thomas Hobbes makes it clear that the position of the poet is outside the direct experience, that the poet’s role is to re-create a reality grown dim and imprecise from the memories and reports of others reformed in and by the imagination. The poet’s task is made more difficult, however, by the true horror of the war experience being buried in the necessarily forgotten and the necessarily unspoken.
“Oh, if I were to begin, if I were to begin to tell you,” says the German speaker to the inquiring poet near the end of “A German Requiem,” “The half, the quarter, a mere smattering of what we went through!” The poet realizes that the unspoken truth is “not what he wants to know./ It is what he wants not to know,” and yet the force of the poem lies in the little that is spoken, in Fenton’s selection of precise detail to convey absurd horror. When the bombing was at its peak and the dying occurred at too fast a pace for cemetery burials, the dead were buried in parks, and nameplates unscrewed from doorways were used as grave markers—“Professor Sargnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships/ And instructions to tradesmen to use the back entrance.” The humor of this detail is chilling, as the poem as a whole is chilling, as much from...