James Martin Fenton was born to an Anglican theologian and priest, John Charles Fenton, and Mary Hamilton Fenton; he was born in Lincoln in northern England and educated in part at the famous boys’ school Repton in Derbyshire. He went to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1967. Wanting to broaden his knowledge, he switched his course of study from English to philosophy, psychology, and physiology, and this interest in scientific subjects shows up occasionally in his poetry.
Although Fenton had distinguished himself as a poet at Oxford, he graduated with a third-class degree. However, he was able to find work as a journalist in London, where he soon joined the important leftist journal New Statesman. In 1972, he published his first volume of poems, Terminal Moraine. He won a Gregory Award for the book and used the money to finance a freelance writing trip to the Cambodian war zone. In Vietnam and Cambodia, he reported for British newspapers on the Vietnam War but also began to write poetry about this Eastern world of exotic beauty and nightmarish violence.
In 1976, Fenton returned to England and became a political correspondent for the New Statesman. In 1978, his work in Germany led to his poem “A German Requiem.” In 1979, he became the drama critic for the London Sunday Times but continued to write poetry, if sparingly, throughout his periods of journalistic employment. In 1982, he had his greatest success with The Memory of War, a series of poems set mostly in the Far East. However well known he became as a war poet, he had another side to his art, which he showed in Children in Exile, in which many of the poems read like nonsense, with touches of the comic and the sinister.
In the mid-1990’s, Fenton became the Oxford Professor of Poetry. He had traveled to interesting and sometimes dangerous parts of the world and had written poetry about his times abroad. Living just outside Oxford, he continued to involve himself in journalism, in serious literary criticism, and public broadcasting, with a steady, if modest, pursuit of poetry, often directly related to politics and public life in general.