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.)