James Fenton

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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.)

Julian Symons

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['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...

(This entire section contains 278 words.)

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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 about early Auden. The thing to emphasize is the real achievement of 'Our Western Furniture', and the promise of development implicit in almost everything Fenton has written since then. (p. 139)

Julian Symons, "Down to Earth," in London Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 3, August-September, 1972, pp. 138-41.∗

Douglas Dunn

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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:

       In groups to giggle at curious finds.
       But do not step into the kingdom of your promises
       To yourself, like a child entering the forbidden
       Woods of his lonely playtime:

That simile is used with mastery. It brings all the atmosphere built up throughout the poem suddenly to bear on the poem's true subject—self-delusion through imagination. A poem of this length on that theme would work hard to avoid being a moral tract. At an early age, Fenton already knows how to handle the standard but always difficult moral subjects with originality.

Fenton is clearly "influenced" by Auden, especially later Auden. Easily identifiable Auden touches can be seen in "Pitt-Rivers Museum"—rhythm, syntax, and, in "South Parks Road", the shape of the stanza as well as some of its details…. He has immense potential, but the "Open Letter to Richard Crossman" in shaky ottava rima is an ominous sign; his talent seems to me the kind that could be swindled out of fulfilment by too much journalism, of which light verse can be a part. His effort to sound genial and wise makes him sound a thousand years old; and his displays of erudition, the cultural glee with which he seizes the recherché or historical, remove him almost as far as it is possible to go from the kind of subject he deals with interestingly in the New Statesman. But what he has written so far is enough to make Terminal Moraine one of the most interesting débuts for many years. (p. 60)

Douglas Dunn, "To Still History," in Encounter, Vol. XXXIX, No. 5, November, 1972, pp. 57-64.∗

Craig Raine

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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. Elsewhere, it is compelling, inventive, a brilliant liar.

'Prison Island' is obviously a fiction, full of poignantly urgent political advice that has been superseded by time, yet delighting in its own dubious status. How can we be moved by the merely invented, it seems to ask. The text of the poem is a letter from a political prisoner on one of the Lipari islands off north Sicily to a friend on the mainland…. But if the poem is the letter, how can it include information about its fate after it was sent? This deliberately gives the fictional game away and allows Fenton his implicit question: how can we be troubled by a chimera?…

'A Vacant Possesion' begins once more with an empty house, but this time the poet is moving in, with bewildering imaginative speed. The furniture is, of course, purely mental, as the sudden time changes make clear…. Once again, though, we're convinced by the detail (a mixture of the ordinary and the bizarre) until our disbelief is quite suspended by Fenton's final trump: the narrator goes into his bedroom for something he's forgotten, then can't remember what it is. Given the poet's carte blanche to invent, what could be more convincing than this 'failure' to do so?

Craig Raine, "Secondary Worlds." in New Statesman, Vol. 96, Nos. 2492 & 2493, December 22 & 29, 1978, pp. 882-83.∗

Lawrence Sail

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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.

Peter Porter

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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 Possession.'

Reading Fenton in toto makes you appreciate the enormous importance of the arbitrary in art. Even the most telling detail has to submit to the gift of the maker: he brings it to life by choosing it and giving it neighbourhood. Our minds respond to the lapidarist in him, to the pleasure of this piece going there, and this detail set against that other. We test it on our ear and our feelings. Fenton is a magician-materialist—he assembles, he juxtaposes, and he makes art out of his chosen matter as a witch-doctor fashions fetishes. His assemblages bring with them tragedy, comedy, love of the world's variety, and the sadness of its moral blight.

Peter Porter, "Out of the Anteroom," in The Observer, July 18, 1982, p. 31.∗

Michael Carlson

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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 assault on the reader, the poem is given an historical setting that makes the unique situation into an historical given. The poem is further distanced by the use of a journalist narrator whose detachment for the excesses of Prince Chantaraingsey renders further images anecdotal. The poem emerges with the quality of observations left to percolate on the back burner of the poet's imagination, where, steeped in his skill, they have slid, inevitably Hobbesian, into their own state of decay.

Some poems seek different solutions. 'A Vacant Possession' shows form following function in a stately decline … while 'The Skip' uses humour to cover similar ground more effectively. But the danger of distancing becomes more obvious in Fenton's nonsense verse; written with such detachment it resembles an exercise too easy to be taxing.

The best example of the problem comes in the section entitled 'Exempla', which includes a series of found poems, mostly unearthed in the Pitt-Rivers Museum. At first, it seemed a piece of formal daring: in a slim collection gathered over 14 years, the inclusion of a large number of found poems was a leap away from the formal constraints which appeared to be holding Fenton's energy back. But reading the found poems, one wonders eventually whether they too have been transformed into decay, or whether other events, like the war in Cambodia, have not been transformed into the poetic equivalent of index cards in the Pitt-Rivers. (pp. 25-6)

Fenton's poems are immaculately crafted, but the skill of 'The Fruit-Grower in Wartime' is, in the end, merely wry, and Fenton perhaps could be compared to one of his own found poems, 'What the Frog's Eye tells the Frog's Brain':

        He does remember a living
        Thing provided it stays within
        His field of vision and he is not distracted.

Poets of James Fenton's talents should be more distracted. (p. 26)

Michael Carlson, "The War of Memory," in The Spectator, Vol. 249, No. 8048, October 9, 1982, pp. 25-6.∗

Jonathan Raban

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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 poems, at least, have no truck with the shallow detachment of reportage. They are resonant with articulate bewilderment and sorrow—not "war poems" so much as poems that find, in the particular savaged landscape of Cambodia, sufficient pain, destruction and loss to make themselves at home. The gentle lullaby rhythms of "In a Notebook", with its lovely colouring-in of domestic life in Fenton's riverbank village, suddenly stiffen in the last stanza…. The poem's raw material is an enormity. Fenton's response is to honour it with all the technical finesse at his command—with metrical poise, an unruffled verbal exactness, the care of the instinctive miniaturist….

With its rapidly shifting locations and its large family of characters, "A German Requiem" creates the illusion of extraordinary space and inclusiveness within a very tight form. In fewer than 80 lines, Fenton manages to build something that feels cathedral-like, vaulted, tall, full of echoes and dark cloisters of implication.

Much of Fenton's strength comes from this ability to conjure what is tacit and make it fill the spaces between the lines. His longer poems are collages of crystallised detail, stories in solution. Each poem is like a Henry James novella recast as a puzzle, with only the most shimmering incidents left standing. The pleasure is that, like all good puzzles, they do eventually unravel: on second or third reading, everything suddenly slides into sharp focus….

The glancing, elegantly fractured form that Fenton's poems take, with their ellipses and sudden electric connections, answers to a view of life that is stylish, wary, provisional, always intelligent, never breast-beating.

Jonathan Raban, "Visions of Historical Extremity," in The Times, London, October 10, 1982, p. 45.

Hilary Spurling

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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 much, with such energy and earnestness, that it seems ungrateful to ask for a touch of something worldlier as well; or, as Fenton says himself, 'once again, the Observer is demanding the impossible.'

Hilary Spurling, "A Serious Business," in The Observer, July 31, 1983, p. 25.

Arnold Wesker

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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 first nights. The Penguin editions of my plays are full of changes.

Newspaper reviews, on the other hand, render the artist victim of a dangerous deception for which I know no remedy. It can only be identified. The nature of the deception is this: reviews are merely individual opinions whose importance is magnified out of proportion by print, which has magic properties and carries awesome authority. Like a teacher's report. Teachers must always be right, they've been appointed. The child can only ever be wrong.

Fenton, in his postscript [to You Were Marvellous,] honestly concedes the possibility of being, and claims the right, to be wrong. It's disarming. But jejune. 'We must be true to our anger, true to our enthusiasms, true to our excitement, true to our boredom,' he insists. It can only ever be a half-truth. Behind his anger, his enthusiasm, his etc., etc. is the Sunday Times. We are not pitted only against him but against an institution. Reviewers like to delude themselves they have a public who trusts them. But did anyone change papers because Fenton took over from Levin?

There's more to the deception. Aware of it or not, the public regards artistic activity as presumptuous. Unfavourable reviews play to their gallery. Artists acclaimed by time are safer. Living ones work in a continual state of original sin from which only a good review can redeem them. They're a kind of criminal; the public must be protected. The reviewer is St George, print his sword! The reader, who thrills to a good thrashing, is on his side before he begins.

If artists feel a depressing sense of injustice confronted by an adverse review, it's not because they've been criticised but because they've been criticised humiliatingly in public by an overwhelming institution whose sleight of hand appears to deal, omnipotently, in 'the truth', and against which they have no appeal.

A story illustrates my point. [My play] Caritas had just opened. At a friend's house I met an elderly, cultured woman I'd met before. We usually discussed theatre and she'd confide how much she admired my work. I didn't need to ask had she seen my new play, I told her she hadn't. 'It was because of Fenton's bad review wasn't it?' I added. She apologetically confessed I was right. 'But why,' I asked her in despair, 'why did you trust him rather than me?' I reminded her how often she'd told me she'd admired my work. 'Why didn't you give me the benefit of the doubt after 25 years of writing?' She mumbled something about 'he wrote in such a way that I felt it wasn't for me'. She could have had no idea of the helpless, dispirited feeling with which she left me.

Two problems attend the reading of an entire collection of theatre reviews in one go. First, you need to have seen the productions to measure the opinions offered. Criticism of a play frequently bears little relationship to the experience of it. Second, to have the critical note ringing in your head without the pauses of living, loving and laughing is a kind of torture, like the water-drip. Reading only one a week, it's possible to recognise Mr Fenton as a normal, intelligent human being with opinions like other normal, intelligent human beings, sometimes persuasive, witty, well written, other times not. He's informed, seems to take more trouble than duty calls for, has winning breathless enthusiasms, and pure hatreds like other normal, intelligent human beings.

And this is why we despair. It is just another opinion; as intelligent or flawed as those of countless acquaintances. The sense of injustice comes from knowing one is condemned not on merit but by the accident of A's appointment rather than B's.

In my opinion Fenton missed the intention of Amadeus which, as a self-confession of mediocrity and a hymn of praise to genius, makes it a far more interesting and moving work than he perceived. (And I write as someone who doesn't normally respond to Shaffer's kind of theatre.) He was right to applaud Duet For One, and to come away depressed from Cats; but he was uninteresting about Barton's distressing Merchant of Venice, and did not achieve in his review of The Greeks what his introduction claims was his intention: a record of the production's details. I disagree with this opinion, agree with the other. So what?

Few who work in the theatre rate a reviewer's opinions. They care only to survive the new round of unsubstantiated, shorthand comment rushed and subbed and laced with human fallibility. When asked whether they are pleased with good reviews, they reply 'Relieved, rather.' They've lived with a production at such proximity that they know it for its real strengths and weaknesses. Reviewers confuse sentiment for sentimentality, and declare something doesn't work when they mean they don't share its intellectual or moral assumptions. Or don't understand them! They miss subtleties of structure, speech rhythms, textural patterns, ironies, echoes, links, the way actors and directors can either betray a text's intentions or, through cunning directoral manipulation, give text a substance it doesn't possess. Theatre people can damn and praise their work far more accurately.

Mr Fenton declares: Critics unite! 'In order to begin work, we need the right to be wrong, the right to be unfair, the right to be overenthusiastic.' But at whose expense? And what curious reasoning claims 'the right to be unfair'? It rings bravely but I hear the tiniest crackle of sententiousness. A year to write a play, a year before it's produced, then those unassailable reviews claiming the right to be unfair. Two years of work wiped out, two years more to wait. Such considerations cannot be dismissed as 'tough luck—that's showbiz.' Livelihoods, cracked confidence, pain are involved. Each time a new, young critic takes over we brace ourselves fearing he is going to flex his muscles on us, beat a drum calling the crowds' attention—'Over here! over here!' Mr Fenton must be aware he's doing more than simply exercising his right to be wrong when he writes of Shaffer: 'Mozart is depicted in an offensive and banal way because he is seen through the eyes of a very, very bad dramatist indeed—perhaps the worst serious English dramatist since John Drinkwater.' Could he cross his heart and deny that one tiny part of his ego rubbed its hands together, smacked its lips and murmured: 'That'll make 'em sit up'? Postscript. I've read Mr Fenton's review of Caritas. It is a very illuminating case history of misreading. I have a theory that if you tell people what they're reading, that is what they'll read. Tell them here is a play by Wesker and they'll find what they imagine is to be expected of Wesker. I recently wrote a bawdy comedy which was sent to managements as the work of a Cambridge professor of philosophy. Responses reflected what they'd been told. Similarly Mr Fenton seems to have an image of me as a certain kind of writer.

Caritas is about an anchoress who asks to be immured, hoping for a pure life of divine revelation. She finds she has no vocation for such a life, begs release, is denied it and goes mad. 'Caritas is extremely badly written,' says Mr Fenton. I say it is extremely well written. More, in view of the misery of young people inextricably attached to fanatical notions which have imprisoned them, I think Caritas as a metaphor for self-delusion is also an important play. Who is to be believed? After a quarter of a century writing plays (directing and viewing them too) it is just possible I knew at least as much about it as Mr Fenton. How could readers decide? His review acted as a kind of censor to the play. Criticism of critics reads sourly. Self-defence involves immodest assertions. Catch 22.

Asking 'What was Mr Wesker after?' Fenton, unwaveringly confident—and why shouldn't he be? there was no one to challenge him—replies: 'The answer is only too clear from the text … an image of repression.' He expected me to be writing about repression and that's what he saw. The text is only too clearly about a girl who asks to be immured, not who is forced into it. The image is of self-imprisonment. Setting it against the background of the Peasants' Revolt I was choosing not another 'image of repression' but, again as the text clearly states, another image of self-destruction. Both the anchoress and the peasants sought worthy ends, both betrayed those ends through excess, dogma, fanaticism. Mr Fenton, still blinded by his preconceptions, suggested I changed the setting from Surrey to Norfolk in search of 'grittiness'. Readers cannot be expected to know my connections with Norfolk through marriage, Roots, The Wedding Feast; a responsible theatre critic should. I knew one dialect, not the other. 'He has obviously done very little research.' Why does Mr Fenton assume so? He doesn't know me. He didn't ask. In fact I researched it in great detail, as my many notebooks testify. All art is selection. He means he doesn't respond to what I decided to put in and leave out. He should say so. Insults diminish the value of his opinions…. This is not only a defence of my play; such a case-history enables us to evaluate Mr Fenton's reliability as a reviewer. Other playwrights could no doubt put similar cases.

Dear Mr Fenton, I concede your right to be wrong (though not unfair, come, come, sir!), even to be paid for it. But be aware others pay a hidden price for your luxury. The life of a play is postponed, a bank overdraft grows, time is wasted recovering. Caritas is one of my most original plays. Years must pass before it can be reevaluated. Many of us work hard, seriously, responsibly. We take risks, we treat our audiences intelligently, prod their laughter at rich rather than facile levels. These reviews, whatever the lapses, reveal a responsible intelligence that we need to encourage us to continue taking risks. Don't go into competition with us or demean yourself with pyrotechnic insults. And remember, we have to continue working after you have become bored with our art … and have moved on to other interests.

Arnold Wesker, "'Individual Opinions Magnified Out of Proportion by Print'," in his Distinctions, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1985.

Julian Symons

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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 achieved. They wanted to write about war but not to experience it, and ended up producing poems chiefly about their own feelings. 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.

Julian Symons, "A War Poet of Our Time," in The Times, London, November 20, 1983, p. 38.

Stephen Spender

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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 imitation of it. But because Fenton, as it were, takes over Auden, it also becomes Fenton's own world….

Some of Fenton's greatest successes belong to this section of the book—the evocative poem "Wind" and the wonderfully sustained "Chosun," a poem about the relationship of an elaborate mythology or theology to the lives of Koreans. This, incidentally, is an example of one aspect of Fenton's poetry: that it is packed with information, anthropological, scientific, and political. Fenton is also obsessed with vocabularies, particularly the scientific, which in his fifth section, called "Exempla," he turns into a kind of elaborate parody of scientific definitions—serious parody, if you like, because he shows how admirable, if absurd, they are…. (p. 31)

I want to emphasize the lightness, fun, and gaiety of some of Fenton's work, because without the wit, his most serious poems might seem weighed down by their subject matter, which is intensely political—not so much in being partisan or ideological, as in being saturated in the terribilita of the contemporary political world scene. Here he cetainly parts company with Auden, for Auden renounced the whole connection of his poetry with the world produced by politics. He did so, I think … because he thought that it was indecent for the inner dream worlds created by poetic imagination to take as subject matter the outer world of a nightmare reality which results from modern power politics….

Fenton, I am sure, is fully aware of these objections to writing poetry about the horrors which fill newspapers and television screens. It is no reflection on him to say that he comes to the reader armed with credentials and a deliberate strategy. The credentials are that he has been involved as a journalist in the places he is writing about. And he is honest in writing poetry in which the poet is journalist, reporter—simply that, and not one who parades his poetic heart on his sleeve….

In these war poems Fenton does not adopt a poetic persona, but that of someone whom he is addressing who is not a poet but who may be taken to share Fenton's view about the matters discussed. The most successful poem in the book is that which provides its title, "Children in Exile." This is dedicated to friends of his living in the Italian countryside near Florence—an American publisher and his wife—who have adopted a Cambodian family with its four children, rescued from being the victims of Pol Pot….

The real horror of Cambodia is filtered through the realistic dreams of the children who have been saturated in that horror. In "A German Requiem," a sequence of poems about a bombed German town, or towns, Fenton writes about the inability of the people living there to remember the horrors. Forgetting becomes a kind of diminution and magnification of them, both at the same time. (p. 32)

Here Fenton's strategy for imagining our terrible contemporary realities in poetry is rather like that of a photographer who photographs a scene, placing two or three filters across the lens in order to concentrate the scene by giving it some hallucinatory quality.

In several of these poems, Fenton is, then, clearly political. Clearly, too, he is not detached. He has political sympathies. In his poems about Germany and Cambodia, one feels these sympathies—liberal and socialist, I should guess—but at the same time a kind of absence of any ideology where, with Brecht, there would be communism, with Auden, Christianity. That there is this absence, especially of communism, probably throws some light on our time. Surely in the 1930s. Fenton would have been writing the kind of poetry that John Cornford (or even Auden) attempted to write, about the Marxist historical-materialist interpretation of contemporary history. One feels that in the end—perhaps because it has become impossible for someone like him to hold such a belief today—Fenton is driven back onto his own humanity. (pp. 32-3)

Stephen Spender, "Politics and a Poet," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 19, May 14, 1984, pp. 31-3.