James Fenton’s rapid rise to literary fame in the 1980s served as a climax to the emergence of a new generation of English poets brought to wide attention by the publication of two influential and competitive anthologies, Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s Contemporary British Poetry (1982) and Michael Schmidt’s Some Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland (1983). One of the few writers prominently featured in both collections, Fenton represented to many critics the best qualities of the new wave of poets. In Seamus Heaney’s canny description, the young poets were “highly self-conscious … anticonfessional, detached, laconic, and strangely popular considering their various devices for keeping the reader at arm’s length.” Fenton’s literary importance, however, ultimately transcended his position as herald to a new generation. While the exuberant energy and consummate assurance of both tone and technique immediately distinguished his work, his qualities were in no way superficial. He was unsurpassed among his contemporaries in terms of range, skill, and intelligence, but it was ultimately the sheer excellence of his poetry that gradually but ineluctably earned him the position of the major British poet of his generation.
Fenton’s unique accomplishment has been to create a diversity of public forms–which range from political poetry to light verse, from narrative to lyric–without compromising the integrity and concentration of his work. His mature poetry achieves an attractive balance between formal perfection and exciting, frequently unexpected content. He has employed an impressive variety of forms from traditional rhymed stanzas to deliberately prosaic free verse. Indeed his poems are distinguished from those of his contemporaries by the unusually high polish of their style and the inclusive interest of their subjects. But Fenton’s originality lies not so much in his formal or thematic invention as his particular gift for combining traditional elements in powerful and often unprecedented ways. This talent has enabled him to transform moribund literary genres such as the allegory, didactic epistle, verse satire, and pastoral eclogue into vital contemporary forms. Fenton is also an unusually entertaining and intelligent poet with an ability to engage the reader’s attention. He has written difficult, even obscure poems which nonetheless have proved popular and emotionally accessible. Not surprisingly, these qualities have won him an audience beyond the narrow readership of contemporary poetry.
James Martin Fenton was born in Lincoln in 1949, the son of Mary Hamilton Ingoldby Fenton and John Charles Fenton, an Anglican priest and theologian, who was also a collateral descendant of Elijah Fenton (1683-1730), a minor Augustan poet best remembered as one of Alexander Pope’s collaborators in translating the Odyssey. Fenton’s family moved twice during his childhood, first to Yorkshire and later to Lichfield, Staffordshire, the town which would provide the sinister background for his poem “A Staffordshire Murderer.” At the age of nine Fenton was sent to a musical preparatory school attached to the Durham cathedral, where he was a chorister. The importance of this early musical training can hardly be overstated. Fenton’s conception of poetry–except for a few early experiments–has remained steadfastly auditory and performative. Four years later he entered Repton, a public school in Derbyshire. Graduating from Repton, he spent six months at the British Institute in Florence, before starting at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1967. At Oxford Fenton began reading in English under the tutelage of poet John Fuller, who was to become both his literary mentor and close friend. Fenton, however, soon became dissatisfied with English. Wanting to study anthropology (for which Oxford had no formal undergraduate degree), he switched to “PPP” (philosophy, psychology, physiology) as a preparatory course.
All young poets have early influences, but only a few have single ravishing passions. In a weak poet, such early fixation can stunt creative growth, but for a strong imagination une grande passion can focus and clarify artistic development. At Repton, Fenton discovered the poetry of W. H. Auden, which would prove the most important influence on his own work. Significantly, his reading began with Auden’s more didactic and discursive later work. (The first volume he read was About the House, which appeared in England in 1966, Fenton’s last year at public school.) Auden’s influence was not hard to come by at Repton, which had not only educated Auden’s father but also Christopher Isherwood. Repton’s church, St. Wystan’s, had even inspired Auden’s Christian name. The young Fenton’s literary acquaintance with the work of the elder poet was reinforced by a personal encounter when Auden accepted an invitation to read at his patron saint’s school. Their meeting began a sporadic friendship between the poets that lasted until Auden’s death in 1973.
Fenton has defended this early infatuation with Auden as a positive influence on his development. “I think of Auden as the starting point, ” he told Grevel Lindop in an interview. “I was perfectly happy to imitate Auden at times and to follow what seemed to me a possible program he had set for poets, a possible area of interest they might include in their poetry, a possible way of writing a line.” At Oxford, he would not have been dissuaded from this program by Fuller, who at that time was writing the first version of his comprehensive and sympathetic critical manual, A Reader’s Guide to W. H. Auden (1970). Fuller’s own poetry, which is so distinguished by its wit, intelligence, and technical brilliance, even offered a model of how Auden’s influence could be profitably incorporated.
Like his mentors, Auden and Fuller, Fenton’s poetic development proved extremely precocious. In 1968 during his first year at Oxford he won that year’s Newdigate Prize, an award given for the best poem by an undergraduate on a set subject. His winning sonnet sequence, Our Western Furniture, was then broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme and published as a pamphlet by Fuller’s Sycamore Press. The theme for the Newdigate competition had been set by Edmund Blunden, then the Oxford Professor of Poetry. It was “the opening of Japan, 1853-54,” a subject about which the young Fenton knew nothing. With a determination and intellectual self-confidence that presaged the poet’s later career in political journalism, theater reviewing, and art criticism, Fenton immersed himself in Japanese history and produced a remarkable sequence of twenty-one sonnets and two haiku (a characteristically audacious combination of disparate forms calculated to hit exactly the composition’s maximum length of 300 lines). Although awkward in spots, Fenton’s sequence remains an amazing performance for a teenager, displaying both the technical proficiency and the wide-ranging intellectual interests that would become his trademarks. It also showed the beginning of the poet’s fascination with besieged native cultures.
The theme of Our Western Furniture is the mutually incomprehensible meeting of brash imperialistic America and tottering imperial Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. The sequence loosely follows the career of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who forcibly opened Japan to foreign trade in 1853 after 250 years of almost complete isolation. Beginning just before the arrival of the American fleet in Uraga harbor, the sequence ends with Perry’s death in New York in 1858. Most of the sonnets take the form of monologues by major or minor characters on both sides of the drama, including Commodore Perry, President Millard Fillmore, the first American consul to Japan, Townsend Harris, and Yezaimon, the governor of Uraga, with the ghost of the Japanese poet, Basho, acting as a Tiresias-like chorus.
The story of Our Western Furniture moves dialectically from one point of view to another revealing how the same situations were perceived differently by Japanese and American participants. Although he does not idealize Japanese culture, Fenton’s sympathies in the poem rest with Japan. (Old empires always appeal to modern poets more than new ones.) The Americans, except for Harris, are blind to the complex realities of Japan and intoxicated with a jingoistic sense of their nation’s historical destiny. The Japanese, by contrast, are more sophisticated are perspicacious. Fenton underscores the differences between the cultures throughout the poem but nowhere more tellingly than in the exchange of gifts between the two sides. Unabashedly proud of their technological achievements, the Americans present a locomotive, a telegraph, and modern guns to the puzzled Japanese and receive, much to their disgust, only flowered cloth, teapots, writing instruments, and paper. This exchange foreshadows the ultimate outcome of the American intrusion. Despite their gracious ancient culture, the Japanese, as they themselves soon realize, are powerless to stop history. After the Americans land, Yezaimon reflects on America’s youthful strength:
Your newborn country’s growing potency
Bursts like spring rivers through surrounding plains.
You pick on us as sparring partner, try
Our strength, but find us hopeless at your game.
Sensing your strengthening sinews with delight
You give us guns, and challenge us to fight.
Around the time he was finishing Our Western Furniture, Fenton began another poetic experiment. His notion was to expand contemporary poetic language by finding examples of scientific writing that displayed the precision and richness of poetic diction. He assembled his discoveries both as found poems in free verse (the sequence “Exempla” in The Memory of War) and as traditional poems which incorporated scientific language in a manner reminiscent of Marianne Moore (as in “The Fruit-Grower in War Time” or “The P.H. Rivers Museum, Oxford” from Terminal Moraine). “In the days I was writing them,” Fenton told Andrew Motion in an interview, “one of the things I found particularly seductive was scientific language, the way it used familiar words in an unfamiliar way, or completely unfamiliar words–great clusters of them, so that the mind would just have to ride for a while, while these sounds just came. That’s obviously a way towards finding, in non-poetic language, what can be the poetic language of the future….Poetic language is very much denatured and overworked, and it needs a new fertilizer.”
Even the richest fertilizer, however, does not guarantee flowers. And Fenton’s “Exempla” stand as interesting failures; even their author now admits he considers them “heroic first attempts.” However arresting in their originality, “Exempla” are ultimately dull and aridly cerebral with neither rhythmic vitality nor emotional impact. Intellectual scope and ambition, Fenton would learn–unlike many of his American contemporaries–does not guarantee imaginative vitality. Despite their shortcomings, however, “Exempla” bear an important relationship to his mature poetry. They show that even as an undergraduate Fenton was determined to work non-literary language and material into his poetry. The “Exempla” also demonstrate his early fascination with the clinical and objective tone of scientific writing–a very Audenesque impulse that the younger poet put to new uses. Later, Fenton would find that by employing this tone on the less recalcitrant subjects of history and politics (in poems like “Dead Soldiers” and “Chosun”) he could successfully transmute seemingly nonliterary material into striking poetry.
In 1970, Fenton graduated from Oxford after getting what he jokingly termed “the best third” in his year–”namely the most borderline.” Deciding on a career in journalism, he wrote as a freelance for six months and then in 1971 joined the staff of New Statesman. Working first on the literary pages, he soon switched to the politics. The next year at the age of only twenty-two, he published his first full-length collection, Terminal Moraine (1972), and soon after won a Gregory Award. Wanting to become a foreign correspondent but unable to secure a position, he decided to use the Gregory money to travel to Vietnam and Cambodia as a freelance reporter. Like Auden, who had gone off to cover the Sino-Japanese War, Fenton consciously threw himself in the path of history. But unlike the elder poet, Fenton was initially unable to turn his experiences into poetry. Indeed during the next five years, as the precocious poet became a seasoned political correspondent, he virtually stopped writing serious verse.
Arriving in Indochina in 1973 just as the American forces were withdrawing from Vietnam, Fenton witnessed the collapse of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia and the Thieu regime in Saigon amid ongoing civil wars. Although his experiences here as a foreign correspondent later provided the material for the political poems which catapulted him into fame with the publication of The Memory of War (1982) (and his 1988 volume of reportage, All the Wrong Places), Fenton was unable to write poetry about Indochina at the time. It would have been different, he once commented, if it had been “one’s own war.” But to find a war just to write about it struck him as not only artificial but disgusting. The youthful prodigy had the material but the maturing poet needed to find the appropriate perspective.
In 1976 Fenton returned to Britain and became New Statesman‘s political correspondent at Westminster. Writing a weekly column on British politics over the next two years, Fenton became well-known as a left-wing journalist. At this time New Statesman had also become the meeting ground for a group of younger poets who over the next two decades would dominate British poetry. This coterie included Craig Raine, Andrew Motion, Christopher Reid, and Blake Morrison–all Oxford men except Morrison. In the classic manner of a new Oxbridge generation arriving in London, this group of talented co-conspirators would play an important part in making one another’s literary reputations. In 1978, however, the editorship of New Statesman changed, and Fenton left to become the Guardian ‘s correspondent in Germany.
In journalistic terms Fenton’s time in Germany was a failure. He found writing about Germany for a daily paper difficult, and after a year he returned to England with the intention of abandoning political journalism for good. (Fenton provided a witty account of his last days as a foreign corespondent in the introduction to You Were Marvellous, 1983). His tenure in Germany, however, did revive his interest in poetry. In Berlin he began sketching out an elegiac prose poem, which would eventually become “A German Requiem.” At this time he also wrote his most influential piece of literary criticism, a short article entitled “Of the Martian School.”
Fenton’s playfully titled piece announced and defended his selection of Craig Raine and Christopher Reid as co-winners of the Prudence Farmer Award for the best poems published in the New Statesman during the preceding year. Discussing Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” Fenton claimed that the Martian’s alien point of view (which provides unexpected and puzzling descriptions of everyday earthly objects) was not unlike Raine’s general poetic method “which always insists on presenting the familiar at its most strange.” Fenton also pointed out an affinity between Raine and Reid in their use of startling and original images. He then wittily dubbed them members of the “Martian” school, “a school that ought to be noticed, since it has enrolled two of the best poets writing in England today.” Fenton need not have feared their oblivion. There are few things that British arts journalism likes more than new literary movements. The hitherto non-existent “Martian” school of poetry was quickly noticed by the London press, which enthusiastically debated the nature and merits of its aesthetic. This unexpected broad-scale publicity soon made Fenton’s friends, Raine and Reid, two of the best-known young poets in the United Kingdom.
The year 1978 also saw the publication of A Vacant Possession, the first of several pamphlets that would solidify Fenton’s reputation among poets before the broader acclaim of The Memory of War. (The chapbook or pamphlet has always been Fenton’s true medium, and his poetic development is best measured by these smaller and more unified gatherings rather than the larger commercial volumes.) A Vacant Possession is noteworthy for helping to introduce a particular kind of narrative poem that quickly became popular among young poets–”the secret narrative.” In the introduction to Contemporary British Poetry Morrison and Motion noted this self-consciously stylized type of narrative by saying, “We are often presented with stories that are incomplete, or are denied what might normally be considered essential information.” The three narrative poems in this pamphlet–”A Vacant Possession,” “Prison Island,” and “Nest of Vampires”–were originally conceived by Fenton as part of a series called “Landscapes and Rooms” (to which the longer “A Staffordshire Murderer” also owes its origin). Each of these poems was to describe a particular landscape and interior via a different protagonist. The larger scheme was abandoned but not before Fenton had written some striking poems.
“Nest of Vampires” is spoken by a young upper-class boy as his family packs up their belongings to move from their ancestral home. The child only vaguely realizes the financial ruin of his bickering family and the mismanagement of their estate, which has earned them the hatred of the villagers. Instead he imagines that his family suffers from some mysterious curse which he might unravel by finding the right clues. The poem plays with both the literary and cinematic imagery of vampirism (garlic, mirrors, unspeakable family secrets, dogs whimpering for no reason). These gothic details not only project the child’s guilty fears but also provide an implicit political metaphor for the class structure that permitted the landed family to destroy the villages around them.
These “secret narratives” are unfailingly interesting to read but ultimately unsatisfying to revisit. Stylish and self-assured, they create a brooding sense of atmosphere. At times they seem novelistic in their ability to present a welter of observed detail. Here is the opening of “A Vacant Possession”:
Look how you can scrape the weeds from the paving stones
With a single motion of the foot. Paths lead down
Past formal lawns, orchards, notional guinea-fowl
To where the house is entirely obscured from view.
And there are gravel drives beneath the elm-tree walks
On whose aquarium green the changing weather
Casts no shadow. Urns pour their flowers out beside
A weathered Atlas with the whole world to support.
Look, it is now night and there are lights in the trees.
The difficult guest is questioning his rival.
He is pacing up and down while she leans against
A mossy water-butt in which, could we see them,
Innumerable forms of life are uncurving.
She is bravely not being hurt by his manner
Of which they have warned her. He taps his cigarette
And brusquely changed the subject. . . .
Toward the end of his journalistic stint in Germany, Fenton had visited Vienna, where a friend was directing a play at the Burgtheater. The nerve-wracking excitement of the play’s last-minute rehearsals made such an impression on Fenton that he decided to seek employment related to the theater. Returning to England in 1979, he eagerly filled the newly vacated post of theater critic for the London Sunday Times. This position not only inspired the lively reviews collected in You Were Marvellous; his turn toward literary journalism also provided the final impetus to get Fenton actively writing poetry again.
In 1980 Quarto published Fenton’s poetic sequence “Elegy,” which was based on the sketches he had begun in Berlin. Since English readers found the poem obscure, he revised and retitled it “A German Requiem” the next year when his brother Tom printed the short sequence in a handsome folio for the newly established Salamander Press in Edinburgh. A German Requiem represented the first real breakthrough in establishing Fenton’s poetic reputation. Andrew Motion praised it in the New Statesman (where Craig Raine had earlier praised A Vacant Possession), but more important Peter Porter, reviewing the book in the Observer, prophetically called Fenton “the most talented poet of his generation” and described the poem as “stately, composed, almost Eliotesque.” The sequence also won the Southern Arts Literature Award for Poetry in 1981.
“A German Requiem” is an elegy for both the victims and survivors of war. Based on Fenton’s observations in Berlin and Urbino, the poem is an oblique narrative describing a visit to a German cemetery aboard “the Widow’s Shuttle,” a special bus, to attend a memorial service for the war dead and the painful meditations this excursion elicits. The poem progresses through a series of nine brief and fragmentary sections. The narrator seems to stand at a distance from the devastation he evokes. He never speaks in the first person but describes the participants as you, they, he, and she. (The only I in the poem is spoken by an unnamed man.) The narrator “deliberately chooses,” as Andrew Motion has noted, “not to say certain things.” Indeed, the particular style of the poem depends on the narrator reminding readers how much he chooses not to disclose–just as the poem’s characters deliberately choose not to speak about certain parts of their wartime experiences.
Although cast as an elegy, the design of “A German Requiem” becomes clearer if the poem is read as a “secret narrative,” perhaps Fenton’s one fully realized poem in the genre. Like many of Fenton’s early extended poems, “A German Requiem” can seem almost impenetrable unless the reader accepts the overt evasiveness of its narrator. A deliberately paradoxical poem, it evokes the memories of war without revealing them. From the first it insists that the clues to its own meaning are missing:
It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the space between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
The necessity of forgetting is the central theme of “A German Requiem.” While writing the poem, Fenton heard a psychologist lecture on the difficulty of defeated nations accommodating the memories of a lost war. Fenton linked this modern psychoanalytic idea to Thomas Hobbes’s observation from Leviathan (1651), which serves as the epigraph to the poem, “that Imagination and Memory are but one thing.” The imaginative process of selectively recreating the past eventually becomes not only the survivors’ tactic for living with the burden of history but also Fenton’s aesthetic of writing political poetry. Although “A German Requiem” deals with a political subject, the poem avoids any specific political attachments or ideology (such as the international socialism to which the author then subscribed). Instead, Fenton seeks a broader consensus of common humanity. The poet is a concerned but objective witness to history. This carefully nonpartisan reportage also informs “Dead Soldiers,” Fenton’s most celebrated political poem, which was also published as a pamphlet in 1981.
“Dead Soldiers” describes an absurdly elegant battlefield lunch Fenton the reporter had in 1973 with Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey, the military governor of Cambodia. Also present at the lunch was an obsequious, drunken aide who eventually proves to be the brother of Pol Pot, the revolutionary leader who will soon decimate Cambodia. The poem, which is both a journalistic account of this incident and a meditation on the impossibility of a foreigner’s understanding the complexities of Cambodian politics, is narrated in a cool, factual style. Fenton’s particular gift is to heighten the journalism into poetry by a series of quiet details–especially bitter puns and double entendres–seamlessly woven into the straightforward narrative. For example, the prince’s expensive French brandy becomes a symbol for the decadence and inhumanity of the prince’s regime:
On every bottle, Napoleon Bonaparte
Pleaded for the authenticity of the spirit.
They called the empties Dead Soldiers
And rejoiced to see them pile up at our feet.
In 1982, The Memory of War was published by Salamander Press to the most enthusiastic reception any young British poet had received since the appearance of Dylan Thomas. Almost immediately Fenton was hailed not only as one of the most accomplished poets of his generation but also as virtually unique, as Jonathan Raban stated in the Sunday Times, “in having a great deal to write about.” Fenton’s combination of technical skill and political insights appealed to a critical establishment, which saw contemporary poetry as increasingly marginal in its relation to society. His political poetry was compared to the work of Auden, Yeats, Brodsky, and Akhamatova, and he was praised for bringing the prose virtues of clarity, accessibility, and directness successfully into poetry.
Fenton’s immediate success was not altogether accidental, however much deserved. It also reflected the concerted efforts of the poet’s supporters. Andrew Motion published a lengthy interview with Fenton in Poetry Review to coincide with the book’s publication. (The issue even featured an earnest portrait of Fenton on its cover–wearing a bardic scowl worthy of John Milton). The Memory of War was chosen as a Poetry Book Society Recommendation before publication. Fenton’s work also was featured prominently in Motion and Morrison’s controversial but immensely influential Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, which appeared within months of The Memory of War. This anthology announced a new generation of British poets which marked a decisive shift in sensibility and demanded “for its appreciation, a reformation of poetic taste.” These editorial claims were greatly overstated since the poets included in the Penguin anthology neither cohered as a literary group in any meaningful sense, nor did the direction of their work appear particularly rebellious since Auden and Larkin seemed to be their predominant influences. Nevertheless, these bold editorial gestures helped create an environment in which Fenton’s quick rise to prominence was possible. And his new work was good enough to bear the weight of critical scrutiny.
Perhaps the most unexpected and oddly original success in The Memory of War is “The Skip,” a remarkable narrative allegory. Like many of Fenton’s best poems, this piece works through unusual combinations of form and content. The voice of the poem’s persona, for example, is conversational and demotic, but it speaks in strictly rhymed heroic quatrains. Likewise this sustained allegory unfolds in a contemporary working-class neighborhood. Through these original juxtapositions Fenton creates a memorable comedy with the accessibility of a popular song and the integrity of a lyric poem. Telling the story of a cynical young man who literally throws his life away (“skip” is English slang for the large garbage containers Americans call “dumpsters”), the poem lightheartedly chronicles the narrator’s despair and redemption in a casual manner closer to Kipling than to contemporary poetry.
I took my life and threw it on the skip,
Reckoning the next-door neighbors wouldn’t mind
If my life hitched a lift to the council tip
With their dry rot and rubble. What you find
With skips is–the whole community joins in.
Old mattresses appear, doors kind of drift
Along with all that won’t fit in the bin
And what the bin-men can’t be fished to shift.
Amid the stark political poems and macabre secret narratives that made up the opening section of The Memory of War, “The Skip” seems oddly out of place. But it would prove a prophetic poem for Fenton. Its combination of comedy and violence, slangy diction and traditional meters, narrative form and symbolic intent, presage his later political satires like “Cut-Throat Christ” or “The Ballad of the Iman and the Shah.” These poems astonishingly rehabilitate the populist mode of Kipling–used to very different political ends. They also demonstrate that Fenton’s greatest originality is not found in his boldly experimental gestures like “Exempla” but in his highly individual combination of traditional elements to create unmistakably contemporary effects.
The Memory of War was followed in 1983 by Children in Exile, a short collection of eight poems of remarkable variety. The book opens with “Wind,” one of Fenton’s finest short lyrics. An apocalyptic poem, “Wind” counterpoints the timeless image of wind in a field of corn against the catastrophes of history.
This is the wind, the wind in a field of corn.
Great crowds are fleeing from a major disaster
Down the long valleys, the green swaying wadis,
Down through the beautiful catastrophe of wind.
“Wind” is followed by the sardonic “Lines for Translation into Any Language,” a boldly experimental piece which turns a numbered prose list into a powerful political poem. These poems deal with political subjects but in an unspecific, universalized way that helps prepare the reader for the delicate balance of the title poem, which tries to present the victims of a particular political upheaval with apolitical compassion.
“Children in Exile” is a discursive poem about contemporary politics that aspires to recreate in modern terms the accessible but dignified style of eighteenth-century English verse. Written in a form invented by Fenton (a quatrain which alternates lines of free verse and rhymed pentameter), the poem, is according to the author, “a pastoral eclogue with political content,” which owes its general conception to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). The poem describes the painful but eventually successful transition of a family of four Cambodian refugees (a mother, two sons, and a daughter) who have escaped “the justice of Pol Pot” to live with a wealthy American family in northern Italy. Like the survivors in “A German Requiem,” these refugees must learn to deal with the past which still haunts them in their dreams:
They have found out: it is hard to escape from Cambodia,
Hard to escape the justice of Pol Pot,
When they are called to report in dreams to their tormentors.
One night is merciful, the next is not.
One of Fenton’s most refreshing accomplishments has been his nonsense verse. Almost half the work in his American selected volume, Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984, is light or nonsense verse, including some of the best poems in the collection. Especially interesting has been his revival of the Audenesque genre of the apocalyptic nonsense poem. This genre typically starts in a brashly comic manner but slowly modulates into a nightmare vision, as in Fenton’s “God, A Poem, ” which begins:
A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You’d thought would be as firm as a rock,
A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all you’ll get from th’Almighty,
Is all you’ll get underground.
The ironically playful treatment of serious themes gives Fenton’s best nonsense verse the resonance of poetry in ways which could not be accomplished merely by ingenuity of language. Indeed a subtext of nihilism runs through his light verse. Even the titles of his nonsense poems, such as “This Octopus Exploits Women” or “The Killer Snails,” often reveal a dark side to his imagination. In “The Song that Sounds Like This,” a poem which like “A German Requiem” deliberately avoids stating its central theme, Fenton deals with depression and ennui (just as “The Skip” coyly plays with the themes of self-destruction and despair). Likewise in “The Wild Ones” Fenton turns gratuitous violence and sexual assault into farce by recreating a Grade-B motorcycle gang movie with a cast of South American rodents–coypus and capybaras. But even here the cartoon animal farce has an unexpected apocalyptic ending when the violated rodents give birth to freakish monsters:
Months later, all the females have attacks
And call the coypu doctors to their beds.
What’s born has dreadful capybara heads.
In 1983 a combined edition of The Memory of War and Children in Exile was published in England under the title of Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984 and appeared in America the next spring. This volume, which contained all of the poems which Fenton wished to preserve, solidified his reputation in the United Kingdom and earned him the most enthusiastic reception a young British poet has had in America for decades. In the New Republic, Stephen Spender called Fenton “a brilliant poet of technical virtuosity” while Geoffrey Stokes in the Village Voice claimed his poems “aspire to greatness legitimately.” In the New York Review of Books Seamus Heaney agreed that “Fenton’s voice signals the emergence of a new poetic generation,” while A. Poulin, Jr., in the New York Times Book Review calmly reported that Fenton “already has all the earmarks of a genuinely major poet.” Newsweek even listed Fenton as a possible candidate for the Poet Laureate (which would ultimately be offered first to Philip Larkin and later accepted by Ted Hughes). Needless to say, Children in Exile was an amazing debut for a poet who had been unknown in America six months earlier.
While Fenton was not then a serious candidate for the laureateship, he was at that time actively campaigning for an almost equally prestigious position, the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. Originally endowed in 1696, this professorship has had a distinguished list of occupants including Matthew Arnold, F.T. Palgrave, W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, and C. Day Lewis. The professorship, which carries a five-year term and is elected by a convocation of Oxford M.A.’s, provides the victor with only a meager salary but an influential public platform. At thirty-five Fenton was one of the youngest candidates in the professorship’s history, but as an Oxford resident, he ran a popular campaign promising “to revive Auden’s willingness to function as a campus poet.” Ultimately Fenton lost the election to Peter Levi, another Oxford insider, but polled more votes than his distinguished elders Gavin Ewart and FT Prince. Fenton’s disappointment, however, was undoubtedly softened by his receipt of the 1984 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize on the eve of the election.
Fenton’s place as one of the foremost poets of his generation now seems assured. His work has achieved a broad readership on both sides of the Atlantic, and at readings and conferences he has assumed the role of a leading young man of letters. Likewise his reputation has spread beyond the world of poetry. His controversial translation of Verdi’s Rigoletto set in Mafia New York during the 1950’s has toured both England and America (and recently been recorded), and he is currently finishing a version of Simon Boccanegra. His celebrity status was confirmed in Redmond O’Hanlon’s popular comic travelogue, Into the Heart of Borneo (1984), which recounted a bizarre and fascinating trip the author took with Fenton into the primitive interior of the island. While Fenton has published little verse since Children in Exile, he has never been a prolific poet. Like Philip Larkin, he has distinguished himself by the consistent quality rather than the quantity of his verse. Where his future work will lead is impossible to predict, but it is safe to assume that it will be carefully read. Whether this fame proves a burden to his poetic development only time will tell, but success is surely an easier burden to bear than its alternative.
First published in two consecutive issues of The Dark Horse (No. 8/Autumn 1999 and No.9/10/Summer 2000)