If there is a unifying principle in his later work, it is expressed in a combination of plainness of utterance with a strong sense of poetry as a public and political art. - Sean O'Brien
About James Fenton
James Fenton (b. 1949) grew up in Lincolnshire and Staffordshire and was educated at Repton and Magdalen College, Oxford where he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his sonnet sequence 'Our Western Furniture'. This early poem about the cultural collision between 19th century America and Japan contains in embryo many of the characteristics that define his later work; technical mastery, wide-ranging intellectual interests and a concern for foreign cultures and the problems of Western interaction with them. His first collection, Terminal Moraine (1972) was well received and won a Gregory Award. He used the money to travel to the Far East where he witnessed the aftermath of America's withdrawal from Vietnam and the collapse of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia which presaged the rise of Pol Pot. In 1976 Fenton returned to London and became political correspondent for The New Statesman. The Memory of War (1982), drawing on his experience in the Far East, secured his reputation as one of the finest poets of his generation. He won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1984 for Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984 and in 1994 Fenton became Professor of Poetry at Oxford.
Fenton's unsettling use of traditional form to confront contemporary events, combined with images of comedy and violence is evident in poems such as 'Out of the East' and 'The Ballad of the Shrieking Man'. Nonsense verse has always formed a part of Fenton's output and in these poems he employs its metrical and linguistic energy to explore the nightmarish scenarios of war: "The lice/The meat/The burning ghats/The children buried in the butter vats/The steeple crashing through the bedroom roof/Will be your answer if you need a proof." The jaunty rhythms of Kipling have turned into the hysteria of apocalypse. Less insistent but just as powerful formal effects are evident in 'Jerusalem' where the conflicting claims the city inspires are expressed in alternating, mutually exclusive statements. Alongside these are more personal poems of love and regret such as 'In Paris with You' which teeters beautifully between irony and romance.
As a boy Fenton was a chorister and perhaps this early training helped foster the music of his poetry. Emphasising the rhythmic qualities of his verse, Fenton reads like a balladeer for our bloody times.
His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 20 January 2004 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by John Green.