James Fenton is a poet for whom ivory towers have long ceased to exist. His work is enacted in the midst of our world and is full of political and social charges. Already in his earliest poems, ‘Our Western Furniture’ for example, which is about the clash between American and Japanese culture, he displays his engagement. The Far East in particular, where he travelled a great deal as a journalist, also during the American withdrawal from Vietnam, is his great love.
But his work is not only special because of its high degree of social awareness; also striking is his technical control. Fenton, an admirer of the great English poet W.H. Auden, combines a powerful narrative tone with great poetic sophistication. Paul Theroux has said about his long poem ‘The Memory of War’ (1982): James Fenton’s poems “are passionate and personal; they can also be extremely funny and violent; they are always full of the pleasures of the language.” With the same verve with which he writes his great humanitarian poems, he also sometimes writes nonsense verse or hermetic poetry.
His special way of both telling of and exposing the great events of our time makes him one of the most striking present-day English poets. His multicultural interests give him, so to speak, the right tools for writing contemporary and public poetry that, because of his mastery, are nevertheless not confined to one period. He has a particular place in his writing for love poetry that is both intimate and universal. The cycle of songs called Tsunami, in which the troubles of a relationship are mirrored in the tsunami of 2004 is a fine example of this. (‘The Alibi’, ‘Was That Your Idea of Love’ and ‘How Can the Heart Live’, all published here, are extracts from the Tsunami song cycle.)
James Fenton is one of the most acknowledged poets in England. In 2007, he received the Queen’s Golden Medal for Poetry. Before then, he had already been Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.
[James Fenton took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 2008. This text was written on that occasion.]
Our Western Furniture, Sycamore Press, Oxford, 1968
Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle, Sycamore Press, Oxford, 1969
Terminal Moraine, Secker and Warburg, London, 1972
Dead Soldiers, Sycamore Press, Oxford 1981
The Memory of War: Poems 1968–1982, Salamander Press, Edinburgh, 1982
Children in Exile, Salamander Press, Edinburgh, 1983
Manila Envelope, self published, 1989
Out of Danger, Penguin, London, 1994
A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed, Viking, London, 2001
The Love Bomb, Penguin / Faber and Faber, London, 2003
Selected Poems, Penguin, London, 2006