James Fenton

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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For the Australian politician, see James Fenton (Australian politician).

James Fenton (born April 25, 1949, Lincoln, England) has been, at various times, a journalist, poet, literary critic, and professor. He earned a B.A. from Magdalen College, Oxford in 1970. In 1994 he was appointed Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, a position he maintained until 1999. On 23 April 2007 it was announced from Buckingham Palace that he had been awarded The Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry for 2007. In May 2007 he was placed on the list of the 100 most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain by the Independant.[1] His partner is Darryl Pinckney, a poet.

In addition to his published works below, he has written for the New Statesman and The Independent. He is currently a regular contributor to the The New York Review of Books

"The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation." -James Fenton

Fenton grew up in Lincolnshire and Staffordshire. He was educated at Repton where he grew fond of the work of W.H. Auden, who proved to be the greatest influence of Fenton's own output. After graduating from Repton, Fenton attendended Magdalen College, Oxford. There he began studies in English under the mentorship of John Fuller. Fenton's infatuation with Auden's writing was probably not discouraged by his new mentor, for Fuller was at the time writing the critical manual A Reader's Guide to W.H. Auden.

During his first year at Oxford, Fenton 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.

At the end of writing 'Our Western Furniture', Fenton had already begun writing another sequence that employed a different poetic science. The new piece, 'Exempla', was a product of Fenton's idea of using unfamiliar words or common words in an unfamiliar manner. 'Exempla' also illustrated Fenton's fascination with a poetic yet objective tone and the use of scientific writing.

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 and marked the climax of a new generation of English poets. The work was a great accomplishment for Fenton, not only because of its subject matter, but the many different forms used without compromising the overall compilation. It was also hailed as a generally entertaining work. 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.

Published works

  • Our Western Furniture (1968)
  • Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle (1969)
  • Terminal Moraine
  • The Memory of War
  • Out of Danger
  • Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984 (1985)
  • The Snap Revolution (1986)
  • All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim (1988)
  • Out of Danger (1994)
  • Leonardo's Nephew (1999)
  • The Strength of Poetry (2001)
  • An Introduction to English Poetry (2002)

Gioia, Dana. "The Rise of James Fenton." The Dark Horse (No. 8 Autumn 1999). 2000.

Hulse, Michael. "The Poetry of James Fenton." The Antigonish Review Vol. 58. pp. 93-102. 1984

Kerr, Douglas. "Orientations: James Fenton and Indochina." Contemporary Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994) pp 476-91

  • James Fenton at www.contemporarywriters.com
  • PoetryArchive Jerusalem (inc audio reading)
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