Fenton, James (Martin)

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FENTON, James (Martin)

Nationality: British. Born: Lincoln, 25 April 1949. Education: Durham Choristers School; Repton School, Derbyshire; British Institute, Florence; Magdalen College, Oxford (Newdigate prize, 1968), 1967–70, B.A. 1970, M.A. Career: Assistant literary editor, 1971, editorial assistant, 1972, and political columnist 1976–78, New Statesman, London; freelance journalist, Indo-China, 1973–75; German correspondent, Guardian, London, 1978–79; theater critic, Sunday Times, London, 1979–84; chief literary critic, The Times, London, 1984–86; Far East correspondent, Independent, 1986–88. Since 1990 columnist, Arts, Sunday Independent.Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1969; Geoffrey Faber memorial prize, 1984; Cholmondeley award, 1986. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. Agent: A.D. Peters, 10 Buckingham Street, London WC2N 6BU. Address: Peters Fraser & Dunlop, 5th Floor, The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 OXF.



Our Western Furniture. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1968.

Put Thou Thy Tears into My Bottle. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1969.

Terminal Moraine. London, Secker and Warburg, 1972.

A Vacant Possession. London, TNR, 1978.

Dead Soldiers. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1981.

A German Requiem. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1981.

The Memory of War. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1982.

Children in Exile. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1983; New York, Vintage, 1984.

The Memory of War and Children in Exile: Poems 1968–83. London, Penguin, 1983, as Children in Exile, New York, Random House, 1984.

Partingtime Hall, with John Fuller. London, Viking Salamander, 1987.

Manila Envelope. Privately printed, 1989.

Out of Danger. London and New York, Penguin, 1993.

Children in Exile: Poems 1968–1984. New York, Noonday Press, 1994.


Rigoletto, adaptation of a libretto by F.M. Piave from a play by Hugo, music by Verdi (produced London, 1982; New York, 1984). London, Calder, and New York, Riverrun Press, 1982.

Simon Boccanegra, adaptation of a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave from a play by Antonio García Gutíerrez, music by Verdi. London, Calder, and New York, Riverrun Press, 1985.

Television Documentary: Burton: A Portrait of a Superstar, 1983.


You Were Marvellous (theater reviews). London, Cape, 1983.

All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim. Boston, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988; as All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Asia, London, Viking, 1989.

Leonardo's Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists. London, Penguin, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1998.

The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim. Newtonards, Ulster-Scots Academic Press, 1995.

Editor, The Original Michael Frayn: Satirical Essays. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1983.

Editor, Cambodian Witness. The Autobiography of Someth May. London, Faber, 1986; New York, Random House, 1987.

Editor, Underground in Japan by Rey Ventura. London, Jonathan Cape, 1992.


Critical Studies: "The Poetry of James Fenton" by Michael Hulse, in Antigonish Review (Antigonish, Nova Scotia), 58, summer 1984; "The Voice of History in British Poetry, 1970–1984" by Damian Grant, in Etudes Anglaises (Paris, France), 38(2), April-June 1985; "James Fenton's 'Narratives': Some Reflections on Postmodernism" by Alan Robinson, in Critical Quarterly (Oxford, England), 29(1), spring 1987; "An American's Confession: On Reading James Fenton's 'Out of Danger'" by Ellen Krieger Stark, in Critical Quarterly (Oxford, England), 36(2), summer 1994; "Auden's Heir" by Ian Parker, in New Yorker, 25 July 1994; "Orientations: James Fenton and Indochina" by Douglas Kerr, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 35(3), fall 1994.

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The British writer James Fenton publishes rarely and collects his poetic work infrequently into exceptionally slim volumes. "A parsimonious brilliance," John Mole has said of Fenton, "is its own reward." Certainly the brilliance of his individual poems, which seem to surround themselves with an exceptional silence to create a very generous space for themselves in the crowded world of contemporary poetry, has earned Fenton a commensurate critical acclaim. This parsimony, however, is clearly not the result of a planned strategy of self-publicity. On the contrary, his poems, which differ so markedly from one another as to seem the products of several distinct kinds of imagination, convey a powerful sense of the single thing uniquely done, of the single matter and the single form uniquely exhausted. The individual Fenton poem embodies within itself a sense of how boring it would be to have anything like it done again.

Still, Fenton's poems do have their influences and analogues. Of the former Auden is certainly the strongest, and of Fenton's analogues the clearest are the new English narrative poets. The conception of the poem as a compressed fiction is central to some of his work. In addition, he shares with the so-called Martian school, which Fenton actually named, a feeling for the strangeness and alienness of the apparently ordinary world.

When the poem is denied an authentic, recognizable lyric voice, something vitally sustaining can be discovered in Fenton. The impression his poems most profoundly convey is that what can be learned about the world is infinitely more important than what can be learned about the self, and the world for Fenton is broader than for many contemporary English poets. His work as a journalist took him to Vietnam and Germany during the 1970s and again to the Far East in the 1980s, and these experiences inform, or undermine perhaps, a great deal of his work. Fenton's objectivity-his penchant for the found poem, his desire for the poem in which the reader notices only the subject matter—might perhaps be regarded as the reticence of a man appalled before some of the facts of his own experience. If the reticence began as an aesthetic choice, it has continued as a moral necessity.

To write directly of some of his subjects—Cambodia in "Cambodia," "In a Notebook," and "Dead Soldiers"; the Third Reich in "A German Requiem"; nuclear holocaust (probably) in "Wind"—would be to risk banality or sentimentality. He does perhaps run this risk in the poem in which he most clearly articulates his own feelings, "Children in Exile," about Cambodian refugees coming to terms with a new life in Italy. But even here the personal feeling seems less important than the creation of a tone through which this very reticent poet can solicit, or cajole, the feelings of the reader. The apparent naïveté of the poem's palpable design upon us is an earnest of the significance of the subject:

   From five years of punishment for an offence
       It took America five years to commit
   These victim-children have been released on parole.
       They will remember all of it.

Elsewhere in Fenton's poems the self-effacement is more complete, and the absence of moralizing is the clear reward in pieces that address themselves to the greatest modern themes. In "A German Requiem," for instance, the eerie final section creates an unforgettable muted image for the enormous suffering and suggests the way Fenton's own reticent imagination has found its most impressive expression. At some level the image here owes something not to Auden but to T.S. Eliot, the master of the eerie, the sinister, and the inexplicit:

   His wife nods, and a secret smile,
   Like a breeze with enough strength to carry one dry leaf
   Over two pavingstones, passes from chair to chair.
   Even the enquirer is charmed.
   He forgets to pursue the point.
   It is not what he wants to know.
   It is what he wants not to know.
   It is not what they say.
   It is what they do not say.

—Neil Corcoran

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