Fenton, James 1949–

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Fenton, James 1949–

(James Martin Fenton)

PERSONAL: Born April 25, 1949, in Lincoln, England; son of John Charles (an Anglican priest) and Mary Hamilton Fenton. Education: Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A., 1970.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Pat Kavanagh, Peters, Fraser and Dunlop Ltd., Drury House, 34-43 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HA, England.

CAREER: Writer. New Statesman, London, England, assistant literary editor, 1971, member of editorial staff, 1972–73, political columnist 1976–78; freelance journalist in Southeast Asia, 1973–75; Guardian, London, German correspondent, 1978–79; Sunday Times, London, theater critic, 1979–84; Times, London, chief literary critic, 1984–86; Independent, London, Far East correspondent, 1986–88; Sunday Independent, London, Arts Poetica columnist after 1990; Oxford University, Oxford, England, professor of poetry, 1994–99. Trustee, National Gallery, 2002–, Warburg Professor at the Warburg Haus, 2005.

AWARDS, HONORS: Newdigate Prize for Poetry, Oxford University, 1968; Eric Gregory Award, 1973; Royal Society of Literature fellow, 1983; Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, 1984; Cholmondeley Award, 1986; honorary fellow, Magdalene College, 1999; Royal Society of Arts, fellow, 2003; Antiquarian of the Royal Academy.


Our Western Furniture (poems), Sycamore Press (Oxford, England), 1968.

Put Thou Thy Tears into My Bottle (poems), Sycamore Press (Oxford, England), 1969.

Terminal Moraine (poems), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1972.

A Vacant Possession, TNR (London, England), 1978.

Dead Soldiers, Sycamore Press (Oxford, England), 1981.

A German Requiem, Salamander Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1981.

The Memory of War: Poems, 1968–1982, Salamander Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1982.

(Adaptor) Rigoletto (play; adaptation of a libretto by F.M. Piave from a play by Victor Hugo; produced in London, England, 1982, then New York, NY, 1984), Riverrun Press (New York, NY), 1982.

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

You Were Marvellous: Theatre Reviews from the Sunday Times, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1983.

The Memory of War; and, Children in Exile, Penguin (New York, NY), 1983.

Children in Exile, Salamander Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1983, published as Children in Exile: Poems 1968–1984, Noonday Press (New York, NY), 1994.

(Adaptor) Simon Boccanegra (play; adaptation of a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave from a play by Antonio García Gutíerrez), Riverrun Press (New York, NY), 1985.

(Editor and author of introduction) Cambodian Witness: The Autobiography of Someth May, Faber (London, England), 1986, Random House (New York, NY), 1987.

(With John Fuller), Partingtime Hall, Viking (Harmondsworth, England), 1987.

All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1988, published as All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Asia, Viking (London, England), 1989.

Manila Envelope, privately printed, 1989.

(Editor) Rey Ventura, Underground in Japan, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1992.

Out of Danger, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.

On Statues, Syrnes (New York, NY), 1995.

Leonardo's Nephew: Essays on Art and Artist, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.

The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2001.

A Garden from a Hundred Packs of Seed, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.

An Introduction to English Poetry, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.

The Love Bomb: And Other Musical Pieces (poems), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.

(Composer of lyrics) The Haroun Songbook (compact disc; opera adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories), Albany Records (Albany, NY), 2004.

All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Southeast Asia, Granta Books (London, England), 2005.

School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy of Arts (London, England), 2005.

Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2006.

Author of introduction, We Are the People: Postcards from the Collection of Tom Phillips, National Gallery Publications (London, England), 2004. Columnist for the Guardian; contributor to New York Review of Books.

SIDELIGHTS: James Fenton became a professor of poetry at England's Oxford University after a distinguished publishing career dating back to the late 1960s. He has also enjoyed a prominent role as a foreign correspondent and theater critic for some of his country's leading newspapers. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that while the two professions seem disparate, "Fenton … shows what can be done in both when talent and intelligence mingle with an independent spirit."

Fenton's first volume, Our Western Furniture, was published while he was still a student at Oxford's Magdalen College. Over the course of his career, his verse has often been compared to that of English poets T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. In forming his lyrical output, Fenton has consistently drawn on historical and political realities culled from his years as a journalist in Vietnam and Germany. "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," stated an essayist in Contemporary Poets. For example, A German Requiem touches upon that country's disastrous, World War II-inducing experiment with National Socialism in the 1930s. Its "eerie final section creates an unforgettable, muted image for the huge suffering and suggests the way Fenton's own reticent imagination has found its most impressive expression," noted the Contemporary Poets writer.

Children in Exile: Poems 1968–1984 pays homage to a group of youngsters from Cambodia who found themselves living in Italy with an adopted family—friends of Fenton's—after their country's political turmoil in the 1970s. He imagines the refugees having nightmares about their country's ruthless leader, Pol Pot, and the terrors they once experienced. "They will remember all of it," Fenton writes. Children in Exile was reviewed by Stephen Spender in the New Republic. Spender termed its author "a brilliant poet of great technical virtuosity," and singled out two specific poems, "Wind" and "Chosun," for praise. Spender observed that Fenton's poetry is "packed with information, anthropological, scientific, and political," and also noted the similarities between Fenton's and Auden's work. He noted that in Fenton's case, "the irony which he employs in his description of lunch on a battlefield in Cambodia with Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey is that of a journalist talking with fellow journalists at a bar."

Fenton's work as a poet has been sporadic. Out of Danger, a collection of verse published in the United States, marked his return after a decade-long absence from the form. New Statesman reviewer Peter Forbes found in it evidence of "a radical change of style," with many of the poems far more abstract in composition, in contrast to Fenton's previous reliance on narrative structure. Others remained true to commemorating historical moments, such as the rise of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980, or the crackdown on student dissidents that occurred in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Forbes singled out "The Mistake" and "The Milk-fish Gatherers"—about fishermen in the Philippines—as particularly commendable, as well as "Jerusalem," which he felt "captures the terror and weight of symbolism impacted into one small city." Don Bogen in Nation referred to the same poem in describing Fenton as "something of a warrior archaeologist himself … he builds his strongest poems around repeating patterns of history—oppression and retaliation; tyranny, revolution and new tyranny—using repetition in his verse forms and word choices to outline the nightmare cycles."

Fenton's journalism pieces have been collected in such volumes as You Were Marvellous: Theatre Reviews from the Sunday Times and All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim. He is also the author of Leonardo's Nephew: Essays on Art and Artist, which contains essays that first appeared in the New York Review of Books. The chapters range in discussion from ancient Egyptian funeral rituals to a nephew of Leonardo da Vinci, the subject of the title piece, a man once an acclaimed Renaissance sculptor but mysteriously forgotten by art historians. In other essays Fenton reveals his interest in the work of twentieth-century American artists Jasper Johns and Joseph Cornell. New York Times reviewer Robin Lippincott deemed the author "a first-rate sleuth" for one essay in which he investigated whether or not The Bathers, by French Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, was painted at a place where raw sewage once spilled into Paris's Seine river. "These essays educate, enlighten, surprise and thrill, unfailingly," concluded Lippincott. Other reviews of Leonardo's Nephew were equally positive. "Fenton's own eye is sometimes tweedily connoisseurial, yet he leavens his enormous erudition with a dash of colloquial, even ribald, irony," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. Writing in the Smithsonian, Paul Trachtman found the contents "a particularly literary response to art," and observed that Fenton "treats museums almost as a metaphor, leaping from the artwork to stories of the patrons, dealers, collectors, rivals, mistresses and scandals that surround it—especially the abiding and compelling scandals."

The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures contains a selection of twelve essays culled from a series of public lectures Fenton delivered at Oxford. The chapters discuss individual poets, such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, and Auden, who is the subject of three of the talks. A reviewer in the Economist observed: "From the effect of William and Dorothy Wordsworth sniggering at Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' to Auden's belief that Shakespeare's sonnets must have been published against his will because they so excruciatingly echoed his own experience, Mr. Fenton pieces together the hidden anxieties behind the poetry."

In A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed, which Carol Haggas in Booklist called "a wee gem of a book," Fenton ruminates on starting a garden from scratch, using pure love of flowers and an interest in seed catalogues as his guide, rather than knowledge about garden structure and landscape design. It is as much a book of appreciation as a guide to developing a garden from the most elemental components. A memoir of his time in the garden, the book contains descriptions of each of his hundred favorite flowers, which "conjure up halcyon visions in the mind's eye," Haggas wrote.

In stark contrast to A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed is All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Southeast Asia, in which Fenton returns to the politics of Cambodia and Vietnam. In the 1970s, he traveled to those countries as a journalist and sided with the Communists in the war. The book recounts how he looted the U.S. embassy and encountered warfare firsthand before leaving for the Philippines, where corruption and revolution resulted in the rise of Ferdinand Marcos. "This is brilliant reportage," wrote Mick Herron in Geographical, that exhibits "an astonishing eye for detail, and a constant awareness of the bigger picture."

In School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts, Fenton looks at the art world from the perspective of the venerable British arts establishment, which since its inception in the eighteenth century has often marginalized great artists, failed to recognize genius, and refused to advocate for artists' rights. In rejecting William Blake, engaging in bitter disputes among its members, and not representing a clear purpose, the Royal Academy seems at times to be anything but a "school of genius." Fenton's critique was written with an insider's knowledge; he was inducted into the Academy in 2003 and was commissioned to write the volume, which a reviewer for the Economist called a "compelling and rather peculiar book."



Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Artforum International, January, 1999, review of Leonardo's Nephew: Essays on Art and Artist, p. 17.

Booklist, November 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Leonardo's Nephew, p. 558; April 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, p. 1443; March 1, 2002, Carol Haggas, review of A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed, p. 1975.

Economist, April 21, 2001, "Only If It Hurts," p. 6; April 22, 2006, review of School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts, p. 82.

Geographical, October, 2005, Mick Herron, review of All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Southeast Asia, p. 86.

Hollins Critic, October, 2003, Harriet Zinnes, review of The Strength of Poetry, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2002, review of A Garden from a Hundred Packs of Seed, p. 157.

Library Journal, October 1, 1998, Douglas F. Smith, review of Leonardo's Nephew, p. 80; May 15, 2001, Scott Hightower, review of The Strength of Poetry, p. 123.

Nation, October 24, 1994, Don Bogen, review of Out of Danger, p. 464.

New Republic, May 14, 1984, Stephen Spender, review of Children in Exile, p. 31.

New Statesman, November 26, 1993, Peter Forbes, review of Out of Danger, p. 41; August 19, 1994, Adrian Mitchell, "No Holds Bard," p. 20; October 11, 1996, Michael Glover, "Just a Smack at Fenton," p. 12.

New York Review of Books, July 19, 2001, Charles Simic, review of The Strength of Poetry, p. 34.

New York Times, January 24, 1999, Robin Lippincott, review of Leonardo's Nephew.

Publishers Weekly, June 27, 1994, review of Out of Danger, p. 67; October 12, 1998, review of Leonardo's Nephew, p. 68; March 12, 2001, review of The Strength of Poetry, p. 85; June 26, 2006, review of Selected Poems, p. 31.

Spectator, December 1, 2001, Mary Keen, review of A Garden from a Hundred Packs of Seed, p. 48; June 24, 2006, Christopher Woodward, review of School of Genius.

Smithsonian, June 1999, Paul Trachtman, review of Leonardo's Nephew, p. 144.

World Literature Today, summer-autumn, 2001, Bernard F. Dick, review of The Strength of Poetry, p. 159.


James Fenton Home Page, http://www.jamesfenton.com (October 26, 2006).

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