James Fenton gave a poetry reading last year. He started with ‘Out of the East’, the epic poem which opens Part 2 of his new collection Out of Danger. Much of what Fenton had experienced as a journalist in Indo-China is infused into the poem like a bloodstain. “It’s a far cry. / It’s a war cry. / Cry for the war that can do this thing,” Fenton read – or rather sang. It was not just what he read, it was how he read it. Fenton punched the air, spoke his lines as if they were burning in his mouth, and pranced around dramatically. It was the most electrifying stage performance I’ve ever seen – and it was just a poetry reading.
“James,” says Christopher Reid, poetry editor at Faber and Faber, “is the nearest thing we have to a rap artist. When he reads he doesn’t mumble in the way we university poets are meant to.”
But James Fenton is not how poets are meant to be. Poets are not meant to be rich. They are meant to be wild, drunk, aesthetically penniless. Fenton, described as “the most talented poet of his generation” a decade ago, defies this cliché. He is very rich, though his wealth has little to do with his verse. Fenton is rich because of a musical. When he was fired as librettist of the musical Les Miserables in 1985, it was thought only fair that he should gain some reward for the work he had already done. His agent negotiated a percentage. Given that Les Miserables has played all around the globe, this must amount to a very large sum of money indeed.
On the proceeds, Fenton has bought property. He owns a flat near the Adelphi theatre in London and a farm four miles outside Oxford. The money has also brought him independence. “When I work now,” he says, “it is only because I want to.” It’s been a long wait since Fenton’s last volume, The Memory of War and Children in Exile was published in 1983. Acclaim for the book was led by another poet, Peter Porter; his view of Fenton hasn’t changed. “He is a spasmodic poet, but also very popular – it’s the way he writes, with a mixture of poetic language and real directness. But the important thing about him is that he doesn’t indulge himself in poetry every morning. He’s devoted to the outside world.”
In the Seventies, this devotion took Fenton to most points east – Vietnam, Cambodia and in 1986 to the Philippines, where he became Far East correspondent for a newspaper. In the late Eighties, he bought a prawn farm with a group of friends out there, and spent a lot of time in the remote countryside. He settled down to write many of the poems collected in Out of Danger.
Fans will not be disappointed. The qualities of the last volume – narrative skill, wit, a taste for fantasy – are on display in abundance. There’s also a new tone, a new preoccupation. At least five of the poems are achingly tender love lyrics. Presumably these are addressed to someone?
“I wouldn’t presume anything,” Fenton answers briskly. “The point is, with a lyric, you have to write about what you are feeling, but also what one generally feels in such situations. That’s what makes the poem, not a peculiar person. So I wouldn’t presume anything at all if I were you.”
Fenton was born in 1949, the son of a theologian. His interest in English literature began only when he took his school-leaving exam. He had written to W.H. Auden, and the poet visited the school. “He talked to us and we were absolutely tongue-tied,” says Fenton. “He was particularly nice to me.” Auden’s influence was decisive. When Fenton went up to Oxford to read English< Auden would take him out to lunch.
After Oxford, Fenton considered journalism. He wrote to every newspaper north of Birmingham, but no job was forthcoming. The poor Anthony Thwaite, then literary editor of the New Statesman, came to the rescue. Fenton had been doing monthly book reviews for him: when Thwaite needed an assistant, Fenton got the job.
His first volume of poetry was published in 1972. “The book was well-received,’ says Fenton, “and I was convinced that I wanted to be a poet. But the point was: how to live as a poet? I didn’t want to leave off poetry and I didn’t want to be a literary journalist. If all you worked on was books, and you wanted to write them, I figured you’d end up constantly referring to your own reading.”
The book won an award and he used the money to go to Vietnam. Why Indochina? “I knew I wanted to travel, either to Africa or Indo-China.” His account of his trips to Vietnam just after the US had pulled out, and of the fall of Saigon, remain one of the great pieces of modern reportage.
Currently, he is a poet-landowner. On returning to England, he left he had to be near Oxford. So he bought the farm, restored the house, created the library and set to work on a design for the garden. The result is a vegetable plot of geometrical orderliness, a rose garden, flower beds and a wide, carefully-tended lawn. But it’s a far cry from the East – and it’s hard to believe Fenton is going to stick around. “Well,” he says, “it does fulfill the ideals I set myself when I started this. I thought I was going to buy a house but it was the garden that was what I wanted to do next. It’s a way of saying: I’m going to be here for a long time.”
The article about the British poet and journalist James Fenton gives a lot of references to key dates and place names (which is typical of articles written in publicistic style). Indicate at which date the poet did the following:
- gave a reading from his new poetry collection;
- lost job as librettist on musical Les Miserables;
- published Memory of War;
- became Far East correspondent on the Philippines;
- bought a farm in Philippines with some friends; started to write Out of Danger;
- studied at Oxford University;
- published first volume of poetry, which won an award;
- lives on farm near Oxford.
The article is a biographical account of Fenton’s career, but events are not related in chronological order. At what point in time does it begin and end? Why do breaks in chronology occur?
Grammatical devices such as reference and conjunction are used to signal the relationship between elements in a text. This is called grammatical cohesion. Another feature of texts (including those written in publicistic style) is lexical cohesion. This refers to the way vocabulary items are repeated or, more frequently, replaced with a synonym or paraphrase as the topic is developed. Point out the related words in these extracts from the article.
- He is very rich, though his wealth has little to do with his verse. Fenton is rich because of a musical (paragraph 3).
- It’s been a long wait since Fenton’s last volume The Memory of War. Acclaim for the book was led by another poet, Peter Porter (paragraph 4).
- At least five of the poems are achingly tender love lyrics (paragraph 6).
- He had written to W.H. Auden and the poet visited the school (paragraph 8).
Lexical links also help to make the relationships between paragraphs in a text clear. Paragraphs usually contain a transitional sentence, which points forward to the next paragraph or backwards to the previous paragraph. The transitional sentences usually occur at the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next. Answer the following questions about the article:
- Read the first sentence of paragraph 3. What words echo the last sentence of paragraph 2? How is paragraph 3 developed?
- Paragraph 4 begins: ‘On the proceeds, Fenton has bought property.’ What event in paragraph 3 does this refer to?
- Paragraph 6 begins ‘Fans will not be disappointed.’ What won’t they be disappointed with?
- Who asked the question at the end of paragraph 6? What makes it clear that the first sentence in paragraph 7 is in answer to the question?
- Which words in the first paragraph are echoed in the concluding paragraph?