James Fenton (b. 1949) grew up in Lincolnshire and Staffordshire and was educated at Repton and Magdalen College, Oxford where he 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. 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. 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. Emphasizing the rhythmic qualities of his verse, Fenton reads like a balladeer for our bloody times.
Source: The Poetry Archive: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=5576
Blood and Lead
Listen to what they did.
Don’t listen to what they said.
What was written in blood
Has been set up in lead.
Lead tears the heart.
Lead tears the brain.
What was written in blood
Has been set up again.
The heart is a drum.
The drum has a snare.
The snare is in the blood.
The blood is in the air.
Listen to what they did.
Listen to what’s to come.
Listen to the blood.
Listen to the drum.
Copyright: from New Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006) copyright © James Fenton 2006.
A German Requiem
It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.
You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.
Yesterday the very furniture seemed to reproach you.
Today you take your place in the Widow's Shuttle.
The bus is waiting at the southern gate
To take you to the city of your ancestors
Which stands on the hill opposite, with gleaming pediments,
As vivid as this charming square, your home.
Are you shy? You should be. It is almost like a wedding,
The way you clasp your flowers and give a little tug at your veil. Oh,
The hideous bridesmaids, it is natural that you should resent them
Just a little, on this first day.
But that will pass, and the cemetery is not far.
Here comes the driver, flicking a toothpick into the gutter,
His tongue still searching between his teeth.
See, he has not noticed you. No one has noticed you.
It will pass, young lady, it will pass.
How comforting it is, once or twice a year,
To get together and forget the old times.
As on those special days, ladies and gentlemen,
When the boiled shirts gather at the graveside
And a leering waistcoast approaches the rostrum.
It is like a solemn pact between the survivors.
They mayor has signed it on behalf of the freemasonry.
The priest has sealed it on behalf of all the rest.
Nothing more need be said, and it is better that way-
The better for the widow, that she should not live in fear of surprise,
The better for the young man, that he should move at liberty between the armchairs,
The better that these bent figures who flutter among the graves
Tending the nightlights and replacing the chrysanthemums
Are not ghosts,
That they shall go home.
The bus is waiting, and on the upper terraces
The workmen are dismantling the houses of the dead.
But when so many had died, so many and at such speed,
There were no cities waiting for the victims.
They unscrewed the name-plates from the shattered doorways
And carried them away with the coffins.
So the squares and parks were filled with the eloquence of young cemeteries:
The smell of fresh earth, the improvised crosses
And all the impossible directions in brass and enamel.
'Doctor Gliedschirm, skin specialist, surgeries 14-16 hours or by appointment.'
Professor Sarnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships
And instructions to tradesmen to use the back entrance.
Your uncle's grave informed you that he lived in the third floor, left.
You were asked please to ring, and he would come down in the lift
To which one needed a key...
Would come down, would ever come down
With a smile like thin gruel, and never too much to say.
How he shrank through the years.
How you towered over him in the narrow cage.
How he shrinks now...
But come. Grief must have its term? Guilt too, then.
And it seems there is no limit to the resourcefulness of recollection.
So that a man might say and think:
When the world was at its darkest,
When the black wings passed over the rooftops,
(And who can divine His purposes?) even then
There was always, always a fire in this hearth.
You see this cupboard? A priest-hole!
And in that lumber-room whole generations have been housed and fed.
Oh, if I were to begin, if I were to begin to tell you
The half, the quarter, a mere smattering of what we went through!
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 now 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.