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Making It New

Last year the British division of Penguin Books issued James Fenton’s poems as one of their “King Penguins,” a part of their list usually reserved for current successful fiction. That they published the book under this heading and not as part of their poetry list—devoted, on the whole, to the poetry of the past, poetry in translation and in anthologies—was a distinct signal that Fenton was somebody worth special treatment. Children in Exile contains poems that have already appeared in previous smaller collections and has all the melody, the messages, and mischief of a poet hitting his stride.

The last time Penguin stirred the pool in Britain with new native talent was in 1962, when they published A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry. That anthology proposed a canon of contemporary poetry that remained influential for a couple of decades. It notoriously attacked the self-censoring “gentility” of English poetry while presenting poets who in their various elegiac, witty, discreet, lyrical, and self-consciously skilled ways exemplified the very tendency that the introduction was at pains to deplore. In the work of Ted Hughes, however, Alvarez saw an achievement behind which he could throw the full weight of his claims for “the new depth poetry” with “a new seriousness” that could outstrip the successes allowed by that style of “common sense and understatement” favored by other poets of Hughes’s generation. A correspondence between the rendered world and intuited psychic forces, an intense language highly charged with sensation in its texture and diction, a sense of deep energy sources tapped and unleashed—all the confident and renovating qualities of Hughes’s original voice had burst the gentility barrier, that “belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable.”

Hughes’s early poem “Wind,” for example, addresses a subject that might have been treated by Walter de la Mare, a “nature” subject as potentially literary as moonlight, but to read the lines is to encounter the blast of the real thing. The wind’s force so fills the poem that the whole world takes on aspects of menace; microcosm and macrocosm are shaken, inner and outer touch and tremble:

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap:
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

This untrammeled voice, exposing the human sensibility to its primal encounter with conditions on the planet, had a thrilling power. Extreme in pursuit of its own insight, Hughes’s writing was full of the unmediated energy of a natural thing padding its technical cage of assonance and pararhyme. His poems triumphantly gave the lie to Mark Twain’s perception of gentility in the very landscape: “The English countryside,” Twain had reported, “is too pretty to be left out in the open.”

To demonstrate how the traumas of individual consciousness could relate to the desolations of the twentieth century, Alvarez had also included in his anthology work by Robert Lowell and John Berryman. In a second edition he added Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and went on to turn his perceptions about poetry of extreme states into a program—one described by James Fenton as follows:

He tells you, in the sombrest notes,
If poets want to get their oats
The first step is to slit their throats.
The way to divide
The sheep of poetry from the goats
Is suicide.

When Fenton wrote this, ten years after The New Poetry, in his “Letter to John Fuller” (1972), he was marking the desire of poets to regroup around the aesthetic of “common sense and understatement.” Using the stanza form of Robert Burns with its insinuating cadence, its emphasis on poetry as a kind of social bonding, was the formal expression of resistance and retrenchment. The “Letter” might be light verse and spring more from an aesthetic position than from any deep personal impulse, but part of Fenton’s point was presumably to dispute such a distinction. By addressing it to John Fuller, one of the most stylish poets around and, incidentally, included in Alvarez’s anthology, Fenton drew a line, marked the ground he would play on, reestablished the borders of a civil kingdom of letters where history and literature and the intimate affections would be allowed their say. Indeed, it is possible to read one of the new poems in Children in Exile as a renewal of the dialogue with The New Poetry. When he calls a poem “Wind,” James Fenton cannot be entirely unmindful of Hughes’s own poem. Its very difference insists that we pay attention:

This is the wind, the wind in a field of corn.
Great crowds are fleeing from a major disaster
Down the long valleys, the green swaying wadis,
Down through the beautiful catastrophe of wind.

Families, tribes, nations and their livestock
Have heard something, seen something. An expectation
Or a gigantic misunderstanding has swept over the hilltop
Bending the ear of the hedgerow with stories of fire and sword.

I saw a thousand years pass in two seconds.
Land was lost, languages rose and divided.
This lord went east and found safety.
His brother sought Africa and a dish of aloes.

Centuries, minutes later, one might ask
how the hilt of a sword wandered so far from the smithy.
And somewhere they will sing: ‘Like chaff we were borne
In the wind.’ This is the wind in a field of corn.

It is one of Fenton’s finest poems, one that has been lifted from a deeper well than the verse letter. There is a silken movement about it, mimetic of the heave and burnish of wind over the crop, but such relish of the physical is not its main concern. The wind blows open a space where words come sailing upon the waves of history and culture. The heritage of the Bible and the heritage of British imperialism (“swaying wadis”) are present in the vocabulary and cadences, but the overall fable is about the evanescent nature of all such heritages. While it holds to traditional, almost formulaic language (“major disaster,” “fire and sword,” “the smithy”) the poem is nevertheless, by the very mildness of its control, swarming with a sense of panic. This “Wind” also says, in its own gently awestruck way, that the countryside should not be left out in the missile-haunted open.

It understates, it recognizes the dimensions of apocalypse but conducts itself in a “more or less orderly…polite…decent” style. James Fenton can handle the domestic metrical line as naturally and cajolingly as the late John Betjeman but he prefers not to massage the collective emotions as consolingly as the laureate did: far from being bathed in the glow of the good old days, his work is backlit by the fires of contemporary history. An Englishman in his mid-thirties, educated at Oxford and recently drama critic for The Sunday Times, Fenton has also worked as a journalist in Vietnam and Germany, and these experiences appear in his work both as subject matter and as contributing to his awareness. The blood of the evening news flickers beside the strawberry jam. No wonder the publisher’s blurb mentions Auden.

The comparison is right insofar as it draws attention to the technical aplomb of these poems, the way they flash a needle of unease between the nursery (there is a large quota of wonderfully accomplished nonsense poetry in the collection) and the battlefield, and the way they show a political imagination distrusting the momentum of events in favor of the insights of poetry. There are dramatic monologues, found poems, songs, oblique narratives, a general mixture of literary sophistication and “the common touch.”

Yet to call Fenton a new Auden is to misrepresent the nature of his gifts. For all the speed and wit of much of his language, for all the variety of kinds in which he writes, Fenton’s imagination is more contemplative, more single-focus, nostalgic, and patient than Auden’s. The master’s “Look, stranger, on this island now,” for example, could be regarded as the same kind of poem as Fenton’s “Wind,” a celebration of the demure and beloved and commercial land of England sunning in the light of danger, but where Auden’s lines have a coltish, sudden quality and begin with the kick of surprise, Fenton’s are plangent and restrained. More events are narrated by Fenton but his narrative is pictorial—or, to be fair to this poem, visionary—whereas Auden’s poem, while it is free of event and urges us to “stand stable,” seems nevertheless to be pawing for action.

Fenton has a more compassionate intonation. As a professional journalist, he wrote his prose accounts of Vietnam in the early Seventies, so the meditative poet in him comes back to the experience in the early Eighties free of any necessity to prove his concern or his right to speak. Neither is he simply out to prove that English gentility has a conscience that stretches beyond its postimperial shores. He is caught rather as Yeats was caught in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” between the reality of military action and “the cold snows of a dream”—except that in Fenton’s “In a Notebook,” it is the warm balm of a daydream. This poem, by strictly literary means, explores the moral unease suffered by the observer of suffering. It is in two parts, the second being a revision and condensation of the first, a finished poem that pretends to be partly in draft and by that pretense at once affirms and rebukes the pretense of all art. The second stanza of the ostensible “first draft” tempts us with its pastoral, aestheticizes the setting of the jungle war, brings up the strings section while the napalm burns:

And night still lingered underneath the eaves.
In the dark houseboats families were stirring
And Chinese soup was cooked on charcoal stoves.
Then one by one there came into the clearing
Mothers and daughters bowed beneath their sheaves.
The silent children gathered round me staring
And the shy soldiers setting out for battle
Asked for a cigarette and laughed a little.

The tenderness and composure of this are intrinsically pleasing but still must be recognized as virtues inadequate to withstand the onslaught of what actually occurs: so the “revised” second section concludes:

The villages are burnt, the cities void;
The morning light has left the river view;
The distant followers have been dismayed;
And I’m afraid, reading this passage now,
That everything I knew has been destroyed
By those whom I admired but never knew;
The laughing soldiers fought to their defeat
And I’m afraid most of my friends are dead.

The good rhyming of “void,” “dismayed,” and “destroyed” prepares the ear for the final jolt of “defeat” and “dead,” and the flat statement of casualty and atrocity is there to punish the idyllic element in the earlier stanzas. Yet, granted the justice of these effects and the discretion of the means employed to warn against regarding any war as something to be “viewed,” a set of framed exotic scenes, it is still possible to wonder whether the verse instrument is not tuned too piano, not forte enough to render these tragic modulations. By their very music, these iambic lines proclaim a trust in continuing quotidian decencies, and while their covenant with the usual may be intended as an ironical, reflexive criticism of their own, and art’s, inadequacy, they do risk and achieve, I think, a certain primness.

Not so “Dead Soldiers,” which does for Cambodia what Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” did for El Salvador. By masquerading as anecdote and report, it unmasks what is terrible in an apparently normal situation and in this case the civility of tone does indeed heighten and reveal the barbarity of the action:

When His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey
Invited me to lunch on the battlefield
I was glad of my white suit for the first time that day.

Here the poet’s stated wish for a poem “so intrinsically interesting that it never occurred to people, when discussing it, to mention treatment, method, tradition, influence, form” is almost realized: almost, but not quite, because that pun on “dead soldiers”—the empty bottles at the luncheon—reminds us that we are in the presence of what Auden called “a verbal contraption” as well as in the presence of danger.

The title poem dwells upon the consequences of the Vietnam War by contemplating the rehabilitation of refugee children in the home of their American foster parents in Tuscany. Over a quietly paced buildup of fifty quatrains, it strikes a note like the one in Czeslaw Milosz’s wonderful sequence, “The World,” where the innocent child’s eye view of things serves to enforce a second antithetical awareness of destructive forces impending. Domestic affections, the frail and necessary endeavours of human kindness and the possibility of atonement are explicitly celebrated. The long nurtured landscape of Tuscany breathes through the courteous music of the lines in an enunciation meant to ritualize the idea of healing. The poem’s rhetoric is beautifully managed, pathetic rather than sublime, a set piece that again risks the comfortable as it reaches out to comfort but brings it off by a sheer plenitude of benevolence. The third stanza of the following, for example, loads the right ore into some rifts of sentiment that threaten to open in the previous lines:

My dear American friends, I can’t say how much it means to me
To see this little family unfurl,
To see them relax and learn, and learn about happiness,
The mother growing strong, the boys adept, the girl

Confident in your care. They can never forget the past.
Let them remember, but let them not fear.
Let them find their future is delightfully accomplished
And find perhaps America is here.

Let them come to the crest of the road when the morning is fine
With Florence spread like honey on the plain,
Let them walk through the ghostless woods, let the guns be silent,
The tiger never catch their eye again.

If Fenton rarely opens the stops of feeling as candidly as this, he regularly opens a shaft that admits into his work the astonishing phenomena of the natural world and the world of human culture. Early poems like “The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford” and a later tour-deforce like “Chosun” celebrate what Louis MacNeice called “the drunkenness of things being various” with a brio that is utterly salutary. And when he is not being jocund, he can be demotic–Fiftyish–Kingsley Amis-ish (a bit too much so in “The Skip” and “God, A Poem”) but he is at his most characteristic in secluded, hinting narratives of repression and isolation, fragmented and dramatic in “A German Requiem,” subtly and densely plotted in “A Staffordshire Murderer.”

These poems do not have the élan he displays elsewhere but then their subject is ennui, and their procedures and concerns are suggested by the concluding lines of “A German Requiem”:

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.

Fenton does not say, for example, that “A Staffordshire Murderer” is a title alluding to figures of famous murderers that were once turned out, along with figures of other notables, from the potteries of the Black Country. Yet that is only one of his reticences in a poem that delves below the surface into “the seams,” by way of an elaborate excursion into the seamy. It begins with an abstract proposition about the reciprocity of fear and desire and proceeds through murky fantasy, historical allusion and some quite lovely “composition of place” to enact a plot where the seductiveness of yielding and the stealth of pursuit are spied upon and found guilty of collusion. In the words of the editors of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, “the fact of fictionalizing is relished as it is performed.”

The dustjacket of Children in Exile rightly suggests that James Fenton’s voice signals the emergence of a new poetic generation. Taken along with Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Medbh McGuckian—all ludic, shape-shifting imaginations from Ireland—and Craig Raine and the “Martian” school in England—named after Raine’s celebrated “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”—Fenton’s book represents a kind of poetry hardly known in America, the good work of Wake Forest University Press on behalf of Irish poets notwithstanding. These writers are highly self-conscious, devoted to putting a topspin on word and image; they are also anticonfessional, detached, laconic, and strangely popular considering their various devices for keeping the reader at arm’s length. James Fenton seems destined to be their herald on this side of the Atlantic and he comes with poems that will command a hearing.

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