James Fenton Early and Late
Shivani, Anis, Michigan Quarterly Review
JAMES FENTON EARLY AND LATE Selected Poems. By James Fenton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Pp. 196. $14 pb.
I want to try to understand the poetry of James Fenton by way of his nonfiction. As a reporter in the 1970s and 1980s Fenton covered the fall of Saigon, the People's Power revolution in the Philippines, and democratic protest in South Korea. All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988) collects his impressionist accounts of political intrigue and violence in these Asian countries and is a helpful key to interpreting his development (or shall we say decline?) as a poet. Fenton's volume of literary criticism, The Strength of Poetry (Oxford, 2001), deals with poets like Wilfred Owen, Seamus Heaney, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and above all W. H. Auden, and reveals his primary concerns as a critic evaluating his predecessors. Fenton's remarks about these authors are useful as a reflection of his own convictions about the function of poetry in the present age. We are lucky to have these writings to illuminate a remarkable trajectory, from Fenton's initial direct confrontation with the ravages of war and injustice, to a strategic retreat into the safe lyric of private contentment.
Over time, Fenton's politics seem to have become more quietist. In All the Wrong Places, Fenton's account of the last days of America's military engagement in Vietnam is that of a young man deeply immersed in the fog of events, and deriving strength from the very messinese of it. We have a tough time following the rationales of the different factions competing for supremacy in a Southeast Asia about to be left to its own devices, and Fenton doesn't bother to enlighten us in any detail. His unstated leftist convictions seem to be enough for him-and presumably should guide us as we make our way through a catalogue of seemingly random happenings. Often too, we wonder if Fenton isn't reporting in a patronizing mood, reflecting back stereotypes of prostitutes, beggars, and visa hunters in the murk of Saigon. He seems uninterested in offering any historical context, the news often coming to him in the form of a reporter knocking on his hotel door or a guide taking him to places he doesn't quite comprehend. It's enough for him to oppose American imperialism in the abstract, and root for the American loss, regardless of the nightmarish chaos that is sure to follow. It's probably his ideological orientation-he doesn't seem able to let go of the idea of socialist utopia-that leads to his tendency to see groups of people in objectified terms.
Later, in the Philippines, reporting in the middle of the ideologically frigid 1980s, Fenton has developed a marked sense of humor about his mission. He still persists in his style of not reporting history or context, but he has the instinct to be in proximity to Marcos again and again in the dictator's final days in the country. Again, the news hunts him down-it is enough for him to show up in Manila at the crucial hour. He dutifully reports on the hopes of the communists, as though he must-and he lets his Filipino friends read his Vietnam reports published in Granta. Quite the celebrity now, he truly believes he is a man of the people. Finally, in Korea, even later in the decade, we see him taking almost a resigned attitude toward the people's inchoate aspirations. Democracy will come when the time is right, and there's no point getting all hot and bothered about it. Fenton may not say it in so many words, but during the course of his reporting from Asian hot spots we've witnessed his withdrawal from somewhat passionate ideologue to detached, almost bemused bourgeois.
Fenton's criticism in The Strength of Poetry is marked by a preoccupation with pursuing conceptual definitions, in the interest of figuring out to what extent a poet might fall under this or that rubric. Fenton's characteristic method is to rifle through (often obscure) journals and letters, and other poets' remarks on his subject, to tease out a poet's mode of thought, not necessarily in strictly poetical terms; there's little engagement with the substance of the poetry qua poetry, but an awful lot with what was on the poet's mind when he or she was writing a particular style of poetry at a given point in time. In "Goodbye to All That," Fenton uses Dryden's Annus Mirabilis as a point of departure to investigate the persistence of imperialist poetry, wondering how much the former British empire must shrink before the poetry becomes fully post-imperialist. In "The Orpheus of Ulster," Fenton investigates the extent to which Seamus Heaney's refusal to be called "British" is of a piece with his obsession with betrayal and violence. In "The Many Arts of Elizabeth Bishop," Fenton wonders what Bishop meant in her later years when she declined to be called a feminist. This was true of Marianne Moore as well, and of other female writers of the immediate postwar era. Because Moore's greatest poetry came forth when she was closely involved with Native American students, in "Becoming Marianne Moore" Fenton finds Moore's progressive credentials firmly in place. Plath, Fenton tells us in "Lady Lazarus," was extending Moore's and Bishop's project of writing as a woman poet, and this is the way to view her poetry, rather than get blown away by the dynamite of her last months with Ted Hughes.
Fenton's investigation of Auden is the most revealing. Since the beginning of his career, Fenton has been compared to Auden (as must any British poet with a political bent)-the burden of presumed successorship finally telling on him, and in a most detrimental way. Auden was accused of "cowardice" when he moved to America and supposedly left his real subject behind him. More or less the same charge can be (and has been) leveled at Fenton, as he seems to have left behind his hotheaded engagement with the world's trouble spots in The Memory of War: Poems 1968-1982 (1982) and Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984 (1984) for such gruesomely sentimental fare as The Love Bomb and Other Musical Pieces (2003). In his essay "Blake Auden and James Auden," Fenton excuses Auden for moving from the visionary passion of Blake (early Fenton?) to the convoluted aestheticism of James (late Fenton?), as though it was only Auden's private business, and none of our concern. Fenton's work, as must any writer's dealing with the consequences of past and present imperialist engagement, is dominated by guilt, real or imagined, even when, or perhaps especially when, he is unaware of his imperialist mode of perception. Better then, like Auden (or Fenton's imagining of Auden), to chuck it all.
Here's what Fenton says in "Auden in the End," in words that evoke the poetry world's conception of the abundant promise of Fenton himself:
Auden had the greatest gifts of any of our poets in the twentieth century, the greatest lap full of seed. And it was given him to know this, and to doubt it, to know and to doubt it. The sense of being primus inter pares, the sense of always being the youngest person in the room, the spirit that could say to posterity "You did not live in our time-be sorry"-all this was given him. And then, to be conscious but to refuse to understand, to live not in a fine but a lean country, to hold to what was most difficult, to face that which was most hostile-this too was given him. ... To find himself wronged or in the wrong, to find his courage taken for cowardice, to find himself human in short-all this was given him.
Fenton is pleading, in effect, in his own behalf: Don't accuse me of renunciation; what do you know of the depth of self-willed withdrawal from public life to which I've fallen? But how well does Fenton's poetry hold up to his excuse for himself?
There isn't any slackness, sentiment, or mush in The Memory of War and Children in Exile. Fenton established himself with these collections as the first among equals, arguably the British poet of his time with the greatest potential. With sheer mental fortitude he seemed to have successfully hacked his way through the thickets of modernist exhaustion catching Eliot and Pound in their tracks. There was probably not a body of historically engaged poetry more important than his in the latter part of the twentieth century, and critics must have been awed to reflect on how Fenton would develop from there. "A German Requiem," "Cambodia," "Lines for Translation into Any Language," "Children in Exile," and "Chosun" are among the finest examples of politically motivated poetry in our time that doesn't make a fetish of seriousness, doesn't overreach or overstrain to empathize with the oppressed, doesn't show off guilt for its own sake as the poet's saving grace in a world of sadomasochistic cruelty. Whatever overexertion Fenton made in his Vietnam-era journalism to empathize with the oppressed is not in evidence here. It's as though his audience were not of contemporaries (least of all the unthinking strategic thinkers and statesmen of the Western imperial powers) but of a realm where poetry begins as polemic and ends as pure music of words, a music so salvational and inspiring that the anarchy of the world becomes understandable.
In "German Requiem" Fenton universalizes the carnage of war in terms that refuse false eroticism, the helplessly pleading aesthetic posture that poets often revert to in such situations. When Fenton says, "But when so many had died, so many and at such speed, / There were no cities waiting for the victims," or "It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down. / It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses," he is entering the zone of quietness, or willful forgetting, that victims of involuntary holocausts adopt as their only defensive posture-and yet he does so without feeling himself an intruder violating others' privacy. In "Dead Soldiers," when Fenton reflects that "They lived well, the mad Norodoms, they had style," he is acting as willing participant in history, able to handle its absurdities-"Pregnant turtles, their eggs boiled in the carapace, / Marsh irises in fish sauce / And inflorescence of a banana salad"-without archness or self-reproach. His perception at this early stage allows for the cyclical nature of decline and crisis without any shade of sentimentality. "Lines for Translation into Any Language" begins: "I saw that the shanty town had grown over the graves and that the crowd lived among the memorials." War's brutal sameness is a universal experience whose recording by the poet is not much different from the journalist's, because both must in imagination die each day on or near the battlefield.
Empire cannot correct its blunders during universal power quests. It can offer grandiose gestures of forbearance from time to time, and despite their hollowness these must be seized for their modicum of hope. The "Children in Exile" are "[b]egging for sponsors, begging for a Third Country, / Begging America to take them in-It is they, it is they who put everything in hazard." And when America takes them in, Fenton remarks:
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.
Of course, happiness for those who have been through the trauma of war is forever elusive, and at best they might find a stable home (America) from which to always remember. The need not to forget is the primary ethical virtue Fenton seems to posit in his early work. The presence of the writer at the scene of devastation is one form of assurance that history will not be forgotten.
"Chosun" (unfortunately not included in Selected Poems) is a compelling portrayal of an insular society that wants to be left alone by the modernizing world. Fenton describes the ancient Chosunese thus:
There were large people, white people, overflowing people, reciprocal people,
Immortal, cross-legged, perforated, hoary,
Among beautiful clouds, summer prefecture, breathing peace, perennial hemp,
There were sorcerers, deep-eyed, mulberry and pear, without entrails.
Then there were chest-binders, fire-rejecters, rice-eaters, hat-band-holders,
Clear-footed, three-bodied, fork-tongued, rat-named,
With helmet-wearers, ear-nippers and those who spin silk from the mouth . . .
The hermetic society (it's Korea, but it could be any of the present manifestations as well, or at least in part Indochina in the middle of the twentieth century, wanting no part of the imperialist tussle, or Arab nations today) survives by its own logic; yet Fenton affirms that poetry's visionary power has a role to play in historical understanding-not of the shallow, objectifying, exoticizing kind that infects anthropological writing to this day, and not of the detached historian analyzing events as though real human beings didn't thrive and suffer, but sheer clear-headedness, taking things as they are. Yes, the Chosunese are inveterately superstitious-"The king's new alphabet made a clear distinction / Between surd and sonant. It was good for any practical use / And even the sound of the wind, the chirping of birds / And the barking of dogs could be exactly described by it"-and yet even the insulated society always contains vast resources of internal dialectic, as decrees and rules are adjusted to accommodate various shades of opinion. When the scholars object to the alphabet that "It was a violation of faith / To invent and use letters which did not exist in China," the rulers reply that "If a man is accused of a capital crime / The alphabet will help him make a correct statement."
What is the seed from which modernity emerges? Fenton's early poetry makes it clear that the ground is fertile everywhere. Forgetting and remembering are involved in millennia-long cycles, which create their own sustainable momentum. The poet as witness must observe without cynicism, sentimentality, condescension, objectification, and obfuscation. A tall order, but Fenton seems to meet it as well as anyone since the Auden of the 1930s trained war-prone Europe in his sights. Fenton at this stage meets the ideal of a worldly poet nearly impossible to classify or pin down for his sympathies or lack of them.
From this peak, unfortunately, there has only been a downward slide. Perhaps that is inevitable when early on a writer fulfills the sum of his expectations, reaches the culmination of the art he feels impelled to create. Auden left for America, and Fenton likewise seems to have put himself "Out of Danger": "Heart be kind and sign the release / As the trees their loss approve. / Learn as leaves must learn to fall / Out of danger, out of love." His poems in Out of Danger are a betrayal (to use Fenton's own obsessive term when critiquing other poets' potential) toward an ethic of self-preservation rather than risk-taking commitment. He says in "The Ideal": "A self is a self. / It is not a screen. / A person should respect / What he has been." All the rest of his work since Out of Danger questions the veracity of his earlier vision. In "The Possibility" he rationalizes, "I thought it was a medium / In which to grow, but I was wrong." In "The Mistake" he mocks his earlier clarity: "And there is perfect visibility. // What an enlightenment," and he charts out the future course: "Take this dismay. Lay claim to this mistake. / Look straight along the lines of this reverse." Increasingly the apolitical man, he says in "In Paris with You": "Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris," and redundantly asks, "Am I embarrassing you?" Yet in December 1988, in this same volume, he writes "Jerusalem," as astute a representation of the war within that city as ever written-Fenton is suggesting he can still see the world's conflict but chooses not to be part of it as in his earlier engaged poetry.
Significantly, danger is now correlated with the East-personified in "Out of the East" as the repository of "Famine," "Strife," and "a warrior wind" that "struck you like a knife." Fenton indulges in pointing the finger of blame at the East whence comes "Anger / And it walked a dusty road ... To where the city stood." "Blood and Lead" is typical of his short, snappy, firm metrics, which seem to manifest an avoidance of hard realities, disguising a softness at core, a flaccid ennui that Fenton poses over and over as some sort of transcendental emergence into universal love personified by civilized gateways to the West like Paris: "The heart is a drum. / The drum has a snare. / The snare is in the blood. / The blood is in the air." Fenton's metrics in his late phase disallow sinuous, fluid, elegant exploration of thought merging into concept and becoming whole in its emergence. Unlike the timeless "Chosun," in "The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah: An Old Persian Legend," which deals (without being named as such) with the fall of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini, Fenton openly indulges in myths of perpetual Near Eastern violence. Historical cyclicism is now presented as cultural pathology:
The song is yours. Arrange it as you will.
Remember where each word fits in the line
And every combination will be true
And every permutation will be fine:
From policy to felony to fear
From litany to heresy to fire
From villainy to tyranny to war
From tyranny to dynasty to shame
From malady to agony to spite
From agony to misery to hate
From misery to policy to flight!
Rearrange the terms of the East's eternal wailing melody how you will, it doesn't matter. This is fatalism of a high order, as is "I Saw a Child," a paean to helplessness, which concludes, "Stick with me when the shooting starts," as opposed to at least the moderated promise of "Children in Exile," where America seemed to have some heart left to come to the rescue, even if the mess was of its own making. "The Ballad of the Shrieking Man" can be read as Fenton himself having gone mad and singing ballads to no perceptible audience. "Fireflies of the Sea" marks his preoccupation with insubstantial, ethereal, fleeting subjects. "CutThroat Christ: or the New Ballad of the Dosi Pares" looks forward to The Love Bomb, with such lines as: "There's a Christ for a whore and a Christ for a punk I A Christ for a pickpocket and a drunk I There's a Christ for every sinner but one thing there ain't-/ There ain't no Christ for any cutprice saint." In "Gabriel" and "The Ballad of the Birds," the birds, Gabriel, and Christ all seem to call the poet to some world of acceptable mad emotion, as he sets himself apart from the previous objects of his sympathy. Consider the decline from "Lines for Translation into Any Language" to "On a Recent Indiscretion by a Certain Fulbright Fellow in Upper Egypt," where the fallen scholar sings: "Farewell to the falafel farm, / Farewell the ful medames, I Farewell the fez, the Fatimids, / Farouk in my pajamas." Fenton has moved from elegy to song (increasingly his mode), until he reaches, in his recent work in Selected Poems, everything that follows The Love Bomb, pure song without connection to community.
In his excavations of other poets' initial promise and eventual fulfillment, Fenton never finds a chasm of explanation-all is revealed as consistent, of a whole with the poet's essential aesthetic. Why has Fenton not attempted work along the lines of his Saigon reporting? Is it the East that has collapsed-surely not, judging by the amount of strife, and equally, promise, especially in China and India-or is it Fenton's own spirit? Against the politically correct desire to keep the Westerner out of the Easterner's business, Fenton's early poetry successfully argued that it could be done, indeed must be done. One wishes he had kept his early cosmopolitan ethics in mind when he tried in the 1990s to shape a rhetoric for the fin-de-siècle. The Selected Poems, if they were to represent Fenton's best work, would include all of Memory of War and Children in Exile, and very little else. Rounding out this volume with the bulk of his later poetry reveals to our acute discomfort the decline of a type of Blake Auden into-well, into a nameless songster setting off harmless love bombs in the age of the suicide bomber. Of course, some might argue that the ultimate betrayal would have been for Fenton to go on as before, as though ideology weren't collapsing all around him in the parliaments of the world in the late 1980s and 1990s, but surely we're not suffering from an oversupply of poets with Audenesque talents to describe our fragmented world to us?
The more Fenton avoids his own betrayal, the more he is engaged in justifying how other poets like Owen, Larkin, or Bishop never betrayed their nationalism or socialism or feminism or whatever. In America, the visionaries are born again; in Britain, apparently they go on to write beautiful ballads. The only recent poetic subject for Fenton seems to be his own withdrawal. He says in "The Manila Manifesto": "So you despise my fecklessness? / I pity your lack of recklessness." Also in "The Manila Manifesto," Fenton writes, "In Madame Vendler's Chamber of Horrors I saw seven / American poets, strung up by their swaddlingbands / and crying: More Pap! More Pap!" Fenton is sufficient unto himself at this point, supplying all the pap he needs for his own emotional sustenance.
ANIS SHIVANI is a fiction writer, poet, and critic in Houston, Texas. He has recently completed a collection of short stories, and a book of criticism, "American Fiction in Decline: Publishing in an Age of Plenty," is underway. Recent work appears in The Threepenny Review, TLS, The Iowa Review, Verse, Cambridge Quarterly, and elsewhere.…
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Publication information: Article title: James Fenton Early and Late. Contributors: Shivani, Anis - Author. Journal title: Michigan Quarterly Review. Volume: 46. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2007. Page number: 667+. © University of Michigan Winter 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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