James Fenton Early and Late

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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. …