Life and career
Born in Lincoln, Fenton grew up in Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, the son of Canon John Fenton, a noted biblical scholar. He was educated at the Durham Choristers School, Repton and Magdalen College, Oxford. He graduated with a B.A. in 1970.
Fenton acquired at school an enthusiasm for the work of W.H. Auden. At Oxford John Fuller, who happened to be writing A Reader's Guide to W.H. Auden at the time, further encouraged that enthusiasm. Auden became possibly the greatest single influence on Fenton's own work.
In his first year at university Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for his sonnet sequence Our Western Furniture. Later published by Fuller's Sycamore Press, it largely concerns the cultural collision in the 19th century between the United States and Japan. It displays in embryo many of the characteristics that define Fenton's later work: technical mastery combined with a fascination with issues that arise from the Western interaction with other cultures. Our Western Furniture was followed by Exempla, notable for its frequent use of unfamiliar words, as well as commonplace words employed in an unfamiliar manner.
Whilst studying at Oxford, Fenton became a close friend of Christopher Hitchens, whose memoir Hitch-22 is dedicated to Fenton and has a chapter on their friendship. Hitchens praised Fenton's extraordinary talent, stating that he too believed him to be the greatest poet of his generation. He also expounded on Fenton's modesty, describing him as infinitely more mature than himself and Martin Amis. Fenton and Hitchens shared a house together in their third year, and continued to be close friends until Hitchens's death. Fenton read his poem 'For Andrew Wood' at the Vanity Fair Hitchens memorial service.
His first collection, Terminal Moraine (1972) won a Gregory Award. With the proceeds he traveled to East Asia, where he wrote of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the end of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia which presaged the rise of Pol Pot. The Memory of War (1982) ensured his reputation as one of the greatest war poets of his time.
Fenton returned to London in 1976. He was political correspondent of the New Statesman, where he worked alongside Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. He became the Assistant Literary Editor in 1971, and Editorial Assistant in 1972. Earlier in his journalistic career, like Hitchens, he had written for Socialist Worker, the weekly paper of the British trotskyist group then known as the International Socialists. Fenton was an occasional war reporter in Vietnam during the late phase of the Vietnam War which ended in 1975. His experiences in Vietnam and Cambodia from summer 1973 form a part of All the Wrong Places (1988). The publication of the book revealed some of Fenton's second thoughts about revolutionary socialism.
In 1983 Fenton accompanied his friend Redmond O'Hanlon to Borneo. A description of the voyage can be found in the book Into the Heart of Borneo.
Fenton won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1984 for Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984. He was appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1994, a post he held till 1999. He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2007. The American composer Charles Wuorinen set several of his poems to music, and Fenton served as librettist for Wuorinen's opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories (2001), based on Salman Rushdie's novel.
He has said, "The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation." In response to criticisms of his comparatively slim 'Selected Poems' (2006), Fenton warned against the notion of poets churning out poetry in a regular, automated fashion.
Fenton has been a frequent contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The New York Review of Books. He also writes the head column in the editorials of each Friday's "Evening Standard." In 2007 he appeared in a list of the "100 most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain" published by The Independent on Sunday.
Musical theatre influence
Fenton has been influenced in his writing by musical theatre, as evidenced in 'Here Come the Drum Majorettes' from Out of Danger:
"Gleb meet Glubb.
Glubb meet Glob.
God that's glum, that glib Glob dig.
'Dig that bog!'
'Frag that frog.'
Stap that chap, he snuck that sig.'"
Awards and honours
- 1968 Newdigate Prize
- 1971 Eric Gregory Award
- 1981 Southern Arts Literature Award for Poetry
- 1983 Fellowship of The Royal Society of Literature
- 1984 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
- 1994 Oxford Professor of Poetry
- 1994 Whitbread Prize for Poetry, for Out of Danger
- 1999 Honorary Fellowship of Magdalen College
- 2003 Fellowship of The Royal Society of Arts
- 2007 Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry
- 2015 PEN Pinter Prize Share With Raif Badawi
- 1968 Our Western Furniture, poetry
- 1969 Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle, poetry
- 1972 Terminal Moraine
- 1978 A Vacant Possession, TNR Publications
- 1980 A German Requiem: A Poem, Salamander Press, a pamphlet
- 1981 Dead Soldiers, Sycamore Press
- 1982 The Memory of War: Poems 1968–1982, Salamander Press, 1982, ISBN 978-0-907540-39-7
- 1984 Children in Exile: Poems 1968–1984 Random House, 1984, ISBN 978-0-394-53360-5 These poems combined with those from The Memory of War made up the Penguin volume, The Memory of War and Children in Exile; published in the United States as Children in Exile; Salamander Press
- 1983 You Were Marvellous, selected theatre reviews published 1979–1981
- 1986 The Snap Revolution
- 1987 Partingtime Hall, co-author with John Fuller, Viking / Salamander Press, comical poems
- 1988 All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim, reportage; Viking; Atlantic Monthly Press (1988); reissued with a new introduction by Granta (2005)
- 1989 Manila Envelope, self-published book of poems
- 1994 Out of Danger, Fenton considers this his second collection of poems. It contains Manila Envelope and later poems; Penguin; Farrar Straus Giroux; winner of the Whitbread Prize for Poetry
- 1998 Leonardo's Nephew, art essays from The New York Review of Books
- 2001 The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0-19-818707-3
- 2001 A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed Viking / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 2002 An introduction to English poetry, Editor James Fenton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, ISBN 978-0-374-10464-1
- 2003 The Love Bomb, verse written as a libretto for a composer who rejected it; Penguin / Faber and Faber
- 2006 School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts, (2006) a history
- 2006 Selected Poems, Penguin
- 2006 The New Faber Book of Love Poems, as editor
- 2012 "Yellow Tulips – Poems 1968–2011"
- Jenkins, David (2007-11-18). "James Fenton: 21st century renaissance man". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
- "Canon John Fenton". Telegraph. London. 8 January 2009. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
- "Professor James Fenton". British Council Literature. British Council. Retrieved 2016-01-14.
- "James Fenton Website: Books Written by James Fenton". Jamesfenton.com. 2012-03-10. Retrieved 2016-01-14.
- Campion, Peter. "James Fenton". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
- "All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim by James Fenton (Atlantic Monthly Press) « Asia by the Book". Asiabythebook.thingsasian.com. 2008-06-16. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
- Barbara Korte Represented Reporters: Images of War Correspondents in Memoirs and ... 2009 - Page 17 "The poet James Fenton, for instance, was an occasional war reporter in Vietnam during the late phase of the war. The reminiscences of his experiences in Vietnam, which form a part of All the Wrong Places, declare a literary intent that ..."
- Douglas Kerr, Eastern Figures: Orient and Empire in British Writing, 2008, page 159 "... at the beginning of a journey that would take him to the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, James Fenton glanced at the ... Fenton in the summer of 1973 was setting out on a journey to see and write about a war in Asia.
- The Listener - Volume 121 - 1989 Page 33 "As a revolutionary socialist, Fenton, in 1975, had no illusions about the Stalinist character of Vietnamese Communism but held the ... Am I wrong, or is All the Wrong Places also Fenton's journey to the end of the revolutionary socialist night"
- "James Fenton". The Guardian. London. 11 June 2008. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
- "James Fenton". New York Review of Books.
- "James Fenton - London Evening Standard". Thisislondon.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
- "Gay Power: The pink list - This Britain - UK - The Independent". London: News.independent.co.uk. 2006-07-02. Archived from the original on 7 January 2008. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
- David Jenkins 12:17AM GMT 18 Nov 2007 (2007-11-18). "James Fenton: 21st century renaissance man". Telegraph. Retrieved 2016-12-09.
- Quoted in Neil Corcoran ed., Do You, Mr Jones? (2002) p. 185–86
- "Jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi named co-winner of PEN Pinter prize". June 2015. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
- Creswell, Robyn (Autumn 2012). "James Fenton, The Art of Poetry No. 96". The Paris Review.
- Gioia, Dana. "The Rise of James Fenton", The Dark Horse (No. 8, Autumn 1999)
- Hulse, Michael. "The Poetry of James Fenton", The Antigonish Review Vol. 58. pp. 93–102, 1984
- Kerr, Douglas. "Orientations: James Fenton and Indochina", Contemporary Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994) pp 476–91
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