James Fenton - Biography and Works

James Fenton was born in Lincoln in 1949 to Mary Hamilton Ingoldby Fenton and John Charles Fenton; an Anglican priest and theologian. At the age of nine Fenton was sent to a musical preparatory school. The importance of this early musical training can hardly be overstated.

James Fenton (Born in 1949)

Fenton’s conception of poetry- except for a few early experiments – has remained steadfastly auditory and performative. Four years later he entered Repton; a public school in Derbyshire. Graduating from Repton, he spent six months at the British Institute in Florence, before starting at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1967. At Oxford Fenton began reading in English under the tutelage of poet John Fuller, who was to become both his literary mentor and close friend. Fenton, however, soon became dissatisfied with English. At Repton, Fenton discovered the poetry of W. H Auden, which would prove the most important influence on his own work. Significantly, his reading began with Auden’s more didactic and discursive later work.

The young Fenton’s literary acquaintance with the work of the elder poet was reinforced by a personal encounter when Auden accepted an invitation to read at his patron saint’s school. Their meeting began a sporadic friendship between the poets that lasted until Auden’s death in 1973. Fenton has defended this early infatuation with Auden as a positive influence on his development. “I think of Auden as the starting point” Like his mentors Auden and Fuller, Fenton’s poetic development proved extremely precocious. In 1968 during his first year at Oxford he won that year’s Newdigate Prize, an award given for the best poem by an undergraduate on a set subject. James Fenton’s rapid rise to literary fame in the 1980s served as a climax to the emergence of a new generation of English poets brought to wide attention by the publication of two influential and competitive anthologies, Contemporary British Poetry (1982) and Some Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland (1983). One of the few writers prominently featured in both collections. Fenton represented to many critics the best qualities of the new wave of poets. Fenton’s literary importance, however, ultimately transcended his position as herald to a new generation. He was unsurpassed among his contemporaries in terms of range, skill, and intelligence, but it was ultimately the sheer excellence of his poetry that gradually but ineluctably earned him the position of the major British poet of his generation. His mature poetry achieves an attractive balance between formal perfection and exciting, frequently unexpected content. He has employed an impressive variety of forms from traditional rhymed stanzas to deliberately prosaic free verse. Indeed his poems are distinguished from those of his contemporaries by the unusually high polish of their style and the inclusive interest of their subjects. This talent has enabled him to transform moribund literary genres such as the allegory, didactic epistle, verse satire, and the pastoral eclogue into vital contemporary forms. Fenton is also an unusually entertaining and intelligent poet with an ability to engage the reader’s attention. He has written difficult, even obscure poems which nonetheless have proved popular and emotionally accessible. Fenton immersed himself in Japanese history and produced a remarkable sequence of twenty-one sonnets and two haiku; the collection showed the beginning of the poet’s fascination with besieged native cultures.

In 1979, Fenton graduated from Oxford. Deciding on a career in journalism, he wrote as a freelance for six months and then in 1971 joined the staff of New Statesman. Working first on the literary pages, he soon switched to the politics. The next year at the age of only twenty-two, he published his first full-length collection, Terminal Moraine (1972), and soon after won a Gregory Award. Like Auden who had gone off to cover the Sino-Japanese War, Fenton consciously threw himself in the path of history. Arriving in Indochina in 1973 just as the American forces were withdrawing from Vietnam, Fenton witnessed the collapse of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia and the Thieu regime in Saigon amid ongoing civil wars. To find a war just to write about it struck him as not only artificial but disgusting. In 1976 Fenton returned to Britain and became a New Statesman’s political correspondent at Westminster. Writing a weekly column on British politics over the next two years, Fenton became well-known as a left-wing journalist. Fenton’s particular gift is to heighten the journalism into poetry by a series of quiet details- especially bitter puns and double entendres-seamlessly woven into the straightforward narrative.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "James Fenton - Biography and Works." BachelorandMaster, 10 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/biography/james-fenton.html.

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