Books and arts;book review;
James Fenton's poetry;Flower power;
A modern master goes from strength to strength;
"Yellow Tulips"poem;by JAMES FENTON；
JAMES FENTON has led a busy life. In the late 1970s, while an undergraduate at Oxford University, he began his career in journalism: as a book reviewer, then as a war reporter, a foreign correspondent, a theatre critic and now as a popular commentator on American politics. From 1994 until 1999 he was Oxford professor of poetry and, more lucratively, wrote an early libretto for “Les Miserables”, the hit musical of Victor Hugo's sprawling novel. During all this time, he has also written poetry.
Covering the period from 1968 to 2011, “Yellow Tulips”, Mr Fenton's latest collection of new and previously published poems, traces his constant movement from place to place. In many respects it is remarkable that these poems were written at all. Some were composed after Mr Fenton fled from Cambodia in 1975, just before it fell to the Khmer Rouge, or in Hong Kong, Germany and the Philippines, where he was posted on various assignments. They feature downtrodden hotels or bars, diplomatic dinners and country estates, reflecting the life of a journalist who finds himself continually displaced. He describes student hangovers and heartbreak (and shows the uncanny similarities between the two). But his most common theme is combat, and how it affects those who have the least say in it, “those whom geography condemns to war”.
Mr Fenton describes visiting an orphanage of exiled Cambodian children, each “caught in the tight security of grief”. He writes from the perspective of a 16-year-old soldier in Phnom Penh, his verse suddenly bristling with danger. His poetry waits “for reinforcements to arrive” or remembers “drivers, interpreters” and how “Death waved them through the checkpoint. They were lost.” On the whole, he manages to tackle these political themes without descending into sentimentality.
Instead, there is a constant satirical edge, and a certain bite to his tightly rhythmic verse. A keen observer, his poetry excels in the minute description, and the audacity of a rhyming phrase: “Tiananmen/ Is broad and clean/And you can't tell/Where the dead have been.” Often impersonating the voices of others, Mr Fenton revels in using the forms of narrative poems or ballads, taking these older poetic structures and bringing them up to date.
However, some of his poems are less powerful. Mr Fenton's early love poetry, in particular, lacks the wit of his later work, and his political statements are occasionally rather crude: “Blank terror doth stalk/ The poets of New York.” This is a shame; the many fine poems in the collection stand proud on their own.
Mr Fenton's recent work is particularly good. More contemplative and meditative, poems such as “At the Kerb”, which is dedicated to Mick Imlah, a British poet who died at 52 in 2009 of motor neurone disease, show the more mature side of Mr Fenton's voice.
Brutal disease has numbered him a victim,
As if some unmarked car had appeared one day
And snatched him off to torture and confinem
Then dumped him by the kerbside and sped away
Such moments are startling and help Mr Fenton's simple lyricism achieve a certain vivid gracefulness. The 17 recent poems that make up the last section of “Yellow Tulips” show the development of a compelling poetic voice. Most important, they suggest that there is more to come.