James Fenton was born in Lincoln, England, in 1949. He studied Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford. As a student he received the Newdigate Prize for his first poetry collection, ‘Our Western Furniture’, in 1968. A year later he went public with his second poetry volume, ‘Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle’. He began his career as a journalist with the ‘New Statesman’ writing on politics and literature. His long-time occupation as freelance Indochina correspondent had a lasting effect on his work. He also spent a year in Germany as a reporter for the ‘Guardian’. During this time he wrote several works, including the poem ‘A German Requiem’ (1980), which won the Southern Arts Literature Award for Poetry.
Fenton was theatre critic for ‘The Sunday Times’ for five years, chief reviewer for ‘The Times’ from 1984 to 1986, Southeast Asia correspondent from 1986 to 1988 and columnist for ‘The Independent’ until 1995. He contributed regularly to the ‘New York Review of Books’. In 1983 the Royal Society of Literature appointed Fenton a fellow. During his tenure as Poetry professor at Oxford from 1994 to 1999 Fenton wrote ‘Essays on Arts and Artists’, which was published in 1999 under the title ‘Leonardo’s Nephew’. ‘The Strength of Poetry’, a volume of essays on English lyric poetry of the 20th century, was published in 2001.
Fenton is also a controversial librettist. His adaptation of Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ set in the Mafia world of the 1950s, for example, provoked a stir. As a lyric poet, Fenton is inspired by W.H. Auden. In ‘Our Western Furniture’, an anti-imperialist commentary on commodore Perry’s mission in Japan, he demonstrated his ability as a satirist. This first collection of sonnets later became one of the most controversial parts of his comprehensive poetry collection, ‘Terminal Moraine’, which received rave reviews due to its varied styles and unconventional perspectives. However, his strong emphasis on technical virtuosity was sometimes criticized.
During his time abroad, Fenton expressed his personal experiences with more emotion. His war poems convey feelings of sorrow and hopelessness, without suppressing his satirical tendencies and linguistic mastery. In ‘A German Requiem’, Fenton presents a laconic, formal examination of collective memory in postwar Germany. In ‘Dead Soldiers’ he embeds his bitterly humorous commentary in the description of a feast held on a battlefield. ‘A Notebook’ and ‘Children in Exile’ are empathic descriptions of his travels to Cambodia and the marks they left on him. ‘Manila Envelope’ (1989), consisting of 13 letters, documents Fenton’s stay in the Philippines. In his poetry volume, ‘Out of Danger’ the poet chooses a snappier style and fewer serious subjects, which critics say appeals to a younger audience. In 2006 his ‘Selected Poems’ were published.
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