James Fenton
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Literary Arts

James Fenton

Past Event: Monday, October 4, 1999

Sponsored by the New York Times.

Born in Lincoln, England in 1949, James Fenton achieved success in his writing career at a young age. He published his first volume of poetry at 23, and a year later he won the Eric Gregory Award (£1,000) for poets. While many young poets might have tried to parlay the prize into a teaching position or another published book, Fenton, in his typical non-conformist style, utilized the prize money to finance his own adventures. In 1974, Fenton set off for Southeast Asia where he worked as a freelance reporter covering stories for The Nation and The New Statesman on pivotal world events, including the fall of Saigon and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Of his decision to move abroad, Fenton remarked, “I wanted very much to see a communist victory. I wanted to see a war and the fall of a city because . . . because I wanted to see what such things were like. I had once seen a man dying, from natural causes, and my first reaction as I realized what was happening was to be glad that I was there. This is what happens, I thought, so watch it carefully, don’t miss a detail.”

Fenton’s tenure in Southeast Asia greatly influenced his poetry, as revealed in his first American publication, Children in Exile: Poems 1969-1984. The poems in this collection reflect upon the political unrest and brutality he confronted while working abroad. Whether serious or lighthearted, Fenton’s poems always possess a rhythmic and musical quality. Paul Theroux wrote that Fenton’s poems “are passionate and personal; they can also be extremely funny and violent; they are always full of the pleasures of the language.” His collection Out of Danger(1994) includes poignant works about love and friendship as well as powerful political poems on such topics as the student massacre at Tiananmen Square and the religious conflict in Jerusalem. Praised as “the most talented poet of his generation,” Fenton is also an accomplished journalist and critic. His book, Leonardo’s Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists, was published in 1999.

During the 1980s, Fenton served as chief book reviewer for The Times (London) and as the Southeast Asia correspondent for The Independent. Fenton won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for his poetry in 1984. Since 1994, he has served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

Selected Work
The Strength of Poetry : Oxford Lectures (2001)A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seeds (2001)Leonardo’s Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists (1998)Out of Danger (1994)All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim (1988)Cambodian Witness: The Autobiography of Someth May (1987)The Snap Revolution (1986)You Were Marvelous (1985)The Memory of War and Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1982 (1983)A Vacant Possession (1978)Terminal Moraine (1972)

LinksEssay on James Fenton by BBC commentator Dana GioiaFenton’s reviews in The New York Review of BooksSmithsonian Magazine review of Leonardo’s Nephew