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He tells you, in the sombrest notes,
If poets want to get their oats,
The first step is to slit their throats.
The way to divide
The sheep of poetry from the goats
When Stephanie saw me crack the spine on this collection of poetry, she queried whether any poem could be cited as definitively great. As verse (free or otherwise) is the product of the inner-world of the poet it is both subjective in its construction and reception.
When challenged the first poem that sprang to mind was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
But is my appreciation of that poem due to its inherent quality, or because I have fond memories of my teacher Dennis Craven reciting those lines in 1998? Nostalgia creeps in, the associative quality of poetry merges with the personality of the reader and we end up with a poem having, in effect, reconstituted it to have a more personal meaning.
James Fenton’s career as a foreign correspondent and political journalist for a number of British newspapers informs his writing. In this collection he recounts in verse experiences he had in post-war Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and then his return to England, his perspective on his home country forever altered by what he witnessed.
Children in Exile describes the slow release of young emigrants who have escaped Pol Pot’s regime from the memories and nightmares of the country they left behind. One startling image is of a child who dreams of “Jesus with a gun”, an image of a newfound protector that he has learned of from his American rescuers informed by his understanding of what is required to save a life. These children’s education is of a bloodier sort than their Western counterparts: “Students of calamity, graduates of famine […] They have learnt much. There is much more to learn. Each heart bears a diploma like a scar”.
Fenton is writing journalism through verse, transforming coldly objective prose into more emotional material, where he has free reign to give vent to righteous anger. In a Notebook uses a comparison between traditional poetry, with its dropped hints and suggestive language, italicised to contrast it with the opposing page which repeats the content, but revisits the ephemeral beauty described with harsh reality:
And I’m afraid, reading this passage now,
That everything I knew has been destroyed
In a Notebook provides a valuable insight into Fenton’s project. A self-conscious note is present, highlighting the concern as to whether poetry is possible in relation to such atrocities. I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s famous quote “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Fenton’s perspective on England itself has been heavily influenced by what he has witnessed. My opening quote is taken from Letter to John Fuller, challenging a rival poet to exchange the pretence of a tortured poet for real torture and suffering. The primacy of a published poet’s anguished musings loses some of its power when contrasted with the suffering of starving children, victims of oppression, or even the homeless who eke out their existence on the streets of Western cities. Our assumption in the benevolence of the Almighty is also rejected, as to Fenton’s mind there is not a lot of evidence to support it:
I didn’t exist at Creation,
I didn’t exist at the Flood,
And I won’t be around for Salvation
I’m a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.
Throughout this collection Fenton supplies some wonderful combinations of language. I was particularly struck by the phrase “the eloquence of young cemeteries”. To answer Stephanie’s challenge though, is it great poetry? I am not sure.
I think it is very good writing, but for me poetry is consistent in its meaning. The associations, wordplay and poetical structure are all meant to convey a continuous thematic thread from beginning to conclusion. With many of the poems here I felt as if meaning surfaced and then dived beneath the musings on war and death, like an elusive submarine plumbing treacherous waters. The uncertainty as to whether the poetical format suits these missives leaves the overall project unsteady at times, fitfully brilliant with occasional dips into confusion.