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James Fenton


Biography of James Fenton

James Fenton poet

James Martin Fenton (born 25 April 1949, Lincoln) is an English poet, journalist and literary critic. He is a former Oxford Professor of Poetry.

Born in Lincoln, Fenton grew up in Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, the son of Canon John Fenton, a noted biblical scholar. He was educated at the Durham Choristers School, Repton and Magdalen College, Oxford. He graduated with a B.A. in 1970.

Fenton acquired at school an enthusiasm for the work of W.H. Auden. At Oxford John Fuller, who happened to be writing A Reader's Guide to W.H. Auden at the time, further encouraged that enthusiasm. Auden became possibly the greatest single influence on Fenton's own work.

In his first year at university Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for his sonnet sequence Our Western Furniture. Later published by Fuller's Sycamore Press, it largely concerns the cultural collision in the 19th century between the United States and Japan. It displays in embryo many of the characteristics that define Fenton's later work: technical mastery combined with a fascination with issues that arise from the Western interaction with other cultures. Our Western Furniture was followed by Exempla, notable for its frequent use of unfamiliar words, as well as commonplace words employed in an unfamiliar manner.

Whilst studying at Oxford, Fenton became a close friend of Christopher Hitchens, and has a dedicated chapter in "Hitch-22". Hitchens praised Fenton's extraordinary talent, stating that he too believed him to be the greatest poet of his generation. He also expounded on Fenton's modesty, describing him as infinitely more mature than himself and Martin Amis. Fenton and Hitchens shared a house together in their third year, and continued to be close friends until Hitchens's death. Fenton read his poem 'For Andrew Wood' at the Vanity Fair Hitchens memorial service.

His first collection, Terminal Moraine (1972) won a Gregory Award. With the proceeds he traveled to East Asia, where he wrote of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the end of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia which presaged the rise of Pol Pot. The Memory of War (1982) ensured his reputation as one of the greatest war poets of his time.

Fenton returned to London in 1976. He was political correspondent of the New Statesman, where he worked alongside Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. He became the Assistant Literary Editor in 1971, and Editorial Assistant in 1972. Earlier in his journalistic career, like Hitchens, he had written for Socialist Worker, the weekly paper of the British trotskyist group then known as the International Socialists. In 1983 Fenton accompanied his friend Redmond O'Hanlon to Borneo. A description of the voyage can be found in the book Into the Heart of Borneo.

Fenton won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1984 for Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984. He was appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1994, a post he held till 1999. He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2007.

He has said, "The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation." In response to criticisms of his comparatively slim 'Selected Poems' (2006), Fenton warned against the notion of poets churning out poetry in a regular, automated fashion.

Fenton has been a frequent contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The New York Review of Books. He also writes the head column in the editorials of each Friday's "Evening Standard." In 2007 he appeared in a list of the "100 most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain" published by The Independent on Sunday. His partner is Darryl Pinckney, the prize-winning novelist, playwright and essayist perhaps best known for the novel High Cotton (1992).

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PoemHunter.com Updates

God, A Poem

A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,

A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground.

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