No one can have been more surprised than James Fenton that In Memory of War turned out to be one of the most acclaimed books of 1982. A year ago, used to being told by reviewers that he was a ‘difficult’, even ‘esoteric’ poet, it looked as if he had decided that small publishers and little magazines were the most appropriate place for his work. Although as a political columnist and foreign correspondent with the New Statesman and Guardian, filing copy from Cambodia, West Germany and Westminster, he had built up a modest reputation and following in the 1970s, this did nothing to unburden him of the thousand copies of his first book of poetry, Terminal Moraine (1972), many of which lay throughout the decade in the basement of his publishers, Secker and Warburg: that is where I picked up my copy, and Fenton eventually bought up the unsold stock himself, believing (rightly) that he’d make a better job of disseminating it. His next publication, the pamphlet ‘A Vacant Possession’ (1978), was slimmer and more difficult to get hold of still. And even occupying the position of theatre critic of the Sunday Times, with ‘over a million readers every week’, didn’t do much, initially, to help Fenton with The Memory of War, published by his brother Tom at the small Salamander Press: there were advance orders of only 200 and at the end of September, three months after publication, the book had sold a mere 569 copies. But then in early December several writers nominated it as their ‘book of the year’, almost a thousand copies were sold in a week, and Penguin bought the paperback rights. Not for ages has ‘difficult’ poetry been known to achieve such commercial success.
Fenton is not as difficult as all that. Take ‘A German Requiem’, which, as he explains in an interview with Andrew Motion in a recent issue of Poetry Review, was originally called ‘Elegy’: but the title was changed to help out English readers. Need it have been? The setting is clearly a German city, probably Berlin, the time the late Forties or early Fifties (workmen are still ‘dismantling the houses of the dead’). A woman whose husband has died during the second World War takes the bus (or ‘Widows’ Shuttle’) to a distant cemetery so that she can visit his grave (perhaps she has to cross from West to East, in which case the ‘hideous bridesmaids’ would be border-guards). A curiosity of the cemetery is the improvised nature of the headstones:
But when so many had died, so many and at such speed,
There were no cities waiting for the victims.
They unscrewed the name-plates from the shattered doorways
And carried them away with the coffins ...
‘Doctor Gliedschirm, skin specialist, surgeries 14-16 hours or by appointment’.
Professor Sargnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships
And instructions to tradesman to use the back entrance.
Your uncle’s grave informed you that he lived on the third floor, left.
You were asked please to ring, and he would come down in the lift
To which one needed a key ...
Despite the jokey puns (‘Gliedschirm’ means foreskin, ‘Sargnagel’ coffin-nail), these details are presumably based on hard fact: as so often in Fenton, it’s a case of poetry being ‘found’ in written (or in this case engraved) sources. But one shouldn’t overemphasise his poetry’s dependence on trouvailles. He has powerful resources of invention, knowing how to suggest a sinister atmosphere through carefully observed human gesture (the busdriver ‘flicking a toothpick in the gutter, His tongue still searching between his teeth’), or how to exploit the rhythms of paradox (the poem is dominated by the notion that the not there in post-war Germany is more important than the there), and when to allow himself metaphor.
It may be that his development as a poet can be best explained as a transference of allegiance to Eliot from Auden. Much of Terminal Moraine, notably those poems reprinted here in a section called ‘Exempla’, had the early Auden’s determination to test what poetry can assimilate in the way of science and scholarship: ‘The Fruit-Grower in Wartime’ reads like a horticultural handbook, other poems lift passages of pharmaceutical and zoological instruction. But in tone early Fenton had something of the carpet-slippered cosiness of late Auden: witty, academic, metrically proficient, with a scholar’s soft spot for verse-epistles and nonsense rhymes, he seemed destined to become an ‘Oxford poet’ in the narrowest sense.
Perhaps coming down from Oxford, like Auden, with a Third, and being forced out into the world, helped him to avoid this fate. But the way forward can be found, in any case, in the most literal ‘museum piece’ of all his early poems, ‘The Pitt-Rivers Museum’. Here the poet ranges over bizarre exhibits – a dolphin’s jawbone, nut castanets, a musical whip from the Torres straits – with passion rather than pedantry, groping to find the source of their fascination for visitors like himself. At this point in his career Fenton wasn’t mature enough to locate that source: deflected by Auden’s idiom towards psychological theorising, he allows the poem to peter out with talk of how ‘the lonely and unpopular’ can rediscover at the museum ‘the landscapes of their childhood’; the attraction of the Pitt-Rivers is reduced to nostalgia for dusty childhood boxrooms. When he attempts a similar accumulation of cultural oddities in the more recent ‘Chosun’, he is mature enough not to be diverted from his true anthropological purpose, which is to record all aspects of Chosun (early Korean) civilisation in a series of short, matter-of-fact but ravished observations:
A wonderful cure for headaches was made
From dog’s testicle flower. Honeysuckle
Was a poultice for boils. Forget Your Troubles
Was a poison. Jewelweed also, for a violent purge
After a spoiled meat, or garlic for an antidote
Which reduced hypertension, or tigerlily for a cough.
Morning Glory was the symbol of a superficial man ...
The poem is neither a satire on cultural anthropology nor a Westerner having his wry way with primitive customs, but the recreation of a fragment of human civilisation no more wonderful or ridiculous than our own. As Fenton acknowledges in a note, much of the material for ‘Chosun’ is drawn from other texts, though the note doesn’t indicate quite how unpromising those source-books can be. Paul Crane’s Korean Patterns, one of the sources listed, is a chatty, tacky tourist-handbook, evidently written for visiting American businessmen and GIs: it contains reassurances that ‘a Korean is very human’ and the advice that ‘one should refrain from calling “Hey Mac” or “Joe” in Korea.’ Fenton has learnt what to lift wholesale (the line about the ‘wonderful cure for headaches’ comes straight from Crane’s appendix) and what to abridge. On marital love, Crane has:
In olden days women were allowed outside the wall only at night. In some areas, city gates were closed at sunset and reopened at dark so that the women could come and go unseen ... Love is expected to come after the marriage and one does find that there is genuine affection and love in Korean marriages without, however, much togetherness ... Breasts have not been considered a sex symbol in Korea ... The nape of the neck and the upturned big toe are considered much more provocative.
In Fenton this becomes:
The women were summoned home with gongs at curfew.
They measured their husbands’ love according to
the strictness of their isolation.
The husbands were attracted by the upward
curve of the big toe.
Love did not make a marriage. Love grew later.
Fenton’s receptivity to the bizarre variety of human culture also leaves its mark on the two of his three Cambodian war poems which work, ‘Dead Soldiers’ and ‘In a Notebook’. In the first, the poet-journalist narrator is invited to lunch on the battlefield with Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey, military governor of Kompong Speu province: the lunch consists of frogs’ legs, pregnant turtles, marsh irises in fish sauce, banana salad and large quantities of brandy and soda (‘They called the empties Dead Soldiers’). No doubt the lunch, or something like it, really did take place: as Pinteresque things happen to Pinter in real life, so improbable Fentonish things probably happen to Fenton. But the force of the poem isn’t its possible authenticity but its picture of the conflict in Cambodia, which is presented, shockingly after all those newsreels, as a ‘family war’, full of local style, ancient superstition and blood-rivalry:
For the prince was fighting Sihanouk, his nephew,
And the Jockey Cap was ranged against his brother.
The brother of the Jockey Cap is Pol Pot. ‘In a Notebook’ is more elegiac: a before-and-after version of what war can do to rural landscapes and small communities, which uses a pastoral rhyme-scheme (shallows/swallows/willows; trees/haze/breeze) to enforce the sense of loss. It might be a conventional protest-poem were it not for its bleak and self-accusing conclusion:
I’m afraid, reading this passage now,
That everything I knew has been destroyed
By those whom I admired but never knew;
The laughing soldiers fought to their defeat
And I’m afraid most of my friends are dead.
Three other poems here – ‘A Nest of Vampires’, ‘A Vacant Possession’ and ‘A Staffordshire Murderer’ – establish that, though he draws on his travels abroad, he is also a fine investigator of specifically English moods and settings. It would be a foolhardy man who claimed wholly to comprehend the last of these, but anyone prepared to read carefully and follow up hints can catch most of its drift. On one level it is simply about a present-day murderer and his victim; it has a Staffordshire setting because that county seems to be peculiarly associated with violent crimes, commemorating its assassins in jugs and mugs (‘The pottery murderers in jackets of prussian blue’), and providing the location for two notorious recent cases – the murders of Lesley Whittle and Susan Maxwell. Rather in the manner of Martin Amis’s novel Other People and Adam Mars-Jones’s story about the Whittle case, ‘Bathpool Park’, the poem catches the assassin’s insinuating voice and twisted logic. More riskily, the victim is presented as compliant, even gratified by the murderer’s attentiveness: ‘You are flattered as never before.’ On another, more public level, the poem unwinds a county history of bloodshed: the legend of a massacre of Christians near Lichfield during the reign of Diocletian; a macabre joke about Palmer, the Rugeley poisoner, and his special brand of boiled sweets – ‘he has never had any complaints’ – and so on. Of all his poems to date, this is the one that best reveals his power to address himself to public themes while speaking in a voice that is private and withdrawn.