Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984 marks the American debut of James Fenton, a thirty-five-year-old British poet who is also a well-known journalist and critic. The volume contains the bulk of the poet’s work to date, including all the poems from the two books Memory of War (1982) and Children in Exile (1983). To even the casual reader of English poetry Fenton’s line of descent from W. H. Auden is unmistakable. The clarity of surface in Fenton’s poetry, the crispness of its imagery, the engaging diction of its easy “middle” style, the broad range of subjects (from nonsense poems to love songs to war poems), its political subject matter—these are precisely the qualities that made Auden such a striking new presence in English poetry fifty years ago. Even Fenton’s title poem—his “children in exile” are Cambodian refugees living in Italy in the 1970s—suggests a latter-day version of Auden’s 1931 poem “The Exiles.” That poem was also concerned with the grim “surplus from wars,” as Auden put it. Here are two of Fenton’s stanzas:
They have found out: it is hard to escape
Hard to escape the justice of Pol Pot,
When they are called to report in dreams to
One night is merciful, the next is not.
I hear a child moan in the next room and I see
The nightmare spread like rain across his face
And his limbs twitch in some vestigial combat
In some remembered place.
Despite this affinity with Auden, however, Fenton’s nearest poetic precursor is John Fuller, Fenton’s teacher at Oxford. It was once thought that Fuller would be for our period, as Auden was for his, the voice of England—that is, the voice of intellectual, refined, “Oxbridge” England, as opposed to the more provincial England of Philip Larkin or John Betjeman. Fuller certainly has the technical skill required for this position, but he has lacked the requisite note of political topicality. Fenton is not wanting in this regard. His public, political stance, together with his immense technical proficiency, has sealed the pact, so to speak, between Auden and himself. Appropriately, Random House has accorded Children in Exile the kind of distinctive “classic” design they reserve for books by Auden and only a very few other poets.
Fenton has been a political and literary journalist for The New Statesman, a freelance reporter in Indochina, and a reporter in Germany for The Guardian. Not only have these experiences provided him with the subject matter of many of his poems, but they also seem to have determined the nature of his poetic imagination. Fenton’s poetic personality is that of the hard-bitten, intrepid journalist, roughing it in dangerous lands, dispatching news from the front. His poems do not always read as if, in the words of one British reviewer, they were “bulletins from the front line,” but there is something about the way he brings journalistic practice to his poetry that gives his work its peculiar quality.
We are given an indication of Fenton’s approach to poetry in the quotation from Hobbes’s Leviathan that precedes the book’s first sequence of poems.
For as at a great distance of place, that which we look at, appears dimme, and without distinction of the smaller parts; and as Voyces grow weak, and inarticulate: so also after great distance of time, our imagination of the Past is weak; and wee lose (for example) of Cities wee have seen, many particular Streets; and of Actions, many particular Circumstances. This decaying sense, when wee would express the thing it self, (I mean fancy it selfe,) we call Imagination, as I said before: But when we would express the decay, and signifie that the Sense is fading, old, and past, it is called Memory. So that Imagination and Memory are but one thing . . . .
If imagination and memory are “but one thing,” then writing—whether the writing of a poem or news story—is really an effort to recover the “particular Circumstances” of the past. For Fenton this means seeking out the lost details embedded in the memory, details he uncovers like a detective uncovering clues. It is expressly not the job of the poet, in this view, to go beyond the facts, or to question them, or to allow the imagination to add to them any sort of extra-historical element. The poet’s only task is to repeal lost facts.
The very first poem of the book, directly across the page from the passage by Hobbes, describes this function of recovery as Fenton conceives it.
It is not what they built. It is what they
It is not the houses. It is the spaces between
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets
that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
And he ends the same sequence:
It is not what he wants to know.
It is what he wants not to know.
It is not what they say.
It is what they do not say.
Because the activity of the imagination is limited to recovering the past, recovering “what you have forgotten,” the poet, like the journalist, is always in search of the Big Story. This is certainly the case in Fenton’s poetry. Whether the Big Story is actually verifiable and how it can function as both an historical event and poetic construct are questions that Fenton’s poetry sidesteps.
Fenton’s reliance on “facts”—reportage, documentation, testimony—extends, in “Exempla,” to the specialized language of science.
The genus Stephanoma
was established by Wallroth in 1833
on the basis of Stephanoma Strigosum,
the type of the genus. Wallroth
described the fungus as possessing
a pezizaform hairy sporochodium
with a flattened powdery surface layer
of globose, vesiculate, hyaline conidia.
The clinical tone is not unusual in Fenton’s poetry, and it is very well suited to the presentation of scenes, facts, and memories that purport to be objective truth. Thus, Fenton’s poetry is very different from that of the large number of poets who, not wishing to attempt something as momentous and elusive as “objective truth,” fall back on a poetry based primarily on personality and private vision. Such poets—against whom Fenton is clearly in revolt—are good or valuable insofar as they persuade us of the universality of their private vision. But they do not attempt to account for historical events with any sort of authority. Yet this is precisely Fenton’s goal. It is the same goal, more or less, that Auden set for himself in the Thirties, when he strove to bring poetry back to “reality.” It is this goal that chiefly determines—as it did for Auden—the plain-spoken style of the poetry. Fenton’s straightforward diction and agreeable clarity do not embody or even describe experience; they simply deliver the message in the most attractive and palatable way possible. This easy style, moreover, helps to suggest that what is being delivered is the unvarnished truth. This is not an easy suggestion for most poets to make, but it is easy for Fenton, a poet who sees his role as not very different from a reporter’s.
Fenton’s poetry is very different from that of the large number of poets.
If Fenton only presented history and the world of facts as the objective truth, this would already constitute a significant revolt against his predecessors. But he goes a step further. He draws moral conclusions from the history he presents. The poems in Children in Exile are often icily didactic. These lines are from the title poem:
They have learnt much. There is much more to learn.
It doesn’t work like that. It never has done.
Love is accommodating. It makes space.
From five years of punishment for an offence
It took America five years to commit
These victim-children have been released on parole
For it is we, not they, who cannot forgive America.
As these lines suggest, Fenton’s politics are decidedly left-wing. In another poem, “Chosun,” he laments the disruption of a city by outsiders, Western outsiders: “No wonder they feared war and hate foreigners . . . . Christians were especially forbidden to enter Chosun . . . the dogs smelled them out, and howled for their martyrdom.” “In a Notebook” begins by describing a peaceful and bucolic riverside scene in Indochina. Then the “tide turns” and brings “me to my senses./ The pleasant war brought the unpleasant answers.”
The villages are burnt, the cities void;
The morning light has left the river view;
The distant followers have been dismayed;
And 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.
“Dead Soldiers,” a mocking firsthand report of an absurdly elegant battlefield lunch with “His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey,” does not declare any explicit political allegiance, but it is scarcely sympathetic toward Cambodian leaders who, to varying degrees, abetted the American presence in Indochina. The irony of the poem’s last lines may well derive from the Left’s contention that the United States helped bring about the coup that brought Lon Nol to power in 1970.
He will tell me how the prince financed the casino
And how the casino brought Lon Nol to power.
He will tell me this.
He will tell me all these things.
All I must do is drink and listen.
The point of many other poems in Children in Exile, however, is less certain. Some are gnomic, even when they take off from historical incidents. But—and the similarity to Auden in this regard is striking—they exhibit at the same time a sort of theatricality. They do not, in other words, arise from mystery and doubt, or any sense of the poet’s awe before the facts of history. On the contrary, in Fenton’s poems he seems to feel himself in control of history, and thus he is usually unwilling to allow any feelings of doubt or mystery to inspire him. The result is gnomic poems as strategically designed as one could imagine. The subject of “A German Requiem,” for example, appears to be the dislocation experienced by many in postwar Germany.
How comforting it is, once or twice a year,
To get together and forget the old times.
As on those special days, ladies and gentlemen,
When the boiled shirts gather at the graveside
And a leering waistcoat approaches the rostrum.
It is like a solemn pact between the survivors.
The mayor has signed it on behalf of the freemasonry.
The priest has sealed it on behalf of all the rest.
Nothing more need be said, and it is better that way—
For all the appeal of these lines as poetry rather than politics, as art rather than history, we feel the same way reading them as we do reading Fenton’s more political and didactic lines: an excrutiatingly careful deliberateness lurks behind what seems to be a difficult and complex exploration of a complex scene. Thus, the poems invariably end up seeming stagey and contrived, their images chosen for rhetorical appeal alone or for the way they maintain the poem’s pose of near-inscrutability.
We are persuaded even more of the deliberate nature of Fenton’s poetry when we read such self-evidently dramatic poems as “Vuccerìa.”
Maybe this summer I shall revisit Palermo
And see if the Shanghai restaurant is still there.
And if you can still buy cartons of contraband
Cigarettes in the triangular square
Beneath. At evening the horses are undressed
From top to toe, in the nude light-bulbs’ glare.
They leave their skeletons ever so neatly folded
And piled. Look! there’s a pair of socks,
Crimson with two black clocks.
Oh no it isn’t.
It’s a flayed head on a bedside chair.
This shocking image is reminiscent of another. In an article about Cambodia that Fenton wrote for the British journal Granta he claimed to have eaten a bowl of live ants. Whether or not he actually had, and whether or not he has actually seen a flayed head on a chair, one can’t help wondering about the purpose of such scenes—particularly when they appear in poetry. Like Fenton’s gnomic phrases and “objective” history, these vignettes strike us as counters in a game devised, not to explore anything new or unknown, but rather to unveil a pre-processed picture drawn for editorial effect.
The elements in Fenton’s poems are often isolated rhetorical jolts not knit into an organic whole.
Because the elements in Fenton’s poems are often isolated rhetorical jolts not knit into an organic whole, our sense of what F. R. Leavis called the “decisive inevitability” of poetry’s rhythm is often disrupted. Fenton simply exerts too much control over his material, squeezing the life out of it, refusing to allow it to determine, in the smallest way, its own linguistic form.
This is the major risk in writing poetry that wishes to free itself from literariness or aestheticism and take part in the real world. The poet can lose emotional depth and profound generalized feeling when he wishes to deliver a “message” that he considers to be the unequivocal truth. He can gamble away the rich suggestibility of language when he thinks that what he has observed constitutes the object’s final, incontrovertible being.
Fenton is too brilliant a craftsman—perhaps one of the best in England today—for this didactic impulse to turn his poetry into anything like a failure. His desire to pull poetry out of its small, self-referential world, moreover, is admirable, no matter what his politics may be. But his poetry’s didacticism—and, in the case of his gnomic poems, its staginess—is a serious limitation, creating a body of work too calculated, too deliberate, too all-knowing to have a deep appeal as poetry. In the end, Children of Exile illustrates how difficult it is to establish a public poetic voice that does not compromise some of the art form’s most salient characteristics and degenerate into smug editorializing.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 1, on page 80
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