The Stain of Tulips

Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011, James Fenton (164pp, 14.99, Faber)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I occasionally used to buy Time Out when it ran encyclopaedic listings of events in London, and one of the headings was 'agitprop'. This struck me as a very useful portmanteau word for the miscellany of demonstrations, meetings, talks and jumble sales that would follow. It mystically implied a sort of urban, politicised scene to a callow reader from the shires, and it came back to me as I read again some of the poems now collected in this smart new Faber volume.

James Fenton was once lauded as a member of a smart, urban set which included Martin Amis, Craig Raine and the late Christopher Hitchens. They wrote journalism in the shadow of Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, launched 'witty' martian poetry on an unsuspecting world (see Raine's volume A Martian Sends a Postcard Home
), travelled to dangerous places and held down well-paid jobs in the literary press. They were controversialists; they were the coming generation of ironic, detached, politically engaged journalists and poets. The poets were writing largely under the shadow of Auden: what happened to them?

This volume, excellent in parts, may provide a partial answer. The first fifty pages, containing poems from the early collections The Memory of War
and Children in Exile, shows just why Fenton was garlanded with honours and words of praise from the likes of Stephen Spender and Paul Theroux. Fenton had spent time in dangerous places such as Cambodia, and returned to write poems such as 'Children in Exile' and 'In a Notebook', the latter compared with Auden as a powerful poetic response to war. However, whereas in Tony Harrison, one comes upon a sense of rage and despair, Fenton seems to offer instead detachment and well-modulated irony, a strategy of under-playing, which can be just as effective upon the reader.

'In a Notebook' perhaps warrants a closer discussion as an example of this: the first two and a half stanzas of this five-stanza poem create a bucolic picture of rural life somewhere in the east. Within this slow, seemingly unchanging picture, a breeze speaks 'discreetly' and 'shy soldiers' set out for a battle: these disquieting details are part of the contextual grain, introduced with quiet detachment.  The narrator sits, drinking 'bitter coffee', aware of the wider tides of war and history. The reader also awakens to this as the fourth stanza retains the past tense and describes virtually the same picture, except that 'the pleasant war' has brought 'unpleasant answers', and in the final stanza, the speaker describes, instead of timeless peace, the inevitable destruction wrought by those whom he 'admired'. It is a finely modulated piece, and yet the sense of ironic detachment seems worrying at this distance. Would you rather have the righteous anger of a Tony Harrison than this narrative frame? Why are Heaney's implicit condemnations of sectarian violence in Ireland more powerful?

There are other narrative poems early in this gathering that make you pose the same questions - 'Dead Soldiers', 'Children in Exile, perhaps - but I prefer Fenton's poetry when it is more rhythmic and hints at engagement. 'Tiananmen', for instance, a later poem, seems more genuinely exploratory and moving. One wonders whether this is simply because the standoff still resonates, as China's recent internet response to the anniversary suggests.

After the selections from Out of Danger
(1993), the final twenty-five pages of this selection collect more recent poetry. Fenton has spoken in interviews of being aware he has produced very little of late, and the book as a whole begins to resemble a 'Greatest Hits' album, with all the big singles front-stacked. These last pieces, with one or two exceptions, will not greatly add to his reputation, but the exceptions are worth lingering over: the title poem, for instance, describes what seems to be a vase of flowers and, as the reader pursues the imagery of 'the ambush love sprung', the language of murder and guerrilla warfare seizes the rhetoric of the poem. This is powerful and affecting, but not a new technique: Wilfred Owen was doing something similar in 'Spring Offensive'. Here, however, the reader is somehow implicated in the consensual meaning of Fenton's conclusion: 'marked at the throat with a certain sign/ whose meaning all could share.' 'At the Kerb', a memorial poem for Mick Imlah, and 'The Twister', both suggest a more lyrical patina in some of the poetry here, and it is a pity Fenton has not produced more in this vein.

One of the last pieces here, 'Cosmology', relates, in far-reaching, fable-like tones, the history of our ambitious exploring 'when the season favoured the ships and the horizons were friendly', and it's hard not to see it as a deliberately 'concluding' poem - Larkin used to pattern his individual collections in a similar way. Here, however, for all the ambitious, panoramic rhetoric, the concluding stanza tells us that 'all the evidence was destined to be lost', in a harsh discovered world that is 'indifferent to our expertise'. I refer the interested reader to the slightly more hopeful conclusion of 'Tiananmen', instead.

As a one-stop collection of James Fenton's verse, this is the volume to get. It is not without flaws, however: much of the humour, the bitchy snipes at critics, the fragmentary pieces marooned on single pages, escapes me. The early collections, however, making up the bulk of this book, are still powerful and worthy, even if they do feel slightly 'of their time'.
          M.C. Caseley 2012