Patrick McGuinness hails James Fenton as Auden's heir
"This is the wind, the wind in a field of corn. / Great crowds are fleeing from a major disaster / Down the long valleys, the green swaying wadis, / Down through the beautiful catastrophe of wind."
"Wind", the opening poem in James Fenton's Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011, was written over 30 years ago, but could be about any natural disaster or environmental crisis, and most of today's wars, revolutions and conflicts. Fenton made his name writing poems about things so difficult that they ran the risk of seeming too easy. They ran that risk not because they wanted to show off, but because risk was part of the gain, part of what the poem had to acknowledge about itself and its place in relation to its subjects. Poems like "Wind" have a perpetual and tragic topicality to which Fenton's work has stayed true. Besides, if your subjects are Love and War, you're never going to run short of material.
From the beginning, Fenton's gift lay in mixing the direct, immediate and deliberately uneloquent eloquence of what he calls "the poetry of pure fact" with something refined and allusive. The Fenton poem homes in on details, then pulls back out to take in great vistas of time and place and human movement: "Centuries, minutes later, one might ask / How the hilt of a sword wandered so far from the smithy." Fenton, who reported from Cambodia in the 1970s, has more reason to ask that question than most: no other contemporary British poet has written so powerfully about conflict and atrocity in lyric poetry, yet done so without letting the lyric ego dictate the terms of the engagement.
A more recent poem from the other end of the book, "Memorial", was commissioned to honour war correspondents. There's something about the formal tidiness of Fenton's poetry, the dovetailingly precise lines, which, when set beside the violence and moral ambiguities they describe, is satisfyingly unsettling. "Death waved them through at the checkpoint. They were lost. All have their story here." That image of death as checkpoint is hard and impersonal, but also graceful and gentle and completely apt. Like so much of Fenton's imagery, its perfect fit makes us more, not less, uncomfortable. This effect is most movingly used in Fenton's beautiful elegy to the poet Mick Imlah, "At the Kerb": "Brutal disease has numbered him a victim, / As if some unmarked car had appeared one day / And snatched him off to torture and confinement, / Then dumped him by the kerbside and sped away."
Comparisons with Auden are the inevitable clichés of Fenton reviewing, but they exist for a reason. Auden could write for the most part as if Auden had never written – Fenton never had that advantage. Aside from the technical virtuosity of his verse and his bravura in the face of daunting subject matter, it's Fenton's ability to meld public and private voices, along with a constant capacity for totally unexpected phrasemaking that most justifies the comparison. In a love poem, "Out of Danger", he opens with the Audenesque "Heart be kind and sign the release / As the trees their loss approve. Learn as the leaves must learn to fall / Out of danger, out of love." The analogy is already surprising, but it's hard to imagine any contemporary poet able to create something so oddly poised between the intimate and the impersonal, and so unafraid (as Auden was) to tamper with and invert syntax for a rhyme which is itself so powerfully unemphatic as "love" and the oddly formal "approve".
This book is in effect a Selected Poems, and supersedes the 2006 Selected, which left out some of his most admired poems, notably "A Staffordshire Murderer" and "The Pitt Rivers Museum". The former, a dense and darkly funny fantasia, is one of his finest narrative poems, and it's still hard to imagine a poem that starts in a more compellingly sinister fashion: "Every fear is a desire. Every desire is a fear. / The cigarettes are burning under the trees / Where the Staffordshire murderers wait for their accomplices / And victims. Every victim is an accomplice."
The Memory of War was the title of Fenton's 1982 collection, and his poems are concerned not just with remembering but with forgetting. In "German Requiem", his most elliptical and compressed poem, Fenton writes about the legacy of the second world war, deliberately blurring the moral certainties whereby remembering is good and necessary and forgetting is a kind of abdication. There is a bleak, deadpan inner dialogue – "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" – and there is an equally bleak wit: "How comforting it is, once or twice a year, / To get together and forget the old times."
In "Dead Soldiers", Fenton describes a surreal battlefield lunch with the Cambodian Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey and his aide, Pol Pot's brother. The "dead soldiers" in question are what they called the empty bottles of Napoleon brandy that piled up at their feet. The joke, and it's a dark joke, isn't just in the "dead soldiers" but in the face of Napoleon that adorns the labels, reminding us that history doesn't just repeat itself, but that it rhymes in ways that are both duff and deadly.
Fenton is not a prolific poet, but this is in part because of his range: he has published on politics, travel, gardening, art and literary criticism, as well as perceptive and often eye-witness journalism. What strikes us here about his poems is how well they are integrated into a body of work that's defined by the continuity of its commitments. He trusts lyric but he also trusts reportage; he trusts the high style but lets the statistics do their talking too; he trusts emotion and he also trusts impersonality. Most of all, he trusts poetry to express both the historian's centuries and the reporter's minutes.
This is really what, above all the technical similarities or local effects, marks him out as Auden's heir: he trusts poetry to do the job without plating itself in irony or retreating into mandarinism. It may come at the world from the oddly surreal, but oddly complete position of the sidelines, but this is where poetry belongs, and it's the only place from which it can assert any centrality it might still aspire to.
• Patrick McGuinness's Jilted City is published by Carcanet.