James Fenton’s Yellow Tulips, Poems 1968-2011

Yellow TulipsMy introduction to James Fenton came through Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22. Hitchens and Fenton met at Oxford, where they were fast friends, and were later reunited at the New Statesman, where they were part of an editorial team that included Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – a modern Bloomsbury group. The Hitchens-Fenton connection is worth further exploration, and will no doubt inspire biographers for years to come, for the pair shared both a political sensibility and a penchant for foolish risk-taking that has led both men into precarious situations. Fenton, for example, used the proceeds from his first major poetry prize to finance a trip to Cambodia, where he covered the rise of Pol Pot, and then to Saigon, to report on the final months of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, leaving the city only at the final hour. Fenton later returned to Oxford, where he was appointed to the prestigious position of Professor of Poetry, a sinecure once held by the likes of Matthew Arnold, A.C. Bradley, Seamus Heaney and Fenton’s personal hero, W.H. Auden.

Yellow Tulips collects nearly a half-century of his poetry, from over three published volumes, and what most strikes me about the collection is its seeming incongruity. Tender love poems share a page with biting polemical verses; irony and sincerity intermingle. Like Hitchens, Fenton evidently has no love for god. Here is “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.

Oh he said: ‘If you lay off the crumpet
I’ll see you alright in the end.
Just hang on until the last trumpet.
Have faith in me, chum – I’m your friend.’

But if you remind him, he’ll tell you:
‘I’m sorry, I must have been pissed –
Though your name rings a sort of a bell. You
Should have guessed that I do not exist.

‘I didn’t exist at Creation,
I didn’t exist at the Flood,
And I won’t be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud –

‘Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I’m a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.

‘You’re a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You’re a drawing-pin caught in my sock.
You’re the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I’d have thought would be firm as a rock,

‘You’re a serious mistake in a nightie,
You’re a grave disappointment all round –
That’s all that you are,’ says th’Almighty,
‘And that’s all that you’ll be underground.’

The early imagery – god as drawing-pin, as unwelcome sandwich filler – is comical, but the comedy is beguiling; by the time god begins to speak, there is a perceptible shift in the poem’s tone, and soteriology – the doctrine of salvation – is denied: “I’m a crude existential malpractice / And you are a diet of worms.” Fenton repeats the imagery of the opening stanzas, but now it is the hapless believer who is the object of scorn, the repeated “You’re”s serving as accusations.

Regret is also heavily mined for material, fodder for Fenton’s optimism and pessimism both. Here is “The Mistake”:

With the mistake your life goes in reverse.
Now you can see exactly what you did
Wrong yesterday and wrong the day before
And each mistake leads back to something worse

And every nuance of your hypocrisy
Towards yourself, and every excuse
Stands solidly on the perspective lines
And there is perfect visibility.

What an enlightenment. The colonnade
Rolls past on either side. You needn’t move.
The statues of your errors brush your sleeve.
You watch the tale turn back – and you’re dismayed.

And this dismay at this, this big mistake
Is made worse by the sight of all those who
Knew all along where these mistakes would lead –
Those frozen friends who watched the crisis break.

Why didn’t they say? Oh, but they did indeed –
Said with a murmur when the time was wrong
Or by a mild refusal to assent
Or told you plainly but you would not heed.

Yes, you can hear them now. It hurts. It’s worse
Than any sneer from any enemy.
Take this dismay. Lay claim to this mistake.
Look straight along the lines of this reverse.

Companionate to this poem is “The Ideal,” where Auden’s influence is most transparent:

This is where I came from.
I passed this way.
This should not be shameful
Or hard to say.

A self is a self.
It is not a screen.
A person should respect
What he has been.

This is my past
Which I shall not discard.
This is the ideal.
This is hard.

The final stanza inverts the rhythm established by the first two – of two short, staccato sentences followed by a longer one. The syntax is simple, as is the rhyme scheme, but every syllable serves his purpose.

I wanted also to include a love poem, as these – so frequently attempted – are difficult to pull off without seeming derivative or sentimental. Here is “Hinterhof”:

Stay near to me and I’ll stay near to you –
As near as you are dear to me will do,
Near as the rainbow to the rain,
The west wind to the windowpane,
As fire to the hearth, as dawn to dew.

Stay true to me and I’ll stay true to you –
As true as you are new to me will do,
New as the rainbow in the spray,
Utterly new in every way,
New in the way that what you say is true.

Stay near to me, stay true to me. I’ll stay
As near, as true to you as heart could pray.
Heart never hoped that one might be
Half of the things you are to me –
The dawn, the fire, the rainbow and the day.

One single line contains a note of sadness – does “New in the way that what you say is true” indicate the poetic speaker has been deceived before, by other lovers? – but the rest of the poem is pure adoration, and the daring hope that that adoration is even partially reciprocated.

Fenton is a masterful poet, very much in Auden’s mold. He summons ire and indignation as easily as tenderness and longing, and evokes these opposites with consummate skill. He is also a masterful reader, and deserves to be heard; here is reading one of my favorite of his poems, “The Skip.”