James Fenton

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James Martin Fenton (born 25 April 1949) is an English poet, journalist and literary critic. Like his mentor, W. H. Auden, he has been Professor of Poetry at Oxford.


  • Poetry carries its history within it, and it is oral in its origins, its transmission was oral.
    • An Introduction to English Poetry, Viking Penguin, London 2002 ISBN 0141004398
  • Poetry is not a metrical exercise.
    • An Introduction to English Poetry, Viking Penguin, London 2002 ISBN 0141004398
  • It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
    It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.
    It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
    • German Requiem, line 1 (1980).
  • Yes
    You have come upon the fabled lands where myths
    Go when they die,
    But some, especially the Brummagem capitalist
    Juju, have arrived prematurely.
  • 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."
    • "God, a Poem", line 5, from Children in Exile (1983)
  • Windbags can be right. Aphorists can be wrong. It is a tough world.
  • The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.
  • Imitation, if it is not forgery, is a fine thing. It stems from a generous impulse, and a realistic sense of what can and cannot be done.

The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures (2001)[edit]

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, ISBN 0-374-52848-9

  • We are never such kleptomaniacs as in our juvenilia. We steal from our masters. We steal from our friends, from our enemies even. We try out tones of voice for which we are ill suited. We write as if we belong to some other period. We are suckers for gorgeous words such as nenuphar, asphodel, and pelf. And because we are not yet in command of our vehicle we get out of control. We reveal ourselves inadvertently and we inadvertently commit ourselves to some point of view that really isn't "us" at all.
  • There is always a nasty surprise in store for the imperial mind. It is typical of the imperial point of view that it is ignorant of, or blind to, the other. The imperial mind keeps missing the point. It fails to appreciate, for all its benevolence, why it might come under attack, why it might, for instance, be worth a nation's while to rise up against it. The imperial mind has to be shocked out of its daydreams.
    • "Goodbye to All That?" (p. 72)

An Introduction to English Poetry (2002)[edit]

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, ISBN 0-374-10464-6

  • Among those today who believe that modern poetry must do without rhyme or metre, there is an assumption that the alternative to free verse is a crash course in villanelles, sestinas and other such fixed forms. But most...are rare in English poetry. Few poets have written a villanelle worth reading, or indeed regret not having done so.
    • Ch. 3: The Training of the Poet (p. 21)
  • Tennyson follows his feelings in creating each line. He follows the music in his head. If you had asked him, at the end of the day, to describe the prosody of the poem to you, he would no doubt have had to think for a moment before he could answer you, not because he was ignorant of the terms, but because he had been writing a poem, not a metrical exercise. At every point, he was exerting his free will. And the outcome of that exertion was the form.
    • Ch. 4: The Sense of Form (pp. 24-25)
  • It normally happens that if you put two words together, or two syllables together, one of them will attract more weight, more emphasis, than the other. In other words, most so-called spondees can be read as either iambs or trochees.
  • Can the ear hear a thirteen-syllable line as consisting of thirteen syllables? I don't think so, but I think that a series of thirteen-syllable lines (supposing that was the length chosen) would, after a while, begin to have a characteristic resemblance. For the most part, though, counting the syllables seems to be something that works, if it works, for the poet. It is a private method of organization.
  • The composer does not want the self-sufficiency of a richly complex text: he or she wants to feel that the text is something in need of musical setting.
    • Ch. 21: Song (p. 115)
  • My sonnet asserts that the sonnet still lives. My epic, should such fortune befall me, asserts that the heroic narrative is not lost — that it is born again.
    • Ch. 22: Poetic Drama and Opera (p. 125)
  • As poets we do not ask permission before we begin to practise, for there is no authority to license us. We do not inquire whether it is still possible to pen a drama, for the answer to that question is ours alone to give. It is our drama, spoken or sung, that asserts our right to the title of poet. It is our decision that counts, and not the opinion of some theatre management, or the ponderings of the critic, or even the advice of our friendliest mentors.
    • Ch. 22: Poetic Drama and Opera (p. 125)

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