Journey Without Maps:
An Interview with James Fenton by Mark Womald
The directions were straightforward enough. Find the church hall of a village a few miles outside Oxford, then follow the lane that began there as far as it led. I had arrived in good time, so flicked through my notes, collected my thoughts. These seemed clear too. But by the time I finally reached James Fenton's beautifully renovated fannhouse I was, just, late. Similar miscalculations of distance during our conversation would leave me as mystified, as confused by what I had overlooked.
Others have felt bewildered. At Fenton's suggestion, Redmond
'Hanlon accompanied him Into the Heart of Borneo in the earl y 1980s; yet early in his (often very funny) account of the expedition, O'Hanlon identifies another terra incognita in his fcllow traveller. 'James was a jungle himself'. And Bill Buford, Fenton's cditor at Granta with a reputation for savage hacking through the dcnsities of prose, identified in the foreign correspondent of the mid seventies and the almost unbelievably reckless witness of the "Fall of Saigon" a manifestation of 'the writer as lunatic' . If this was a double-edged compliment, it was also a shrewd editorial move. Unlike their cousin the 'inspired genius', Buford wrotc, 'lunatic writers tcnd not to abusc those around thcm: the abuse is directed squarely at thcmselves'. Fenton took the hint, and went on to deliver to Granta his equally eccentric, cqually gripping, equally lucrative narrativc of "The Snap Rcvolution" in thc Philippincs.
Not since George Orwcll and Graham Greene has the privilegcd English reportcr-narrator donc such things to himself to produce such copy. I met Jamcs Fenton within a wcek of Greene's death; The Quiet American was on sale in the streets of Saigon during Fenton's stay; I wondered how much of an influence the othcr anti-American risk-taking maverick had bccn to him. Setting the tone for the interview, his reply was at once measured and relaxed, but also disappointed in my question. Yes, he had rcad Greene, probably he thought on the plane out; and his travel writing, eollccted in the book Journey Without Maps, had imprcssed him. But, as role-model, "Orwell was more the lype." Certainly, there is something Orwellian in Fenton's sharp, aphoristic style; but prose, in whatevcr incarnation, for whichever organ - and since the 1970s he has composed theatre reviews for The Sunday Times, political reports in The New Statesman, coverage of Germany and Italy in The Guardian and book reviews for The Times, as well as what he calls his "travel writing" - has not, according to Fenton himself, "much to do with the poetry. It doesn't help much, as a line of inquiry. 1L gets in the way, somehow. At some stage I've been doing that sort of journalism, at some stage book reviewing, at some stage theatre reviewing. All these things have been what I've done in professional life, but it's just another part of professional life. It's true that living abroad quite a lot has an effect on you, but not so great an effect I think on your poetry. The people who write the most exotic poetry never step out of doors."
It is a typically resonant, and arrestingly accessible, statement; but to the reader familiar with his work as to the interviewer, it is also anything but definitive. Fenton's attitude towards his medium, his sense of what subject is appropriate to which form, is clearly more complex than he is prepared to concede. In "The Fall of Saigon", he wrote that 'For the reporter, there was a choice: go out and see what was happening, or write about it... The first two laws of stringing are: the more you file the more you earn; and, the more you file the less you learn. '
Yet he was prepared to say the same of many of his most public, memorable poetry, to place the products of his non-professional life within a similarly oscillating pattern of seeing and writing. At times in the course of our conversation, indeed, he seemed to be using this template as a defence mechanism, as a way of warding off unwelcome enquiries about the material it explores. I was, for instance, intrigued by what looked like a persistent tendency towards the public, away from more personal territory, in his poetry. It is a tendency illuminated in a group of poems from the late 1960s, which he went on to redesignate in 1983 as "Exempla", or the products of a period in which, he says, as an undergraduate disaffected with studying English and nearing the end of his useful education, he became "interested in scientific language and the language of prose as being the source from which you'd get poetry. It was what the late Auden was up to; and in that kind of spirit I found it amusing and exciting to be ransacking scientific papers - much more amusing than reading them seriously, which was what you were supposed to be doing ... learning what they said and so forth."
Still, jostling for space among the exhibits collected in "The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford", there may be glimpsed hints of motivations just as compelling. 'Go', the reader-visitor is advised,
As a historian of ideas or as a sex-offender, For the primitive art,
As a dusty semiologist, equipped to unravel The seven component,> of that witch's curse Or the syntax of the mutilated teeth. Go
In groups to giggle at curious finds.
The equations thus far are as playful, as academically irreverent, as Fenton's comments might have led us to expect. But then the tone changes, darkens.
But do not step into the kingdom of your promises To yourself, like a child entering the forbidden Woods of his lonely playtime:
and despite the deliberate, distancing transition from second to third person achieved in that simile, the colon opens onto a landscape that is at once tinged with vivid menace and inviting exploration.
He had known what tortures the savages had prepared For him there, as he calmly pushed open the gate
And entered the wood near the placard: "TAKE NOTICE MEN-TRAPS AND SPRING-GUNS ARE SET ON THESE
For his father had protected his good estate.
It goes without saying that this calm confrontation of a nightmare could only unfold in such terms within the confines of the museum, and of the poem that had begun there: 'the savages' remind us of that. Much the same emphasis on the anaesthetising, sterilising function of context in a poem's operation is demanded by another "Exemplum" from the same date, the same location. "South Parks Road" presents us with the voice of a laboratory scientist uncomfortably aware of a changing world beyond the walls of his decaying institute. 'I deal in minutiae, / Not with the fungus growing on the low walls but its / Globose vesiculate hyaline conidia'; and boasts: 'On the context of the basidioscarp / I am seldom mistaken'. But such focused expertise has its price. He is 'baffled in sunlight', disappointed by blossom. 'There is not much I could not tell about / This road, as it is now, were the subject not / Frustration and ignorance.'
It is an attitude that oddly resembles Fenton's own. In conversation, he resist,; attempts to establish either verbal or thematic continuities in his work, preferring instead to maintain that distance. Naturally, he does so by adoPting a position of scrupulous politeness and critical consistency. When I suggest that the "Exempla" anticipate later poems like "Nest of Vampires" - another first person narrative, in which 'walking at evening through the grounds' of a remembered childhood home revealed 'the evil crimson of the roses' shining through the dark garden, where 'there was so much one should never mention' - and those other striking poems of the mid-seventies "Vacant Possession" and "The Skip", he demurs. "The skip poem, that was a flight of fancy. I moved to Oxford, there was a skip outside the house, so the idea got going." The poem's jaunty metre and playful rhymes certainly suggest a relish for the task. Fenton claims that "the idea behind it, of getting rid of one life and so forth, is both very traditional and a very easily available idea to everybody. Everybody wants to do it on some occasion or another in their lives." But the figures he adopts to explore these ideas are anything but common. 'I took my life and threw it on the skip', his persona begins, then discovered next morning that 'Someone had just exchanged my life for theirs.'
It seemed a shame to miss a chance like that. I brought the life in, dried it by the stove.
It looked so fetching, stretched out on the mat. I tried it on. It fitted, like a glove.
Of course, one might praise these apparently guileless lines for their slight, telling felicities - the comma in the last line, which along with the slightly uncomfortable rhyme prepares us for the derrnatologically precise application of the cliche; the similar friction of the third line's internal rhyme. But close reading will never solve the problem of the poem's conclusion, which, characteristically, plays off just such an internal contradiction. Raiding the skip for other people's belongings, the poem's voice concludes: 'I've furnished an existence in that way.! You'd not believe the things you find on skips.' And Fenton won't elaborate, has no need to help. Fantasy is all, the poem is self-sufficient in the penumbra it inhabits, the territory midway between urbanity and acute discomfort, between autobiography and the surreal. Confronted with the poet's resolute refusal to upset that balance, I more than once found my position resembling that of the small boy in "Nest of Vampires": accustomed
to think that just by counting windows
And finding secret rooms, I would come across
A clue, the clue was nevertheless withheld.
There was, after all, an alternative: one proposed by the boy in that poem, who decided to • stroll further afield'. It was a route Fenton himself followed. It led first to Oxford, where as well as encountering Auden and establishing several lasting literary friendships (with, among others, Jonathan Keates and Craig Raine), he set about the business of poetry with a mixture of academic and professional zeal. He carried off the Newdigate prize for a poem -"Our Western Furniture" - which from what he calls my "trick perspective" seems presciently to have united that sense of domestic unease with a diversionary interest in the Far East, but which, he insists, was written entirely in response to the subject set by the examiners. "A very specific subject, it was, too: "The Opening of Japan, 1853-4", about which I knew absolutely nothing; so that I read up on it. Now, afterwards I went to the East, and wrote about Americans in the East; but that was for a rather different reason than I had for writing that poem. I'd never been to Japan when I was writing a poem about it; it was a plain exercise of the imagination. I simply set out to win the prize."
The exercise successfully accomplished, poetry twice more pointed the way towards professional departures in the years that followed. First, at his fonner tutor John Fuller's suggestion, he went in for aNew Statesman poetry competition, and writing an open verse letter to Dick Crossland from the viewpoint of a spirited International Socialist helped him to a job on the magazine. Then, on the publication of Terminal Moraine in 1973, another opportunity presented itself. "I had been awarded a bursary for the purpose of travel and writing poetry," he wrote in "The Fall of Saigon"; "I intended to stay out of England for a long time." But his destination was also motivated by strong political sympathies and even stronger antipathies. Opting for Indo-China' partly on a whim', he wanted to see 'how long could the American-backed regime last.. .. I wanted to see Vietnam for myself. I wanted to see a war, and I wanted to see a communist victory ... I wanted to see the fall of a city.'
Some eighteen years on, Fenton's political affinities have proved less robust than the rhythms of his psychologically more ambiguous appetite for spectacle. He explains the popularity of his reportage in tenns of this personal emphasis. "I suppose that people like a story of a historical evcnt told from a personal point of vicw. They like to feel that they're in somebody's hands, the same person's hands, as they're being led through an event; and I always found as I was reading political journalism that, bcing as ignorant as ignorant myself, I got vcry frustrated with things that weren't written to sharc your ignorance with the reader as well as your cxperience, and to assume a degree of ignorance on the part ofthe reader. Not in an obnoxious way, but to make the thing self-sufficient, so that you can pick up this piece about Saigon without having had to have read lots of books before hand in order to understand something of what it's about.
"That's why it can be quite approachable. Written by ignoramuses for ignoramuses."
The self-dcprecatory notc in this dcfcncc of the accessible is important; it recurs when I ask him if it is just such a concern for his readers that shapes the more public of his poems, and the work for which he has been justly celebrated. "Dead Soldiers", "Children in Exile", and "A German Requiem" - in common with his recent dispatch from the Philippines, Manila Envelope - clearly owe an extensive debt to the exotic and varyingly disturbing experiences they record. Whcn pressed to comment on the unmentionable landscapes of his more domestic poems, Fenton concedes: "I didn't want to write a certain type of confessional, private poem, in those days ... There's not a lot of 'This is what I was doing yesterday' in these poems."
It is, I suggested, recalling the title of his 1983 collection, a "Memory of War" that fascinates him, rather than anything more parochial.
"Yes, but some of it is plain what I was doing yesterday. "Dcad Soldiers" is plain memory, a little memoir." And "The Milk Fish Gathercrs", a recent poem which, describing its quarry as 'Two eyes on a glass noodle, nothing more', adds weight to Bill Buford's idea of Fenton as poet-observer in a position of absurd frailty but natural curiosity, is by the same token "plain what-I-did-in-the-hols: getting a line, going back to the hut and writing it down. So it's not quite as impersonal as people might sometimes think. And then there are some plain, urn ... urn ... love poems, or whatever. I agree: there isn't much the-kids-havebrought-in-their-jamjars-full-of-tadpoles, or blackberrying, and so on. But if I could write a good jamjar poem or blackberry-picking poem, I'd write one like a shot. I'm very fond of blackberry-picking."
Again, though, while it is difficult not to be disarmcd by the jocular phrase-making in these remarks, they are altogether lcss innocent and more rooted in the topical than they sound. As those familiar with his recent Ars Poetica column in The Independent on Sunday will appre- ciate, Fenton has a real awareness of poetic tradition, of the responsibilities it imposes upon the contemporary poet, of the useful lessons to be learnt from it. One reason he cites blackberry-picking and tadpole poems as subjects he has not approached is that though, as he puts it, "there's no reluctance in principle to do anything - somebody doing a thing that's been done before is part of the deal in poetry: a lot of great poems are similar to a lot of other great poems," he would also avoid "anything that's been done before or done to death recently. You clearly want to avoid that too much." He is not specific. but he does not need to be. He knows how the contemporary poetic land lies, and admiring the obvious peaks clearly serves little purpose. For instance, Tony Harrison's recent powerful poem on the Gulf War mi ght, I suggested, have appealed to Fenton as an updated version of the anti-Americanism, or more broadly anti-imperialism, that his own accounts of IndoChina often contained. But he is emphatic in his confinement of his answer's focus to politics. "Fifteen years divide those events. Bush was very very conscious of the need to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam, to the extent that he rcfused to get involved when people were crying out: 'For God's sake do something about the Kurds'. It's not the same event."
Neither, from what Fenton says, is his own recent poetry much more than a serendipitous echo of his earlier work. "I'd just like to point out that all sorts of things happen between the poems", he comments. Whcre once he was jumping on the back of a North Vietnamese tank as it rolled into the grounds of the American Embassy in Saigon, his contribution to the less bloody revolution in the Philippines was limited to playing Bach on the Marcos's piano and pocketing one of Imelda's monogrammed hand-towels. And though the extraordinary bill poster of Fenton's "Manila Manifesto" still seems, both in its title and in some of its pledges, to argue for some connection between the empirical facts of political life and the cqually physical material of poetryit combines a plea for 'the new recklessness' in place of 'the old whatthe-hecklessness' with a facetious 'calion America to stop killing, torturing and imprisoning its poets', and also makes use of a scheme of human development from 'the first poetry' of an infant's discovery of its limbs to a sinister phasc ofregression into a forgetfulness we spend 'the rest of our lives ... in recapturing' - he is not about to confirm or elaborate these links. It was, he says, his experience of teaching creative writing in the American mid- West that prompted his playful inclusion of some of the Manifesto's barbed agenda. "Certainly I don't think that what's wrong with the Amcrican poetic scene has anything to do with Vietnam. I was no more against American policy than vast numbers of Americans, including vast numbers of Americans I was working with." Eager, in his creative writing semester at Minnesota as in his Ars Poetica series, "to explain in what kind of thing could be written about", he has retained this conviction that it is the forthright manner that counts, an aesthetic rather than political conviction that needs to be communicated.
This attitude involves certain correlatives. It is when institutions obstruct conviction that he objects to them, and when institutionalised values fall short of explaining or reconciling individual human conflicts that they must be recognized for the inadequacies they are. It is a theme that infonns his lighter poems, and which dictated his "Poem Against Catholics", written in collaboration with John Fuller, against a dogmatism that dictates that we see through God's eyes. Fenton insists: "We don't think God is a great help. The eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me. It's the same eye. One seeing, mine; not what the saint intended." It is present, too, in his remarkable "Jerusalem", his meditation on the city that is divided before it is eternal, where poetry juxtaposes any number of paired but opposed competing voices, each of them specially pleading for the reader's pity, but none of them privileged. 'You have destroyed my home. I have destroyed your home' .
It is an extraordinary position, not 1cast for what it promises. In the Manila Envelope, this included the intensely moving "Song", about a 'child with silver hair' who is a symbol in tum of beauty, wisdom, and suffering. Fenton now confinns this latest departure. "The Manifesto is saying that the basis of what we're doing is rhythm and melody, in its round-about way; I've yet to see a convincing counter-argument to that." He is currently working on a suite of such songs for the National Theatre; whether or not that particular pitiful figure will make an appearance on the stage, Fenton's lyricism will surely continue to resist easy platitudes for arresting, funny, sickening rhymes. His melodies and rhythms will go on haunting us for years.