James Fenton

James Fenton theatre critic of the Sunday Times.

Poem: ‘Bruisers and Dreamers’

James Fenton, 27 July 1989

The leading lights of Bulacan – The bruisers and the dreamers – Are politicians to a man. Their names go on the streamers.

But if their chief’s an also-ran The dreamers and the bruisers Mingle beneath the ceiling-fan With schemers and Yakuzas.

To work and live as best they can The bruisers and the dreamers Take forged assignments in Japan By cruisers and by steamers.


Poem: ‘Manila Manifesto’

James Fenton, 18 May 1989

Manila Manifesto

What you need for poetry is a body and a voice. It doesn’t have to be a great body or a great voice. But it ought ideally to be your body, and it ought to be your voice.


The parent helps the child discover what may be done with its lips and its limbs. This is the first poetry.


A sort of night then falls – a melancholy mercy – after which the...

Five Poems

James Fenton, 10 November 1988

Beauty, Danger and Dismay

Beauty, danger and dismay Met me on the public way. Whichever I chose, I chose dismay.

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...

Poem: ‘The Milkfish Gatherers’

James Fenton, 19 May 1988

To G.L.

The sea sounds insincere Giving and taking with one hand. It stopped a river here last month Filling its mouth with sand.

They drag the shallows for the milkfish fry – Two eyes on a glass noodle, nothing more. Roused by his vigilant young wife The drowsy stevedore

Comes running barefoot past the swamp To meet a load of wood. The yellow peaked cap, the patched pink shorts Seem to...

A Martian School of two or more

James Fenton, 6 December 1979

Craig Raine’s second collection follows swiftly upon his first, The Onion, Memory (1978). It is as if the poet had been waiting impatiently over us, while we picked ourselves up off the canvas, before delivering the second blow. A Martian sends a postcard home is a slimmer volume than its predecessor, but it will do more than simply consolidate a reputation already made. It takes us a definite step further. In the words of Raine himself:

Not What Anybody Says: James Fenton

Michael Wood, 13 September 2012

One of the great attractions of James Fenton’s verse is the way it manages so often to be both plain and cryptic at once. It urges us to think about what we can’t quite know, and it...

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Ever so comfy

James Wood, 24 March 1994

Every handful of John Updike’s silver has its square coin, its bad penny, its fake. This exquisitely careful writer tends to relax into flamboyance: it is the verbal equivalent of...

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Neil Corcoran confronts the new recklessness

Neil Corcoran, 28 September 1989

For a writer who several years ago published a ‘Manifesto Against Manifestoes’, James Fenton has published his fair share of manifestoes, including a disguised one for a...

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Out of the blue

Mark Ford, 10 December 1987

So characteristic of Paul Muldoon’s poetry as to be almost a hallmark is the moment, unnerving and exciting in about equal measures, when his speaker is suddenly revealed to himself as...

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Hell on Earth

Stephen Haggard, 8 January 1987

The bloodiness of the events of the Seventies in Cambodia, and the desperate nature of the refugee exodus, have been of such monstrous proportions as to hinder the emergence of detailed accounts...

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We shall not be moved

John Bayley, 2 February 1984

There remains a most decided difference – indeed it grows wider every year – between what Philip Larkin calls ‘being a writer’, or ‘being a poet’, and managing...

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Fenton makes a hit

Blake Morrison, 10 January 1983

No one can have been more surprised than James Fenton that In Memory of War turned out to be one of the most acclaimed books of 1982. A year ago, used to being told by reviewers that he was a...

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Best Things

Alan Hollinghurst, 20 August 1981

By and large we are interested in the thoughts, opinions and intentions of writers we are interested in, and by and large writers are keen to express these things in reviews, essays and memoirs...

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