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This review is taken from PN Review 97, Volume 20 Number 5, May - June 1994.


There is a lot to be said for James Fenton. In the context of contemporary English poetry he is even more of a rara avis than his own Orange Dove of Fiji. Fenton rides roughshod over academic critical pieties, over English insularity with its recurrent retreats into ruralistic nostalgia and Anglican chic, but equally over supersophisticated French intellectual posturings and transatlantic aestheticizing. He confronts the poets of the common-room, the boulevard, the suburbs with the killing-fields of Kampuchea, the torture-chambers of the Shah. He opposes to the well-made'competition'poem of our times with its typically inert rhythms and self-conscious diction a celebration of nursery-rhyme, song, ballad and light verse. His occasional linguistic excesses are not of the Derridean kind, but a ludic extravagance in the tradition of nonsense writing that makes most postmodernist playfulness seem a tame matter of linguistic quibbles. He favours a defiant polystylism over the requirement Seamus-Heaney-like -that a poet must always be the good boy in the class aiming at straight Ns in a single accepted mode.The poems in this collection often demand to be declaimed or sung rather than merely be scanned by eye. Of none of them could it be said that it lies lifeless on the page. It is possible to applaud this iconoclasm' however -albeit -with reservations and still wonder whether Fenton has delivered all he promised.

If a single poet can be said to lie behind Fenton's poetic persona it is, as he has always acknowledged, that of the ...

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