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019  Metcalf, Stephen. “Informal Menace”  Rev. of Selected Poems by James Fenton.  New York Times Book Review  11 February 2007: 9.

Metcalf says right off that James Fenton has overcome almost all the obstacles that have been thrown in his path to prevent Fenton from living up to his promise as "the major British poet of his generation."  One such obstacle was the epithet "heir to W. H. Auden."  Another was "a turn on the throne" as the Oxford professor of poetry."  In spite of these and other "hindrances," Fenton has remained "an extraordinary poet with something original to disclose."  Unlike Auden, who was often obscure and prolific, possessing "an enlarged sense of poetic vocation," Fenton is plain-spoken and unprolific, possessing a "deflated" sense of poetic vocation.  In his early poems, such collections as  The Memory of War (1982), he found History in the guise of the war in southeast Asia, which resulted in a poetic statement that was informal but "frightening."  In the deliberately flattened language of a war correspondent setting his readers straight, these early poems display the shattering reality of violence, but do so with a surface that remains undisturbed, a surface in fact which is "a combination of prosodic virtuosity and slangy, almost contemptuous, nonchalance."  Children in Exile, a later collection, brings Fenton's "developing gifts" together.  Here the title poem is fifty quatrains mingling free verse with rhymed pentameter, and here Fenton seems to be  leaving behind the climate of war and corruption for a world of love and forgiveness.  In many poems, however, he remains detached emotionally from his subjects.  In others such as "For Andrew Wood," an elegy, he feels simply and directly.  Like many British poets today, he avoids Deep Ideas about Life and Poetry to compose songs, many with refrains.  Yet Selected Poems does contain the libretto for an opera about a woman kidnapped by a cult, proof the Fenton at times grapples with big ideas such as the close attachment of a world of prophecy to a world of violence.  Metcalf closes this review of Fenton's latest collection, "hoping that Fenton will slough off a little more the pose of left-handed diffidence" and accept "the mantle of greatness that is his."

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