James Fenton has long been one of England's most celebrated poets. His work prickly, spiny, short on sentiment features a bleak realism that's balanced by a rapscallion sort of humor. His Selected Poems spans 30 years, providing a wonderful overview of his distinguished career.
Fenton, who is 58, got his start as a reporter in Southeast Asia an experience that informed his earliest poetry. Children in Exile focuses on a Cambodian family suffering from the displacement of war: I hear a child moan in the next room and I see / The nightmare spread like rain across his face / And his limbs twitch in some vestigial combat / In some remembered place. A haunting image like this one, couched in a quatrain, described in rhyme, is made all the more forceful by its formal setting. This use of traditional structures often heightens the irony of Fenton's verse. God: A Poem is a classic example: I didn't exist at Creation / I didn't exist at the Flood / And I won't be around for Salvation / To sort out the sheep from the cud Playful yet perverse, the lines are a crystalline representation of Fenton's singular aesthetic.