James Fenton: Songs of experience

The poet, librettist and polymath James Fenton has edited a new anthology of love poems. He tells Christina Patterson about passion, poetry - and the piano
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James Fenton is learning the piano. Two weeks ago, at a tiny desk in a classroom in Didcot, he spent a nerve-wracking afternoon grappling with Grade 5 theory. The man who made his fortune from a libretto for Les Miserables (a libretto that was, in fact, never used) was, he says, "incredibly nervous". When he took Grade 3 a few months ago, he thought he had "flunked" because of his scales. He was thrilled when he heard he had passed. This, he tells me, is his fourth crack at the piano."This time," he explains, "I vowed that I would get through my personal glass ceiling."

Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that the interview takes place against the rippling soundtrack of a grand piano. We meet, at Fenton's suggestion, for tea at the Savoy. Decorated to the hilt for Christmas, it's a sparkly winter wonderland, a slightly camp mix of English elegance and American swank. A bit, you can't help thinking, like the musicals that regularly feature at the Savoy Theatre next door, and like the show songs tinkling away on the piano. A bit, too, like The New Faber Book of Love Poems (Faber & Faber, £17.99), the charmingly idiosyncratic selection of love poems that Fenton has just edited.

Ranging from Fleur Adcock and Elizabeth Bishop to Wallace Stevens and Wordsworth, the collection covers the period of what Fenton calls "the modern English language", beginning in the early 16th century with Sir Thomas Wyatt. There are plenty of the usual suspects - John Betjeman, Robert Browning, Sir Thomas Campion and, of course, Shakespeare - but there are some unusual additions, too. Here is Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach". Here is the whole of T S Eliot's "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock". Here are extracts from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" (more usually seen as a grief-ridden hymn to friendship) and here is Dorothy Parker lamenting that her lover always sends her not "one perfect limousine", but "one perfect rose".

And here, too, are old American folk songs, lesbian blues of the 1920s and lyrics by Cole Porter and Noël Coward. The emphasis, in other words, is not just on the lyric, but on song. "The short lyric that says 'I love you' is like the little black cocktail dress," says Fenton in his introduction. "No couture collection should be without such classics. No poetry collection either". Lyric poetry, he adds, "has a close historical affinity with music... A song has to be simple, both to be singable and to be understood in the course of performance. So a large number of these poems are simple too."

The poems are arranged alphabetically, "so that they seem to speak to each other, and hear each other sing" - and they do. They also spark and resonate against each other in all kinds of interesting ways, as Simon Armitage snuggles up to Matthew Arnold and Sir Philip Sidney to W D Snodgrass. Wendy Cope, here represented by six poems - the same number, in fact, as a certain James Fenton - is juxtaposed, perhaps appropriately, with Noël Coward. Her poem "As Sweet", in which the poet declares her longing to "hear the voice" of her "narcissistic object-choice", lies next to Noël Coward's "I am No Good At Love", which Fenton read at the launch. The poem's painful confession - "I kill the unfortunate golden goose/ Whoever it may be/ With over-articulate tenderness/ and too much intensity" - elicited an audible groan from the assembled literary company.

Fenton started, he says, by taking some advice from his literary hero, the poet widely regarded as his precursor: W H Auden. "Auden has this thing" he explains "where he says that a good way of deciding whether a poem is good is to copy it out, because the act of copying it out is so boring that it sharpens your critical judgement. I thought if I spent a bit of time in the evenings tapping a few poems into my machine I'll soon know whether they're worth putting in." The plan collapsed when Faber told him that they needed photocopies instead, but Fenton had already broken the back of his selection. "I put in everything I could think of," he says, "showed it to them, and they suggested some I hadn't thought of. I rejected some of them and put others in."

Having decided to exclude translations ("because they're so rarely to the same standard as the other things"), the most difficult decision was, he says, "on the matter of erotic poetry". "Some of it," he explains, "is absolutely fascinating, but when you ask yourself 'is it really about love?', for instance 'is Allan Ginsberg describing some sado-masochistic relationship about love?', you think 'no, it's not really'." There are, he adds, exceptions, like "Herrick going on about his mistress's leg", but Fenton's emphasis, for the most part, is on love as tenderness, love where passion has faded or matured, love as friendship and love as a surprising, and sometimes destructive, emotional experience.

Sometimes, it is physically destructive, too: "If you include just a bit of blues and black American poetry then you get that theme of 'I've killed you, you're my woman, but I've killed you'. To me," he continues, "it's one of the fundamental things in the 20th century when we're talking about love poetry and song, the general recognition and welcoming of a subject matter which really says 'I drink too much and I've made a mess of my life and'" he adds, with a charming smile, "'unfortunately I've just strangled you'".

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fact that the Romantics take something of a back seat. There's a single poem by Coleridge, "Tho' hid in spiral myrtle Wreath", wedged between Padraic Colum and John Clare, five poems by Byron, and only two by Keats. "Keats as a lover," Fenton points out, "is in the letters rather than the poems." He did, however, include all Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems and "bags and bags" of Blake. "Blake when he's writing like that is," he declares, "the essence of it, the distilled essence of it."

"It" for Fenton is clearly a kind of singing clarity and deceptive simplicity, a quality widely seen in the early work of his hero, Auden and of course in his own. "The first time I met Wendy Cope," he confides, "I'd written a poem, a you-don't-love-me-any-more sort of poem called 'Nothing' and she said that she hadn't realised that you were allowed to write like that. There's a sense in writing that kind of poem, that very simple poem, that you have to be a bit naive. It's a bit counter-intuitive. You have to ignore Academe and you have to not worry about your [poet] friends' opinions too much. Certainly, with the kind of poetry I've sometimes written there's nothing much to say about it. The critics", he adds a touch wistfully, "aren't interested in it."

Academics may not be, but readers certainly are. Ever since he burst on to the literary landscape, while still at Oxford, Fenton has attracted an enthusiastic following for his poems. It was not long after joining the staff of the New Statesman, at 21, that he published his first full-length collection, Terminal Moraine. Not long after that, he decided to follow in Auden's footsteps by travelling to the Far East and observing a war. It was the poems he wrote as a result of his experiences as a reporter in Vietnam and Cambodia, the poems in The Memory of War, which catapulted him to what passes in the poetry world for fame.

In the years that followed, the poems were lauded - Fenton was hailed as "the Auden of his generation" - but they were a little thin on the ground. Determined not just to be a literary hack, he continued to pursue a full-time career as a journalist, doing stints as a political editor, a theatre critic and a foreign correspondent. It's hard, in fact, to think of a single other poet whose interests are quite so wide-ranging. When the "Les Mis" royalties started to pour in, enabling him to buy a big house in the country, Fenton continued to write, but the subjects were a little closer to home. The man who reported from the front lines of Vietnam, and Westminster, now writes about music, art, gardens and polenta - but he doesn't write that many poems.

"The ultimate purpose was to write poetry," he confesses, "but I didn't want to be trying to make a living off giving poetry readings or reviewing poetry, because you put a kind of pressure on your poetic life. But in a way it was a bad theory. People who really have applied themselves to their writing may well have come up with a more convincing body of work. Whereas, in my case, the work looks rather scrappy. You just hope," says the heir to Auden with a rueful half-smile, "that it will never completely run out".

Biography: James Fenton

James Fenton was born in Lincoln in 1949, the son of an Anglican priest. A chorister at Durham Cathedral, he was educated at Repton and then at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry. In 1971 he joined the staff of the New Statesman before going as a freelance reporter to the Far East. He has worked as a political journalist, theatre critic and foreign correspondent. His poetry collections include The Memory of War, Children of Exile, Out of Danger, which won the Whitbread Prize for poetry and Selected Poems. His other books include a collection of the lectures he gave while Oxford Professor of Poetry and The New Faber Book of Love Poems. He lives with the African-American writer, Darryl Pinckney, in Oxfordshire.